Fact: The number one thing that visibly ages a person most is uneven skin tone. And while “brightening and lightening” has become the calling card for products that promise to erase the discoloration, it is not as easy as spending a pretty penny on skincare a friend (or beauty editor for that matter) says works. The harsh reality is that it might not work for you. But don’t lose hope yet.
Sunspots, hyperpigmentation, melasma — anyone who has experienced any sort of pigmentation issue understands the trials and tribulations of achieving the ever-elusive even skin tone. There are many variables relating to how the spots came about in the first place, what kind of hyperpigmentation it is and, much to my horror, what is being done to ensure the body isn’t producing more melanin while you’re busy trying to get rid of what has already surfaced.
After four years of trying every brightening product I could get my hands on and SIX invasive laser treatments later (that did absolutely nothing), it only took one very enlightening conversation with a functional medicine doctor about six months ago, and all was clear. Surging hormones levels due to stress had brought on my melasma and I needed to treat it both internally and externally. There is no overnight fix. It takes time and ingredients matter. Finally, a clear explanation and a place to begin.
Traditionally, hydroquinone has been the go-to over-the-counter ingredient for skin lightening. However, there has been a lot of controversy about the dangers and potential side effects. Vitamin C is the other fail-proof ingredient, but it can be unstable and expire quite quickly so you have to be vigilant with air exposure, purity and percentages. Vitamin C has been a sanity saver and I would recommend it to anyone, and then I stumbled upon kojic acid.
A favorite of beaming-white-skin-loving Korean girls, kojic acid is known for its skin bleaching effects. It is also quite unstable and has a tendency to expire with too much environmental exposure (sunlight and oxygen), but word on the street is that it works. And lightening effects have been reported in as little as two weeks. Two weeks! Kojic acid is naturally derived from fungi as a byproduct of the fermentation process when making sake, soy sauce and rice wine, and up to 1% concentrations are safe to use on the skin.
Like hydroquinone, there is the potential for irritation and wearing a high SPF sunscreen is a must. While my new soap containing kojic acid is still en route to me (because I am a guinea pig and will try almost anything), I wanted to get some expert advice from a doctor. Like I mentioned before, what works for one person may not work for another. However, I would encourage anyone to do the research and experiment.
The doctor I spoke with is Michael Somenek, MD, a double board certified facial plastic surgeon and member of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS). Here’s what he had to say.
If someone is looking for an alternative to hydroquinone is kojic acid a good option?Absolutely. Kojic acid is a chemical derived from mushrooms and has the ability to penetrate the layers of the skin and stop the production of melanin. It is often considered a less-aggressive answer to hydroquinone.
What types of skin issues is it most effective for?
Kojic acid is used as a skin lightening agent. Individuals that have a tendency to get hyperpigmentation are ideal candidates. This can be hyperpigmentation caused by the sun, post-acne effects or general signs of aging. It can be particularly effective for those that have melasma.
Certain outlets have suggested that it is most effective to use products that contain BOTH hydroquinone and kojic acid (some even say the magic combination is hydroquinone, kojic acid and vitamin C) — would you recommend that?
No studies have ever demonstrated a superior result when combining hydroquinone with kojic acid. Keep in mind that both hydroquinone and kojic acid can cause irritation to the skin. So, by combining the two this may increase the overall amount of inflammation and not necessarily provide a better result. The addition of vitamin C can be an effective additive to a kojic acid formulation. Vitamin C helps because of its unique collagen-forming and antioxidant properties. Aside from improving the skin complexion, Vitamin C also increases glutathione and vitamin E. The results with this combination can maximize the results for a more radiant and brighter skin.
“Individuals that have a tendency to get hyperpigmentation are
ideal candidates. This can be hyperpigmentation caused by the sun,
post-acne effects or general signs of aging. It can be particularly
effective for those that have melasma”
Is there anyone who shouldn’t try kojic acid?
Those that have sensitive skin should use kojic acid in small doses as slight inflammation and sensitivity are to be expected at the beginning of the treatment.
How soon should someone see results?
Results can vary depending on the strength and type of formulation used. When used at the recommended 1% strength, you can expect to start seeing results in as early as two weeks. However, in general, it can take 6 to 8 weeks to fully appreciate the skin lightening effects.
Are certain types products more effective than others? I.e. Is a soap better than a cream?
Kojic acid skincare products are available in a variety of formulations including soaps and creams. Each product has the potential to be effective given the right strength and formulation. As a general guideline, soap tends to be more appropriate when treating large surface areas whereas creams can be more effective when being used for spot treatment. Combining these products can always optimize your results since soap is meant to be washed off and the creams or serums are meant to stay on.
What is the difference between kojic acid and kojic dipalmitate?
Kojic acid is an unstable ingredient. It oxidizes quickly and will turn brown if left exposed to air, heat or light. Because of this, many cosmetic companies use kojic dipalmitate instead—and market it as kojic acid—which is more stable and has antioxidant properties, but is not as effective for skin lightening. Look for Kojic acid as an active ingredient.
To get the most out of kojic acid’s lightening effects, are there other ingredients you should look for in a product?
Combination therapies tend to work best when it comes to treating pigment. Exfoliants such as alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acids and mandelic acids complement kojic acid because they gently and effectively exfoliate the skin. This helps kojic acid penetrate deeper so results can be reached faster.
It is well known that kojic acid can cause contact dermatitis or irritation, what precautions can you take to try and avoid this?
Kojic acid must be diluted to a preferable concentration of 1% to work effectively without causing severe skin irritation. Over time, long-term kojic acid use may make the skin more susceptible to sunburn so be particularly mindful of applying sunscreen and wearing protective clothing. To avoid this, look for nourishing and soothing ingredients along with your kojic acid, like vitamin E, aloe vera and fatty-acid-rich oils.
“Look for nourishing and soothing ingredients along with your
kojic acid, like vitamin E, aloe vera and fatty-acid-rich oils”
What is the average shelf life of a product containing kojic acid?
Products that place their formulations in an airtight pump have the longest shelf life over products that are exposed to air and light on a daily basis.
How do you know when the product has gone bad?
If kojic acid is consistently exposed to air, heat or light, it will oxidize. This will make the formulation, regardless if it is a cream or serum, turn brown. Once it turns brown it is no longer active.
How long should someone use a product containing kojic acid?
The typical recommendation is to use the kojic acid for up to 3 months. In most cases, this is a sufficient treatment to effectively address the pigmented areas of concern.
Have you had any experience with products containing kojic acid and if so, which ones would you recommend?
I have several medical grade products that contain kojic acid which I recommend to my patients. Phyto+ by Skinceuticals is a hydrating botanical serum with kojic acid. I recommend this because it can improve skin discoloration without irritation. It is formulated in a soothing gel to hydrate and improve the overall appearance of dark spots. And Marie France Kojic Soap is a great over the counter soap that is effective for skin lightening. It contains Papain which is a natural exfoliant and can help the kojic acid penetrate to the necessary layers of the skin. The caveat to this powerful soap is that you have to you a heavy moisturizer because you may experience skin peeling depending on your skin type.
Dr. Michael Somenek earned his undergraduate degree in microbiology at the University of Miami and a medical degree at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He then completed an intensive fellowship in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery under the tutelage of world-renowned facial plastic surgeons Dr. J. Regan Thomas (past president of the American Board of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery) and Dr. Dean Toriumi at the University of Illinois in Chicago. As an author of multiple peer-reviewed journal articles, textbook chapters, and presentations at national meetings, he has contributed extensively in his field. In October 2016, Dr. Somenek was named the top facial plastic surgeon in the eastern United States by Aesthetic Everything. www.somenekmd.com
Have you tried products containing kojic acid? What did you think? Please let us know in the comments below!