The Beauty Files

The Truth About Japanese Whitening Cosmetics

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While the title is “The Truth About Japanese Whitening Cosmetics,” it’s not a means to “call out,” “cancel,” or “expose” the Japanese beauty industry. But, it’s not clickbait, either.

In fact, this post is inspired by a comment from Instagram user @retrozar:

My point is I hope you don’t remove your darkness with whitening products, you are pretty. This was by no means any disrespect towards you at all. I just see it happen more than it should be in black communities.

The post and products in question (Contents are May 2019 Raxy Beauty Box: Mamorare Face)

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A post shared by Teni W.🎌Baby Kaiju Blog (@wadateni) on

The comment sparked a spirited exchange about Japanese whitening products and their ingredients. It seems that there’s tons of misinformation out there out Japanese whitening cosmetics (美白コスメ or 美白化粧品 | bihaku cosme or bihaku cosme) . I hope this post will set the record straight and spread the truth about Japanese whitening cosmetics.

What Do Japanese Whitening Products Do?

To put it very, very, very simply, “whitening” products are all about the following:

1. Brightening the complexion

2. Inhibiting the production of melanin

3. Combating pigmentation, discoloring, freckles, and sunspots

As you can see, rather than chemically lightning the skin, Japanese whitening cosmetics are more about tackling uneven skin tone, preventing/correcting damage from the sun’s UV rays, and preserving one’s current skin one.

I also want to stress that bihaku products are not just about the color of the skin, but also:

1. Tone (even, no discoloration, luminescent),

2. Quality (smooth, with minimized pores),

3. Texture (mochi hada, a bounciness reminiscent of a freshly pounded rice cake)

Visit a beauty aisle in Japan and you’ll see “whitening*” (美白 | bihaku) and “brightening” (ブライトニング | buraitoningu) being used interchangeably. This products can be skincare or makeup, too.

*ホワイトニング (howaitoningu) is more associated with teeth whitening, so be careful when using this one in Japan!

What Causes Uneven Skin Tone

Now that we know the basics of Japanese whitening cosmetics, let’s see how they work. But first, we need to get to the causes of the issues they are made to combat.

Four causes of changes in the skin color are:

1. Exposure to the sun

2. Scarring

3. Hormones

4. Age

How Do Japanese Whitening Cosmetics Work?

Before we get into the “how,” let’s just make one thing clear: These products don’t support an industry or fantasy of Japanese women wanting to be white.

I’m not saying that self-haters don’t exist, but I assure you, not every Japanese woman out there using 美白 products is trying to be a glamorous Caucasian woman.

Let me say it one more time for the people in the back who swear that Japanese women are trying to be “white:”

Pale skin has been in vogue in Asia for centuries — more than 1,000 years, even– way before the first white people ever came. That’s just the facts.

In Japan, the white skin trend can be traced to the late 8th century (the Heian Era). The elite used lead-based face powder while the common folk used rice and/or chestnut powder blends for a snow-white complexion that was enhanced by ohaguro (お歯黒), black teeth.

Today, the trend of “white” skin continues in Japan.


I’m not sure.


Western influence?

Whatever it is, It’s not my place to say what is ok and not ok for Japanese women. Feel free to form your own opinions. This post is all about explaining why and how Japanese whitening products work, not why Japanese women whiten their skin.

While whitening products have been used in Japan widely since the 11th century onwards, it’s only until the early 20th century when safe products were deveopled. (Remember, lead-based products were all the rage back then!)

And, 100 years later, Japanese cosmetics companies like Shiseido (the oldest and largest in Japan, and 5th largest worldwide) continue to make advances with skincare and beauty products that safely deliver results. (Except for that time a line of Kanebo whitening products was recalled globally because it caused unsightly pigmentation.)

What’s Inside Japanese Whitening Products?

Any whitening product sold in Japan must be approved by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

“Skin lightening or whitening quasi-drugs (QDs), a category created in Japan for functional cosmetics, contain active ingredients that prevent or improve hyperpigmentation in disorders, such as melasma and solar lentigo.” (Source)

Japanese whitening cosmetics use 14 different agents, but I will introduce the 12 listed in my textbook by the Japan Cosmetic Licensing Association.

First, here are two ingredients I like to look out for:

Vitamin C (ビタミンC誘導体 | bitamin shi- yuudoudai)

Sometimes listed in another form as asorbic acid, vitamin C improves skin quality while increasing collagen and suppressing the production of melanin.

Be sure to apply products with vitamin C  in the morning before sunscreen. I’ve tried it countless times thanks to my Raxy Beauty Box subscrition but it isn’t until recently that I learned that vitamin C serums work best in the morning!

Try: Plus Kirei Plus Pure VC25 Serum

Kojic Acid (コウジ酸 | kouji san)

A byproduct of sake (rice wine) fermentation, kojic acid reduces hyperpigmentation and prevents breakouts.

This mask has the added benefit of  minimizing the size of pores in just 5 minutes. These mask also come in a package for men with a cute boy on the front. It’s great if you want to introduce your significant other to skincare or for couples to bond over skincare! Find out more about this mask on Japan Objects.

Try: Okome no Mask

Here are the other 10 whitening ingredients commonly used in Japanese products:

Energy Signal AMP (エナジーシグナルAMP): a medicated active ingredient that promotes cellular turnover from Otsuka Pharmaceuticals

Linoleic acid (リノール酸): Derived from sunflower and other plant oils, it reduces darkness and hyperpignemntation (but not as well as vitamin c)

Ellagic acid (エラグ酸): an antioxidant found in strawberries and other fruits inhibits Tyrosinase, the enzyme for controlling the production of melanin.

Placenta Extract (プラセンタエキス): rich in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, placenta extract aids in the skin rejuvenation cycle. In whitening products it removes age spots, reverses dullness and inhibits melanin production

Arbutin (アルブチン | arubuchin): This is a natural skin brightener derived from berries with anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Magnolignan(マグノリグナン): A melanin blocker and registered trademark of Kanebo, it inhibits of tyrosinase and prevents melanin formation. additionally, magnolignan is effective in treating hyperpigmentation caused by UVB rays

4MSK (Potassium 4-Methoxysalicylate | よんエムエスケイ): A Shiseio patented active ingredient for dark spot prevention that acts on the melanin production mechanism.It apparently took them 13 years to develop!

Tranexamic acid (トラネキサム酸): ingested orally or injected to treat melasma and is commonly used in Malaysia.

Chamomile ET (カモミラET、カミツレエキス、カモミラエキス、カモミールエキス): is an anti inflammatory whitening agent derived from the camomile herb  and was developed independently by researchers at Kao, a company leading Japan’s beauty, health and cleaning products

Rucinol (ルシノール): Developed in 1998 by POLA, Japan’s fourth largest cosmetics company, Rucinol is a synthesized whitening ingredient  and the driving force behind cult favorite skincare line, White Shot

Can/Should People With Dark Skin Use Japanese Whitening Products?

If you’re trying to drastically alter your skin tone, AKA “bleach,” your skin, you are wasting your time and money on Japanese products.

But, if you want to give your skin a glow, correct dark eye circles, hyperpigmentation, sun spots, and so on, why not? Just be sure to stay away from products with hydroquinone (ハイドロキノン) as it can result in an untreatable skin condition called ochronosis.

I personally use “whitening/brightening” products in the summer to reverse any sun damage and for under eye circles that come from being up so late at night.

However, I want to say that I actively avoided whitening products until I signed up for Raxy Beauty Box. Not wanting to let any products go to waste, I started using them and liked the results. Now some of my favorite skincare items have a “whitening” label, and I appreciate my clear skin and glowing complexion!


Japanese whitening cosmetics are less about bleaching/turning white and more about inhibiting the production of melanin, tackling freckles, blemishes, sunspots, and giving uneven skin tone a unified appearance.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.



Shiseido Beauty Ingredient Dictionary

Quasi-Drugs Developed in Japan for the Prevention or Treatment of Hyperpigmentary Disorders

The Truth About Japanese Whitening Cosmetics

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