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, unsurprisingly, 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. Trust us, you need to read this before your next trip to Sephora (or even Target). Ahead, a dermatologist explains why kojic acid might just be the secret to glowing skin—and the $29 drugstore serum with kojic acid that she recommends for getting serious results.
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What Is Kojic Acid?
Before determining whether or not a potent product containing this acid belongs in your skincare routine, let's talk about what it is exactly. "Kojic acid is produced by mushrooms in certain chemical reactions," explains Herrmann. This naturally occurring acid is "relevant to 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)."
Why should you incorporate it into your skincare routine?
"Kojic acid is helpful as a lightening and brightening agent," explains Herrmann. "It's a great alternative to hydroquinone, which can be too irritating for sensitive skin types." Although acids can be intimidating, "because the chemical effect of kojic acid is reversible, it doesn't permanently disrupt your skin's pigmentation product making it safe as a topical product," she elaborates.
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 KA is an acid, it's important to look for products with low concentrations (up to 1%) to avoid an irritant reaction," she adds.
If you start using products with kojic acid, you can expect to see results rather quickly, depending on how deep the pigment is in your skin, says Herrmann. And for the shallowest pigment, "lightening can occur in as quickly as one to two weeks. But deeper pigment can be more resistant, and consistent daily use over the course of several weeks is needed for lightening."
Who should use it? (And who should avoid it?)
"If you're looking to brighten your skin and reduce unwanted brown spots, kojic acid is a good option," says Herrmann. Particularly because "unlike retinoids and hydroquinone, it is safe in pregnancy, when melasma often worsens," she explains. "It shouldn't be used by anyone allergic to it (or other ingredients in the formulation), or used on wounds or on the lips or eyelids," she adds.
"It's important to find high-quality products because KA is an inherently unstable product that is quickly oxidized in the air. If your product is or turns brownish in color, it's time to replace it."
Shop Herrmann's top picks for products containing kojic acid below.
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.