Everything you need to know about kojic acid for your skin

Everything you Need to Know About Kojic Acid for Your Skin

Are you suffering from dark spots or uneven skin tone and color?

If so then kojic acid may be the solution to your problem. 

Kojic acid is a special ingredient that helps lighten the skin and reduce dark spots (including age spots). 

This guide will teach you everything you need to know about Kojic acid including the benefits, side effects, how to use it and which products are ideal based on your circumstances.

Let's jump in: 

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What is Kojic Acid?

So what exactly is Kojic acid and is it even good for your skin?

Kojic acid is a chemical that is made during the natural fermentation process of rice when making Japanese rice wine. 

This byproduct has some very potent (and beneficial) effects on your skin - namely it helps to reduce the pigment and can actually LIGHTEN the skin. 

This may not sound like a big deal until you realize that one of the #1 complaints among aging women (and men) is the changes to skin color and texture as they age. 

Science and the cosmetic industry actually has pretty good ways to treat wrinkles. 

Therapies such as Vitamin C serum, topical tretinoin, anti-aging serums, botox, dermal fillers and so on can actually help reduce wrinkles. 

But what about evening out the skin tone?

This is actually a big complaint and one of the reasons for the rising popularity among skin lighteners is because they can even out skin tone and reduce hyper-pigmentation. 

So what do I mean when I say hyper-pigmentation?

This is a general word that is meant to describe basically any uneven skin discoloration. 

It could be from inflammatory conditions such as rosacea, it could be from acne, it could be from age spots and so on. 

Basically anything that causes damage, or is completely natural, and results in an uneven color on your skin can be classified as hyper-pigmentation. 

And this is exactly what Kojic acid is supposed to treat and "even" out. 

But does it work?

Actually, yes, it works quite well for most people especially when compared to other skin lighteners (but more on that below). 

One of the major benefits of Kojic acid is that it is easy to purchase (you can get it over the counter) and is relatively SAFE especially when compared to other skin lighteners such as hydroquinone. 

In addition, kojic acid has been shown to be almost as effective as hydroquinone and other skin lighteners but it has the added advantage of not carrying with it the side effects on the skin such as redness or irritation. 

The many Benefits of Kojic Acid

So how does Kojic acid work?

In order to understand how it works you need to understand some basics of how your body creates pigment in the skin. 

Pigment is produced through cells known as melanocytes which sit at the bottom of the upper layer of your skin known as the epidermis. 

When melanocytes get "triggered" they produce melanin which then creates a darkening of your skin. 

When you get a tan your body reacts to protect the skin by producing more melanin and it is this melanin which gives your skin the darker color!

So it follows that the way to reduce skin color and tone is by targeting these melanocytes and that's exactly what kojic acid does. 

Kojic acid inhibits an enzyme known as tyrosinase which is necessary for the production of melanin in melanocytes

By inhibiting this enzyme your skin will naturally lighten over time as your body and cells create less melanin!

Make sense?

So the main benefit to using kojic acid is to reduce the natural pigment in your skin and lighten your skin. 

Because kojic acid is an ACID it also has some potential benefits when fighting off certain bacterial strains and fungal strains that can take up residence on your skin. 

For this reason kojic acid is sometimes included in products that are designed to treat fungal infections such as Athlete's foot and other yeast infections. 

The anti-bacterial benefit is also why kojic acid is often included in acne creams/gels. 

Kojic Acid Products

This effect occurs pretty much wherever you have hyper-pigmentation which has lead people to use Kojic acid all over their body and is one of the reasons that kojic acid has been included in many different types of products. 

Kojic acid is often included in various types of products ranging from soaps to serums to gels and creams. 

The main goal when using kojic acid is to find the right type of product based on the results that you want. 

For more isolated and deeper pigments you will want to focus on gels and serums which tend to be more powerful. 

If you are looking to "lighten" up large areas of your body then soap is probably best. 

If you are looking to treat acne then a kojic acid cleansing complex will do better. 

With that in mind let's talk about the various types of kojic acid products: 

Kojic acid soap

Kojic acid soap is often less powerful than other versions of kojic acid products but it tends to work well to gently lighten larger areas of the skin. 

Many people who have naturally darker colors (Fitzpatrick skin types IV through VI) may find some benefit to using kojic acid to lighten large areas of their skin including more intimate parts of their body. 

Other people find success using kojic acid soap in lightening their underarms and other creases in their body in which they may be self conscious about the coloring. 

Because this soap is less powerful than other versions this may work out well for many people. 

I recommend using a well tested and high quality product such as this if you opt to use the soap form: 

kojic acid skin lightening soap

Kojic acid cleansers

Kojic acid cleansers are best used for those who suffer from acne and need the added benefit that kojic acid provides to reducing both pimples AND the post inflammatory hyper-pigmentation that may follow with this problem. 

Cleansers tend to be less potent than gels and serums but they are also less expensive and work well to even out skin tone, color and complexion. 

Kojic acid gel

Kojic acid gels and serums tend to be better for age spots, melasma and other difficult to treat pigmentation diseases because they are more powerful. 

Because they are more powerful they are often more expensive and the bottles tend to have less when compared to kojic acid cleansers. 

People who do best on kojic acid gel/serums include those who are more interesting in anti-aging, those with age spots or those with melasma. 

You can see my recommended product below: 

kojic acid gel for skin lightening

Side Effects & Is it Safe?

One major concern of many people who try out skin care products is the safety profile of the ingredient. 

And you should be concerned!

You don't want to put anything on your skin which hasn't been tested or proven to be effective. 

When it comes to kojic acid this particular ingredient is usually VERY well tolerated. 

That means that most people use it without experiencing any serious or negative side effects. 

The most common side effect when using kojic acid is what is known as contact dermatitis. 

You can think of contact dermatitis as basically a rash in which your body reacts with redness and irritation to certain chemicals or ingredients. 

The treatment for this issue is to discontinue whatever agent is causing the problem and it will fade naturally over time. 

As long as you use kojic acid 1% (and no greater) then you shouldn't run into many issues. 

Another potential issue worth considering is that the blocking of melanin may actually make your skin more susceptible to sun damage. 

Remember that melanin is created to PROTECT and ABSORB ultraviolet light from the sun!

If you block the production of melanin you are in effect making your skin more sensitive to the sun and even tanning beds. 

So while using Kojic acid make sure you don't exposure your face (or whatever body part you are using it on) to excessive sunlight. 

This probably isn't an issue though, because if you are using kojic acid to lighten your skin you are probably naturally avoiding the sun already. 

Using Kojic Acid for Acne: Does it Work?

Can Kojic acid be used to treat acne?

The answer is yes, but probably not how you realize. 

It doesn't actually treat the acne (pustules and pimples) but it DOES help to reduce what is known as post inflammatory hyper-pigmentation that can occur in those people who struggle with acne

You'll know what I am talking about if you have acne because even after a pimple is gone you may see a purple or red mark where the pimple was and this mark can stay for MONTHS. 

This is known as post inflammatory hyper-pigmentation and THIS is the part of acne that kojic acid can help treat. 

Remember that hyper-pigmentation is the result of overproduction of melanin and in the case of acne this can be triggered from the acne itself. 

The use of topical kojic acid can help calm down the skin and even out skin tone and color. 

This is one of the reasons that many acne products do contain some kojic acid. 

But note that this is NOT a replacement for a standard 3 step skin care regimen if you have acne. 

You should still continue with regular use a cleanser, toner and moisturizer if you have acne but you can always add a kojic acid cream at the end of this regimen to help with the hyper-pigmentation if you wish as well. 

Kojic acid vs Hydroquinone

Kojic acid is NOT the only skin lightener in town!

In fact the "standard" skin lightener used among physicians and cosmetic dermatologists is a prescription known as hydroquinone. 

It turns out that hydroquinone works in a similar way to Kojic acid (it blocks the production of melanin) but it also takes it one step further by potentially destroying some of your melanocytes. 

This added effect makes hydroquinone a more powerful skin lightener when compared to kojic acid (but probably only slightly). 

More powerful is not necessarily a good thing, though!

One of the main issues with hydroquinone is that, even though it works, the benefits of hydroquinone tend to fade once you stop using it. 

So even if you start to notice a reduction in hyper-pigmentation when using hydroquinone you will have to continue using it indefinitely for the results to stay. 

It's worth pointing out that kojic acid is NOT a permanent lightener either - but it definitely has a better safety profile when compared to hydroquinone and long term use of kojic acid is less worrisome than long term use of hydroquinone. 

Another potential downside is sometimes discontinuing hydroquinone can cause a rebound hyper-pigmentation and make pigmentation conditions even worse for a short period of time. 

Because of these issues many patients (and doctors) tend to prefer safer over the counter alternatives to hydroquinone. 

Kojic acid vs Arbutin

Arbutin is another (perhaps less well known) skin lightener that would fall into the "natural" category. 

But is Arbutin better than Kojic acid?

In terms of how effective they both are they are probably equal in that category, but what about stability?

Arbutin basically comes in two forms:

  • Alpha arbutin - This formulation of arbutin is stable and more superior when compared to beta arbutin but is often more expensive. 
  • Beta arbutin - This formulation is also stable but is not quite as effective as alpha arbutin. Cheaper and less effective products tend to have this formulation. 

Kojic acid comes in two forms as well:

  • Kojic acid - This formulation works well but it is not very stable and must be protected from things such as light and heat which can inactivate the kojic acid and render it less effective. You'll know if your kojic acid is less effective by its color - a brown or caramel color may indicate a breakdown in the stability of the compound. 
  • Kojic acid dipalmitate - This form is more stable than regular kojic acid but it is not nearly as effective. I recommend avoiding products which contain this type of kojic acid as it usually indicates a cheaper and less effective alternative to kojic acid. 

Is one necessarily better than the other?

As long as you are purchasing high quality products then it really shouldn't be an issue. 

But it may be worth considering arbutin if you are worried about stability because it tends to be more stable and less "fragile" to the environment than kojic acid. 

Some arbutin products, while more stable, may be more expensive as well which is another factor to consider. 

But you really can't go wrong in choosing either if your goal is skin lightening because they both are effective. 

Final Thoughts

Kojic acid is one of many great and natural skin lighteners which can be used directly on the skin with impressive results. 

The type of kojic acid product that you use depends largely on what your main goal is. 

Those who are seeking to treat difficult hyper-pigmentation diseases will probably do better with more powerful and targeted kojic acid such as serums and gels. 

Kojic acid is generally well tolerated and most people who use it experience positive benefits without any negative side effects. 

If you decide to use kojic acid be prepared to use it for several weeks before you start noticing results!

Now I want to hear from you:

Have you used kojic acid before?

Did it work to help lighten your skin?

Why or why not?

Leave your comments below! 

Kat Rich

Hi! I'm Kat and I write these posts. I'm obsessed with eyebrows, hair and anything related to fitness. Right now I do microblading, 3d brows and semi-permanent eyebrows in Mesa, Arizona as a certified microblading artist. I'm a licensed cosmetologist and have been for over 10 years as well. I love experimenting with new products and love to share my experiences. Have questions? Leave them below!

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