If you've been searching for the holy grail of brightening skincare products to add to your top shelf, then you've probably noticed one active ingredient on nearly every label you check: kojic acid. Lauded as a miracle product that reduces hyperpigmentation, prevents breakouts, and delivers results in as little as two weeks, this naturally occurring acid is a staple ingredient in almost every product that promises glowing skin.
To learn more about this sought-after brightening ingredient, we asked one of our go-to skincare experts, Jennifer Herrmann, MD, FAAD, of Moy, Fincher, Chipps Dermatology, to break down everything we need to know about kojic acid, from what it is, to who should use it, and which products we should be adding to our routines.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Jennifer Herrmann is a board certified, fellowship-trained dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon as well as a lecturer with more than 20 peer-reviewed studies and book chapters.
Kojic Acid Basics
Before determining whether or not to add a potent product containing this acid to your skincare routine, you need to know what it actually is. "Kojic acid is produced by mushrooms in certain chemical reactions," explains Herrmann. This naturally occurring acid can be used in skincare as a lightening agent because it competes with and blocks an enzyme that helps produce melanin pigment (the stuff that gives our skin color).
What Is Kojic Acid?
Kojic acid is made from several different types of fungi. Kojic acid inhibits and prevents melanin production and thus can have a skin-lightening effect.
Kojic Acid Benefits
Kojic acid is helpful as a lightening and brightening agent. "It's a great alternative to hydroquinone, which can be too irritating for sensitive skin types," Herrmann explains. The benefits of using products with this active ingredient include everything from a brighter complexion to the reduced appearance of hyperpigmentation. "It can help lighten both sunspots and the hormonally triggered pigmentation of melasma," says Herrmann. But because it is an acid, it's important to look for products with low concentrations, up to 1%, to avoid an irritant reaction.
Who Should Use It?
"If you're looking to brighten your skin and reduce unwanted brown spots, kojic acid is a good option," says Herrmann. It's particularly great because, unlike retinoids and hydroquinone, kojic acid is safe during pregnancy, when melasma often worsens. "It shouldn't be used by anyone allergic to it (or to other ingredients in the formulation), used on wounds, or used on the lips or eyelids," she explains.
Herrmann adds that because kojic acid is an inherently unstable ingredient that is quickly oxidized in the air, it's important to find high-quality products containing it. "If your product is or turns brownish in color, it's time to replace it."
Herrmann's Top Kojic Acid Products
Kojic acid, alpha arbutin, and licorice root work together to remedy discoloration, scars, and dark spots in this serum.
This soothing gel features cucumber, which helps calm and soothe the skin while the kojic acid works its magic.
Rich in antioxidants, this splurge-worthy serum prevents blemishes, reduces inflammation, and nourishes skin.
For an option that's budget-friendly, Herrmann recommends this concentrated serum for reducing dark spots and brightening skin tone.
Saeedi M, Eslamifar M, Khezri K. Kojic Acid Applications in Cosmetic and Pharmaceutical Preparations. Biomed Pharmacother. 2019;110:582-593. doi:10.1016/j.biopha.2018.12.006