Your Asian Beauty shortlist for skincare product reviews, tips, and more

Korean whitening skincare: facts and misconceptions



A brief overview of whitening skin care



First thing first, skin bleaching is a real phenomenon and it is physically and psychologically damaging to the individuals who undergo this process. Skin bleaching procedures involve the use of harmful ingredients such as mercury in cosmetics, cryosurgery, and in more extreme cases, injecting over-the-counter substances to make the skin appear whiter.

The desire for lighter skin is a fraught issue that is rooted in race-based and class-based biases.

There exists a bias for lighter skin in our American society as much as in Asia and elsewhere in the world. Take this study for example, which showed that white and black children are biased toward thinking lighter skin is “better” and more desirable. In Asian cultures, the bias for lighter skin has historically been more class-based than race based. Pale skin has been associated with the gentry class who didn’t have to work for a living and spent most of their time indoors, and darker skin has been associated with the working class who actually had to work outdoors to earn their livelihood.

Among some non-Asians, there exists a false sentiment that claims that the Asian culture’s bias for pale skin is because Asians harbor a self-hatred and a desire to be white. Now, barring the most extreme rare cases of internalized racism, this is not true. Case in point, women in China have been using pearl-based products to brighten their skin in the past before they even knew about the existence of white people with Marco Polo’s arrival.

Funny enough, a similar desire for pale skin was also historically observed in European countries. In 17th and 18th century Europe, women were using cosmetics full of lead to make their skin look more white. One of the more popular cosmetic products at the time was Venetian Ceruse, a skin whitener that contained white lead. Many women who used these lead-laden cosmetics died from lead poisoning. One notable death was  Maria Coventry, a British countess, who was basically the 18th century version of a beauty influencer.


What does the term “whitening” on Korean beauty products mean?


The term “whitening” appears quite frequently on many Korean skincare product labels, and as a result, may cause users to be confused and turned off because they think it is the same as skin bleaching. But this has been more of a “lost in translation” problem. The term “whitening” is meant to be synonymous with “brightening”, as in to fade out dark spots and even out your skin tone.

Look at the products’ ingredients list and you can see that most Korean whitening creams, essences, or toners contain ingredients like niacinamide, arbutin, and vitamin C. These ingredients have been backed by scientific studies that concluded they are effective for fading hyperpigmentation or lightening brown spots caused by acne scarring or melasma due to sun damage.

Niacinamide and vitamin C, for example, are frequently present in the formulation of brightening skin care cosmetics sold in the US with the purpose to brighten, or even out your skin tone.

It’s not about bleaching your skin to a whiter color, it’s about erasing damage to help you get a more radiant skin tone that’s naturally yours. The best and safest way to use a whitening skincare product, be it cream or toner or serum, is to understand what the ingredients do.


The science behind skin whitening/brightening ingredients


In a nutshell, skin whitening/brightening/lightening treatments work by reducing the content of melanin of the skin. Some ingredients may have additional benefits such as antioxidants (like vitamin C), and some may cause harmful side effects. Whether you are looking for a whitening cream, serum, or essence, be sure to read the ingredients list carefully and cross-reference to see their respective functions or toxicity. Below are some common skin whitening/brightening ingredients and what they do:


Safe (based on standard dosage)


  • Tretinoin (also known as all-trans retinoic acid): primarily prescribed for treating acne and also has the additional benefit of treating skin discoloration. If you are using tretinoin, you need to wear sunscreens to avoid sun exposure, as this ingredient makes your skin more photo-sensitive to UVA/UVB rays. In the US, tretinoin is available only by prescription. Detailed scientific information about this ingredient is available at PubChem.


  • Niacinamide (also known as vitamin B3): a vitamin found in yeast, milk, and green vegetables. It is a widely used ingredient in medicated and over-the-counter skincare products to treat acne. It is also effective for treating hyperpigmentation and is widely found in the formulations of most Korean whitening creams. Detailed scientific information about this ingredient is available at PubChem.

Niacinamide essences and serums to try: Cosrx Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power EssenceManyo Factory Galactomyces Niacin Special Treatment Essence, SkinCeuticals B3 Metacell Renewal Serum


  • Azelaic acid: naturally found in grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley. Azelaic acid is typically used to treat acne and rosacea, and is also effective for treating skin discoloration. Detailed scientific information about this ingredient is available at PubChem.


  • Vitamin C: Also known as Ascorbic acid. It has long been studied as a safe and effective antioxidant for the skin and as a skin lightening agent with minimal to no side effects. Vitamin C can be found in fruits and vegetables or be taken orally as supplements. Detailed scientific information about this ingredient is available at PubChem.

Vitamin C serums to try: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic SerumKlairs Freshly Juiced Vitamin Drop, 5% pure vitamin C serum


  • Arbutin: a naturally occurring derivative of hydroquinone that is found in the leaves of mulberry, bearberry, cranberry, or blueberry shrubs, and also is present in most types of pears. It has been shown as a safe and effective ingredient for skin lightening. Detailed scientific information about this ingredient is available at PubChem.

Arbutin essences to try: Kikumasamune Sake Skin Lotion High MoistureBenton Snail Bee High Content Essence 




  • Hydroquinone: primary used topically for for inhibiting melanin production. It also has antioxidant effects. Research has shown that hydroquinone is effective in treating melasma. However, it is banned in certain European countries for fear of cancer risk, despite counter-research showing that it is only harmful when used in very high concentrations. Detailed scientific information about this ingredient is available at PubChem.




  • Mercury: toxic and has been banned in the US since 1990s. Can cause mercury poisoning.


  • Bleach: toxic. It should go without saying, but don’t put bleach on your skin.





Study: White and black children biased toward lighter skin.