You likely already know about (and probably use) glycolic and salicylic acids in your beauty routine, but there's another somewhat under-the-radar acid that deserves some time in the skincare spotlight—particularly if your goal is a brighter, more even complexion. We're talking about kojic acid, a naturally-derived ingredient. It comes from mushrooms (more on that in a minute) and is excellent at fading hyperpigmentation and discoloration AKA dark spots. It works well both on its own and when paired with other lightening ingredients, not to mention also acts as an antioxidant. Ahead, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist Y. Claire Chang, MD, of Union Square Laser Dermatology, Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, of Hudson Dermatology & Laser Surgery, and Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group explain why and how kojic acid works, who should give it a whirl, and which products to try.
TYPE OF INGREDIENT: Skin brightener
MAIN BENEFITS: Inhibits an enzyme necessary in the production of melanin, helping to fade dark spots and discoloration. It also delivers some antioxidant protection.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Anyone seeking to improve the look of discoloration caused by sun damage, melasma, and/or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that occurs after a blemish, says Chang. Bhanusali adds that it's also a good option for those want to avoid or can't tolerate hydroquinone, one of the most often used skin-lightening ingredients.
HOW OFTEN CAN YOU USE IT: This depends on what other ingredients it's compounded with and the concentration, but generally it can be used daily.
WORKS WELL WITH: Studies have shown that kojic acid works well with and enhances the effects of glycolic acid and hydroquinone, says Nazarian.
DON’T USE WITH: While it does have a synergetic effect when used with these other brightening/exfoliating ingredients, pairing it with these also increases the likelihood of experiencing excessive dryness or irritation. Proceed with caution and start using any products that contain kojic acid and other actives gradually, giving your skin some time to acclimate.
What is Kojic Acid?
As we mentioned, mushrooms are the source of kojic acid, a byproduct of various fungi that also occurs as the result of fermentation of certain Asian foods, such as soy sauce and rice wine, explains Chang. "Unlike other acids that work by dissolving the bonds between the cells and exfoliating the skin, kojic acid works by inhibiting pigment production," she says. It also has the added benefit of working well when paired with other skin-lightening ingredients (namely the gold standard hydroquinone, most commonly prescribed by dermatologists). Dermatologists often combine it with hydroquinone for a synergistic, prescription-strength lightening agent, notes Bhanusali. But on the flip side, it works well on its own too, and is a great alternative for those who can't tolerate or don't want to use the more potent hydroquinone. "It’s also less likely to cause an overly-white appearance of the skin, making it a good option for people with darker complexions who'd be more likely to [experience extreme lightening] from using other ingredients," says Nazarian.
Benefits of Kojic Acid for Skin
Spot-fading and skin brightening is the name of the game for this ingredient, though it does have a few other standout qualities.
- Inhibits the production of melanin in the skin: The pathway that leads to excess melanin or pigment (in other words, a dark spot) is complex, but at the heart of the matter is an enzyme known as tyrosinase. Kojic acid blocks tyrosinase, in turn inhibiting the production of excess pigment. This means it can help lighten existing sun spots and photodamage, fade the dark marks leftover from acne scarring or after a pimple, and even improve melasma, notes Chang.
- Acts as an antioxidant: Kojic acid can help scavenge and counteract skin-damaging free radicals caused by exposure to things such as UV damage and pollution. This not only helps improve overall skin tone as well, but also makes it a good general anti-aging ingredient, says Nazarian.
- Has anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties: Unlike many other acids, it also has these unique characteristics, though they're secondary to the skin-lightening benefits.
Side Effects of Kojic Acid
"Generally speaking, kojic acid is better tolerated than most acids, but an allergy or irritation is certainly possible," points out Bhanusali. A red rash, itching, irritation, and burning are the most common side effects, adds Chang, though these are typically uncommon if you're using lower concentrations of the ingredient (and most over-the-products do contain a lower concentration).
How to Use It
If your skin is super sensitive, Nazarian recommends not using it daily at first; instead, work kojic acid-based products into your regimen just once or twice per week to ensure that your skin can tolerate the ingredient. Also worth noting: "When used over long periods of time, kojic acid may also make your skin more susceptible to the sun," says Chang. Using sunscreen daily is always important, but even more so when kojic acid is in your skincare mix.
The Best Products With Kojic Acid
"This is a great at-home product to use for skin pigmentation," says Chang. "It contains a mixture of kojic acid, tranexamic acid, and niacinamide, all working to reduce stubborn pigment." Bhanusali agrees, also recommending this pick, which he says is both gentle and effective. It's so effective that in a twelve-week clinical study, participants saw a 60 percent improvement in brown marks.
Why not start your battle against dark marks from the very outset of your skincare routine, namely face washing? You won't find many cleansers that contain kojic acid, but this one does. It's why this formulation is so novel, says Bhanusali, which helps to both ward off blemishes and spots. He also applauds it for containing niacinamide, another skin-brightening and anti-inflammatory ingredient.
Kojic acid plus glycolic acid plus a two percent-concentration of hydroquinone make for a powerful spot-fading combo, and this formula is also easy to apply on targeted spots, points out Nazarian. Chang likes it too, noting that it works well to lighten pigmentation leftover from acne blemishes as well.
Super serum, indeed. Kojic acid is combined with vitamin C, centella asiatica, and arbutin in this treatment. Plus, "the antioxidants in this serum also help protect the skin from aging and sun damage," says Chang. And that's always a good thing in our book.
Take a pass on this ultra-potent product if your skin is on the sensitive side, because it is in fact really potent. Credit a formula full of not only kojic acid and hydroquinone to lighten discoloration, but also a variety of alpha-hydroxy acids, including glycolic acid, for exfoliating benefits. Chang says it can even help lighten melasma with continued use.
All three dermatologists recommend this serum. It blends kojic acid with other brightening ingredients, though is an option that's free of hydroquinone, making it a great pick for anyone who can't tolerate or wants to steer clear of the strong ingredient.
Bhanusali calls the trio of ingredients—namely kojic acid, retinol, and vitamin C—in this fast-acting serum, "a powerful combo." Plus, the addition of hydrating hyaluronic acid works to combat the potential for any dryness. We give it bonus points for the very wallet-friendly price, too.
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Mahajan R, Kanwar AJ, Parsad D, Kumaran MS, Sharma R. Glycolic Acid peels/azelaic Acid 20% cream combination and low potency triple combination lead to similar reduction in melasma severity in ethnic skin: results of a randomized controlled study. Indian J Dermatol. 2015;60(2):147-152. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.152510
Desai S, Ayres E, Bak H, et al. Effect of a Tranexamic Acid, Kojic Acid, and Niacinamide Containing Serum on Facial Dyschromia: A Clinical Evaluation. J Drugs Dermatol. 2019;18(5):454-459.