How Do Whitening Products Work?

In the western world, having a tan is considered an attractive attribute. You’ll often hear it described with such effusive language: “having a healthy glow”, “honeyed”, or “exotic”. In Korea and many other parts of East Asia, though, the standards for perfect skin are absolute and non-negotiable: dewy, spotless, luminous, and pearl-like.

There is little wonder then that the beauty and skincare mecca of Asia boasts of an overabundance in whitening, lightening, and brightening products, each of them uniquely formulated to target every skin type on the spectrum. But how do these whitening products work? And which ones are worth your money? What about the ones that are safe to use? We tackle all of these questions below:

First things first: do they work, though?

One look at Koreans and their pearlescent complexions might suggest that, of course, these whitening products work. However, a person’s skin tone is largely determined by genetics, and most Koreans are already naturally fair. The reason why whitening products are still very popular is because Koreans also love going outdoors and being out in the sun, as much as anyone. A single day out under those harsh UV rays is a one-way ticket to darkened skin.

To answer the question: yes, whitening and lightening products do work, but as with all things, efficacy is not guaranteed with all people, all of the time. Some may take to whitening products better than others. Some may achieve better results with a certain formulation, while others may not. Your mileage will vary.

What’s in them?

There are a number of ingredients infused into whitening products that claim and have been proven to lighten or brighten the skin. Hydroquinone is one such agent. It limits the skin from producing melanin, the pigment that provides the skin its color. Another is kojic acid, a chelation agent made out of several species of fungi. Its claim to fame? Kojic acid provides all the benefits of hydroquinone use, without any of the nasty side effects.

Yet another one is galactomyces, which is found in abundance in such products as CosRX’s Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power Essence. Galactomyces is a kind of fungus that was discovered in Japan as a by-product of sake brewing: someone noticed that the workers in the brewery had bright, supple skin and went on an arduous quest to figure out why. The result is the discovery of galactomyces ferment filtrate, the main ingredient in the product.

So, how do these whitening ingredients work?

Generally, skin whitening products target the clusters of melanin that appear as blemishes, freckles and sun spots. Korean whitening products are also infused with a variety of other nourishing ingredients that help moisturize the skin, even out complexion, and encourage healthy cell turnover, banishing dullness and dryness.

Galactomyces, in particular, provides all of the above with the added bonus of having the ability to control oil and sebum production, thus decreasing acne. It also helps improve skin elasticity for younger-looking skin. Meanwhile, hydroquinone not only prevents the production of pigment – it literally kills melanin producing cells, making it a great choice for people who already have fair complexion, but want to even out their skin tone and remove discoloration caused by acne and age spots.

Finally, a word of warning.

Before trying any skincare product to achieve your specific goals, be certain to do extensive research on the ingredients they’re made with, and make sure that you do not have sensitivities towards them. Products made with fungi such as galactomyces and kojic acid are not recommended for use by those who suffer from fungal acne or malassezia folliculitis. This condition refers to breakouts that are caused by yeast instead of bacteria, and combining an active ingredient with a fungal skin condition may cause a severe adverse reaction.

Remember to patch test every product in order to avoid allergic reactions or breakouts. For best results, always consult with your dermatologist before embarking on any skin whitening or lightening to get expert advice on your specific skin needs.