This skin-brightening acid helps to treat hyperpigmentation, dark spots and melasma

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Pop on your lab coat – it’s time to learn about kojic acid.

Over the course of the pandemic, I think it’s fair to say we all became bathroom chemists, of sorts. Where before a routine may have consisted of a trusted cleanser, toner and moisturiser, knowing the ingredients each formulation contained was probably a bridge too far. Now, we’ve become au fait with the name of individual acids, which moisturising agents work best for our skin and how to combine active ingredients to treat certain conditions. 

And, while some of us went slightly too far and found out what happens when you rush into using retinoids (retinol purge, anyone?) or the symptoms of a damaged skin barrier, the transparency of knowing exactly what works for our skin is refreshingly empowering. One such ingredient edging onto centre stage in recent months is kojic acid. 

What is kojic acid?

Designed to prevent the creation of melanin, kojic acid can be used topically to treat post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, melasma and dark spots on the skin. Melanin – the pigment that gives eyes, hair and skin colour – is present in every human. Different levels of melanin denote light or dark pigmentation. A skin-brightening acid, kojic acid is a chemical product obtained from different types of fungi and is a byproduct of certain fermentation processes.

Historically, kojic acid has been a key ingredient in skin-whitening products – used at higher percentages and combined with arbutin to “bleach” the skin. However, when used in appropriate concentrations, it can be a potent way to treat specific melanin-related conditions without bleaching or whitening the surrounding skin. It’s deemed a well-tolerated alternative to hydroquinone, which can cause adverse reactions in dark skin tones.

Found to be safe for regular use at a strength of 1% or below, kojic acid can be found in cleansers, toners, serums and masks. 

How does kojic acid treat dark spots and hyperpigmentation?

OK, let’s break down the science. 

Melanin, a pigment containing cell, is produced by melanocytes and is transported to the top layer of the skin through a conversion process. Tyrosinase – a copper-containing enzyme – is the first step in this conversion process. 

When exposed to UV light (the sun), tyrosinase is made more active, however, kojic acid is able to “capture” said copper iron and prevent it from activating – thus reducing the amount of melanin produced in exposure to UV light.

  • Versed Weekend Glow Brightening Solution

    A potent non-irritating exfoliator, the Versed Weekend Glow Brightening Solution blends lactic, glycolic, azelaic and kojic acids to encourage skin cell turnover, revealing new more evenly toned skin.

    Shop Versed Weekend Glow Brightening Solution at Cult Beauty, £16.50

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  • 111Skin 3 Phase Anti Blemish Booster

    This tonic works to treat the three stages of blemishes: skin healing, neutralising spot-causing bacteria and minimising dark spots left behind. It contains oil-regulating willow bark, anti-bacterial colloidal sulphur and pigment-reducing kojic acid.

    Shop 111Skin 3 Phase Anti Blemish Booster at Space NK, £85

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  • Dr Dennis Gross Skincare Professional Grade IPL Dark Spot Concentrated Serum

    A fan-favourite from celebrity dermatologist Dr Dennis Gross, this serum targets dark spots and promotes more even skin tone thanks to a blend of 10% L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and kojic acid.

    Shop Dr Dennis Gross Skincare Professional Grade IPL Dark Spot Concentrated Serum at Lookfantastic, £99

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  • Topicals Faded Brightening & Clearing Serum

    A bestseller from Topicals – which has newly launched in the UK – the Faded Brightening & Clearing Serum fades stubborn dark marks and rough skin texture caused by sun damage and scarring. 

    Shop Topicals Faded Brightening & Clearing Serum, £27.93

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  • Faace Dull 2-in-1 Cleanser and Mask

    A dual cleanser and mask, this Faace gem brightens dull-looking skin using liquorice and kojic acid as well as hyaluronic acid to promote moisture retention and AHAs to slough away dead skin. 

    Shop Faace Dull 2-in-1 Cleanser and Mask at Lookfantastic, £19.20

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  • Nurse Jamie Brightening Bar with Exfolibrush

    A cleansing bar, this kojic acid and eucalyptus oil containing product is designed to be used with the accompanying exfoliating brush to brighten and even out skin tone.

    Shop Nurse Jamie Brightening Bar with Exfolibrush at Cult Beauty, £46

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  • Bea Brightening Cleanser

    A foaming gel cleanser, the alpha-hydroxy acid formulation helps to resurface the top layer of dry skin, reducing scarring caused by acne. A good choice for dry skin.

    Shop Bea Brightening Cleanser, £39

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  • Versed Out of Sight Dark Spot Gel

    A “stay in place” gel that helps to fade pigmentation spots and scarring, this topical treatment contains tranexamic and kojic acid as well as liquorice root and niacinamide to reduce the appearance of dark marks, discolouration and melasma.

    Shop Versed Out of Sight Dark Spot Gel, £13.99

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  • Nurse Jamie Clear 2 Lightweight Moisturiser

    A kojic acid-containing moisturiser (that’s palatable enough for sensitive skin), this Nurse Jamie cream also contains the antioxidant resorcinol to protect against environmental stress and damage.

    Shop Nurse Jamie Clear 2 Lightweight Moisturiser at Cult Beauty, £38

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Possible side effects of using kojic acid

“Contact dermatitis (especially for sensitive skin) is the main side effect of kojic acid which is accompanied by irritation, rashes, inflamed skin, itchiness and pain. These side effects can be observed with a higher concentration of more than 1% of KA. Another adverse reaction may appear in long-term use of kojic acid, such as sunburn in sensitive skin,” reads a 2019 study into the cosmetic application of kojic acid.

If you experience said side effects, stop usage until your skin returns to baseline and explore options suitable for your skin type. Lactic acid and other PHAs (polyhydroxy acids) are gentle alternatives suitable for sensitive skin.

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