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What is kojic acid? Dermatologists weigh in on the skin brightening ingredient

Hyperpigmentation has met its match.
TODAY Illustration / Amazon / Westend61 / Getty Images

Dealing with skin issues like hyperpigmentation and discoloration can sometimes feel like a losing battle if you don’t know how to search for the right treatment. While there are a plethora of skin care products on the market that claim to help with dark spots, the ultimate key to success is knowing which ingredients to look for that actually target these concerns.

Kojic acid is one of those ingredients. You’ve probably never heard of it before. (That’s okay, neither did we before this.) So to shine some light on what it does, as well as get some tips on how best to use it, Shop TODAY spoke to board-certified dermatologists Dr. Michele Farber and Dr. Robert Anolik for their expert guidance.

What is kojic acid?

“Kojic acid works to inhibit tyrosinase,” Farber explained. Tyrosinase is the enzyme that produces melanin in the skin. “Even if it’s considered in the acid category, it doesn’t work the same as your typical AHAs or BHAs.”

Because kojic acid is meant to keep melanin from performing, Farber and Anolik both agree that it is an effective ingredient that could be helpful for treating hyperpigmentation or discoloration.

Farber added that other benefits of using kojic acid can include aiding with free radical production and brightening skin, calling it a “gentle, well-tolerated ingredient.”

Skin lightening and managing dark spots are a concern Farber says dermatologists see a lot. “It sometimes requires a combination of ingredients and even in-office procedures, but kojic acid is a really nice item to have in the regimen because it works well,” she told us.

Tips for using products with kojic acid

Adding a new product to your skin care regimen can be exciting, but before you dive in headfirst, be sure to keep these tips in mind.

  1. Do a patch test. If you have sensitive skin or are prone to eczema breakouts, Farber recommends doing a patch test for most products, including ones containing kojic acid. “It’s generally tolerated by most skin types, but anybody could get irritated by it,” she said.

  2. Don’t use any other irritating products. Be mindful of the other products you’re using at the same time as kojic acid, Farber advised. Try not to use exfoliants or drying ingredients, especially when you use kojic acid for the first time.

  3. If you have lightened skin conditions, don’t use it. Anolik recommends those with loss of pigment like lightened scars or vitiligo avoid using products with kojic acid because of the negative effect in hypopigmentation. Since kojic acid is meant to keep melanin from forming, you won’t have to use it on areas that are already lightened.

  4. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen. No matter what you’re using, dermatologists stress the importance of regularly applying sunscreen. The same rules apply when using kojic acid. Anolik recommends using sunscreen daily “because sun can drive the pigment production process.”

  5. Be patient! We all want to see life-changing results overnight, but that’s just not how things work. Farber recommends waiting at least a month to look for results, but don’t be surprised if it takes up to three months to see a difference. “Even if it’s inhibiting the tyrosinase enzyme, you need some time, especially for any topicals to work,” she added.

Best products with kojic acid, according to a dermatologist and shopper reviews

SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense

Farber likes this serum from SkinCeuticals that has both kojic acid and tranexamic acid. "That can be helpful for dark marks," she said.

La Roche-Posay Glycolic B5

Another Farber callout made with kojic acid and tranexamic acid, Farber also recommends this Glycolic B5 serum from La Roche-Posay. She likes products with these ingredients because they don't contain hydroquinone, an ingredient that she says "can be a great lightener" but can cause some concerns after use.

Urban Skin Rx Even Tone Cleansing Bar

Target discoloration right at the beginning of your skin care routine with this cleansing bar that is made with kojic acid, niacinamide and azelaic acid. With over 2,400 verified five-star ratings on Amazon, one reviewer said it helped remove their dark spots and gave their skin a "healthy glow."

Evagloss Dark Spot Corrector Serum

This serum can be used not just on your face, but on the rest of your body as well, according to the brand. Made without hydroquinone, it's meant to nourish the skin whilst evening your skin tone. One reviewer raved about their experience with the serum — complete with before and after photos — calling it "the only thing that they've found and works to correct their skin texture, dark marks after cystic blemishes, moisturizes, tightens and makes their skin glow."

EnaSkin Dark Spot Corrector

This fan-favorite dark spot corrector has over 11,000 verified five-star ratings. According to the brand, it can be used twice a day and targets "various types of spots," from larger, darker, concentrated spots to smaller, scattered spots. "I have been using this product for a little over 2 weeks now and it has done what no product in the last year has been able to do," one verified five-star reviewer on Amazon enthused.

Koji White Kojic Acid Skin Brightening Soap

Made with hyaluronic acid and coconut oil, this bar soap is formulated to help brighten, hydrate and nourish your skin. It can be used on both face and body and each box comes with two bars, perfect for leaving one in the shower and one at the sink. Reviewers recommend letting the cleanser sit on your skin for one to two minutes before rinsing to let it penetrate.

Naturium Tranexamic Topical Acid 5%

In addition to tranexamic acid and kojic acid, this serum is also made with licorice root (no, not the candy!). According to the brand, it is "optimized to work with the physiological process of the skin." Reviewers love how well it's worked for correcting their dark spots and hyperpigmentation, one reviewer said their skin "looks the best it has in a long time."

Dr Dennis Gross Clinical Grade IPL Dark Spot Correcting Serum

Aside from kojic acid, highlighted ingredients in this serum include L-ascorbic acid, lactic acid and alpha tocopherol. It's formulated to produce results like an illuminated skin tone and reduce the appearance of sun spots, age spots and dark patches.

iS Clinical Pro-Heal Advance Serum Plus

Made with vitamin C, olive leaf extract, kojic acid and vitamins A and E, this serum is meant to prevent blemishes while conditioning and nourishing the skin. According to the brand, this serum offers the highest levels of antioxidant protection amongst all of their products which makes it "ideal for sensitive, compromised and sickly skin types." Plus, it has over 200 five-star ratings on both Amazon and Dermstore.

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