Just like Caucasians who opt to bake under the sun for hours to get their much-desired golden complexion, many Filipinos slather on every imaginable cream, ingest a motley of pills, or even cough up considerable sums for laser treatments to achieve fairer skin. But how does one choose the safest and most effective skin-lightening agent?
At the recent launch of the new TVC of Kojiesan, a soap brand that claims to lighten complexion, Dr. Lindsay Gail Wilson Torralba-Garcia compared three of the most popular ingredients in skin-whitening products in the local market: papaya extract, glutathione and kojic acid.
Papaya, according to the cosmetic surgeon, contains the papain enzyme that’s nutrient- and vitamin-rich, with essential minerals that help exfoliate the skin. It’s effective in repairing damaged skin, and lightening dark and tanned skin. It can also help reduce wrinkles. It does not, however, have the ability to inhibit melanin, she explained.
Glutathione, meanwhile, is an antioxidant that occurs naturally in the body or can be derived from plants and meats. It clears the body of toxins and free radicals to boost the immune system. One of its effects is skin whitening. This tripeptide decreases in the body as one ages, Dr. Torralba-Garcia said.
The third, kojic acid, is a natural byproduct compound of fermented Japanese rice wine or sake. It inhibits the activity of tyrosinase, the body’s melanin-producing enzyme.
Its benefits include brightening one’s complexion and helping reduce hyperpigmentation, like in people with acne scars, said Dr. Torralba-Garcia. It’s effective in removing age and sunspots. Products containing kojic acid also have a longer shelf life as it’s a natural preservative that’s used in food and cosmetics, she added.
Kojic acid is the key ingredient of Kojiesan soap, the flagship product of Beauty Elements Ventures Inc., a Filipino company founded in 2007. It’s touted as the no. 1 kojic soap in the market. It’s other ingredient is high-grade virgin coconut oil.
Dr. Torralba-Garcia swears by the safety of kojic acid versus other active ingredients in skin lightening products in the market.
However, one must take certain things into consideration when using such products, she advised. Anyone using a melanin-inhibiting product can become photosensitive, or can easily burn under the sun. One must rest the skin for certain periods between use.
“If you don’t have melanin in the skin, you don’t have the natural barrier that protects you from the sun’s UV rays,” she said. “It’s like baby skin that’s exposed, so you have to watch out for sensitivities. Make sure to protect yourself with a moisturizer and sunblock.”
She added, “Ideally, use the kojic soap continuously for two weeks, rest your skin for two weeks, then resume again, because the natural peeling of the skin happens in 3-4 weeks. Let it rest to give it a breather so as not to disturb the natural peeling process of the skin. It’s more beneficial in the long term.”
The acidity of the active ingredient aids in the natural exfoliation of the skin, and it’s one of kojic acid’s benefit, she said.
It’s safe to commence a kojic acid regimen by age 16, “when you’re becoming less prone to sensitivity and are gearing toward adulthood,” the doctor said. Pregnant women must take precaution, even as there are no studies that prove it’s harmful for their delicate condition. If you’re sunburnt, make sure skin is healed first; same for people with underlying skin conditions like psoriasis. “It’s a no-no. Skin must be a healthy skin.”
If you’re already using peeling ingredients or other chemicals like hydroquinone or retinol, it’s advised to rest the skin for at least two months before using kojic acid products.
“Those are products that inhibit melanin in a faster but more hazardous way,” she said. “Remember that hydroquinone has a rebound effect. If you use it for three months and stop, your skin gets darker. We doctors call it darker with a vengeance, it’s harder to treat. You’ll need laser treatment for that.”
Under a kojic acid regimen, one can achieve up to a couple of shades lighter skin, said the doctor. Your lightest natural skintone are those areas in your body that are not exposed to the sun.
“To some degree, yes you can be lighter than your natural skin. But it’s not advisable,” she said. “If you want to do that, you’ll need harsher ingredients, like chemical peeling. Kojic acid is for natural peeling where, over time, the end result is more natural-looking. It’s not very pale. If you’re morena, don’t expect to be [snow-white]. If you’re Asian, you can’t target to have Caucasian skin.”
If you’re looking to lighten specific areas in your body, like the knees, elbows or armpits, Dr. Torralba-Garcia said you may want to consider isolating treatment on those problem areas.
“If you use the product for your entire body, the lightening occurs at the same time, so the problem areas will end up looking still darker than the already lighter parts, because the cell turnover rate is the same time.”
Kojiesan has a range of other skin-lightening products to complement the soap: cleanser-toner, face cream and body lotion. It has been awarded Bath Soap Brand of the Year for five years running by Watsons Health & Beauty Awards.