Japanese Beauty & Skincare

The Truth About Japanese Whitening Cosmetics

Last Updated on 2024-03-16 by Teni

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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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 kosume or bihaku keshouhin). I hope this post will set the record straight and spread the truth about Japanese whitening cosmetics.


What Do Japanese Whitening Products Do?

How Do Japanese Whitening Cosmetics Work?

What’s Inside Japanese Whitening Products?

(Includes a list of 14 common ingredients and recommended products)

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

The Truth About Japanese Whitening Cosmetics — TL;DR Summary

What Do Japanese Whitening Products Do?

To put it very, very, very simply, Japanese “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 lightening 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 natural skin color.

I also want to stress that whitening 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 and slightly sticky feeling 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!

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 skin color and uneven skin tone 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.

Said no Japanese woman ever (probably)

I’m not saying that self-haters don’t exist, but I assure you, not every Japanese woman out there using whitening 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. “Is ‘Brightening’ in Japanese Skincare Skin Bleach!?” explores the cultural significance of white skin in Japan — give it a read!

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 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 developed. (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. Here are 12 ingredients as listed in my textbook by the Japan Cosmetic Licensing Association.

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

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

Sometimes listed in another form as “ascorbic 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.

Try: Merano CC Intensive Care Mask — Amazon | Amazon Japan

Kojic Acid (コウジ酸 | kouji san)

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

Try: Keana Nadeshiko Rice Mask // Amazon Japan

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

Arbutin (アルブチン)

This is a natural skin brightener derived from berries with anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

(I can only find this product as the refill pouch on Amazon!)

Try:  Hada Labo Shirojyun Arbutin Whitening Toner // Amazon Japan

4MSK (Potassium 4-Methoxysalicylate | よんエムエスケイ)

A Shiseido patented active ingredient for dark spot prevention that acts on the melanin production mechanism. It apparently took them 13 years to develop!

Try: Shiseido HAKU Melano Focus V // Amazon Japan

Tranexamic acid (トラネキサム酸)

Commonly ingested orally or injected to treat melasma. This is the key ingredient in the Transino line of skincare products, which also includes tablets to treat spots freckles.

Try: Transino WhiteC Clear Tablets  // Amazon Japan

Chamomilla Extract (カモミラET)

This is an anti-inflammatory whitening agent derived from the chamomile herb. It was developed independently by researchers at Kao, a company leading Japan’s beauty, health and cleaning product industry. Kao’s Curel whitening line is formulated to meet the needs of those with sensitive skin.

Try: Curel Whitening Moisture Face Milk // Amazon Japan

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.

Try: Pola White Shot Serum // Amazon Japan

Energy Signal AMP/Disodium Adenosine Phosphate OT (エナジーシグナルAMP)

This is the medicated active ingredient in the Inner Signal line of whitening products made by Otsuka Pharmaceuticals. It’s intended to promote cellular turnover

Try: Inner Signal Rejuvenate Cream // Amazon Japan

Ellagic Acid (エラグ酸)

An antioxidant found in strawberries and other fruits that inhibits tyrosinase, the enzyme for controlling the production of melanin.

Try: DHC Age Defying Whitening Essence // Amazon Japan

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).

Try: Duo The Medicated White Rescue // Amazon Japan

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.
Try: Cosme Proud White Label Premium Placenta Eye Cream // AmazonAmazon Japan

Magnolignan (マグノリグナン)

A melanin blocker and registered trademark of Kanebo, the makers of the Blanchir Superior whitening skincare line. It inhibits of tyrosinase and prevents melanin formation. Additionally, magnolignan is effective in treating hyperpigmentation caused by UVB rays.

Try Blanchir Superior White Gel UV Block SPF 50+ PA++++ // Amazon Japan

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 use caution when using products with hydroquinone (ハイドロキノン), as it can result in an untreatable skin condition called ochronosis. (For more information, read section “4. Perspectives” of Quasi-Drugs Developed in Japan for the Prevention or Treatment of Hyperpigmentary Disorders.)

I personally use “whitening/brightening” products for spots on my face and for under eye circles. I especially use them in the summer to prevent/reverse any sun damage, like Sunsorit Skin Peel Bar Hydroquinone:

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!

For a list of products that I personally use, check out this post: Get Glowing Skin This Summer — 10 Japanese Skincare Products To Try


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

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Here’s an infographic that sums up this entire post:

The Truth About Japanese Whitening Cosmetics — Sources:


Shiseido Beauty Ingredient Dictionary (Link in Japanese)

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

Is ‘Brightening’ in Japanese Skincare Skin Bleach!?

For more J-beauty, check out these posts:

10 Best Japanese Skincare Products Under $15

10 Anti-Aging Sheet Masks From Japan

Learning From the Japanese Approach To Anti-Aging Skincare

Starting An Anti-Aging Skincare Routine With DHC Super Collagen Supreme Sheet Mask

The (Not-So) Definitive Guide to Japanese Superfoods and (Anti-)Aging Care

Awake, The Japanese Skincare Brand From New York

LuLuLun Precious White, Red, and Green Sheet Masks

My 5 Step Self-Care Sunday Routine

Why I Switched From K-Beauty To J-Beauty

Where To Buy Makeup In Japan

My Morning Routine With Japanese Drugstore Cosmetics

Unlocking French Beauty Secrets With My Little Box Japan

Raxy, the Beauty Box from Rakuten Japan

4 Japanese Morning Sheet Masks Worth Trying

Summer Skincare Must-Haves From Japan (Amazon Storefront)

The Truth About Japanese Whitening Cosmetics

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