• Bihaku — Japanese Skin Whitening Products

    japanese whitening products
    Bihaku is a Japanese word that refers to skin whitening or brightening function in beauty products. It literally means “beautiful white”.

    Most probably know that whitening beauty products are HUGE in Japan (as well as other Asian countries). It is sort of like the Asian-equivalent of anti-wrinkle products.

    For clarity’s sake, I’m using bihaku here to clearly differentiate Japanese products from other varieties.

    What bihaku products are NOT:

    • They do not give skin a whitened appearance.
    • They will not permanently or temporarily alter the natural skin colour you were born with. They will not lighten your natural light brown skin to an alabaster shade.
    • They do not contain hydroquinone, mercury, or lead! These ingredients are illegal in beauty products in Japan.

    Function/Purpose of bihaku products:

    There’re slight variations depending on the active(s) used but they all help prevent and fade hyperpigmentation. Pretty much everyone, no matter the age, sex, skin type, or skin tone can greatly benefit from these products.

    • Treat (and sometimes also help prevent) localised hyperpigmentation like melasma, acne marks, freckles, age spots, and dark spots.
    • Help fade and prevent a tan.
    • Brighten and even overall skin tone.

    It is automatically assumed (since it is rarely written on the packaging) that users also practice sun avoidance and use proper sun protection daily in addition to using these products. Not doing so can cause adverse effect!

    Bihaku Quasi-Drugs

    Quasi-drug is considered a medication and it has a restricted purpose of use. Most bihaku products are categorised as quasi-drugs in Japan so standard laws and import (personal and business) restrictions do apply just like any other medications!

    For bihaku quasi-drugs, they contain active ingredient(s) that are approved by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) to be effective (and safe) for preventing or improving on hyperpigmentation.

    These products have stricter ingredient labelling regulations than regular products. For example, if a product contains regular zinc oxide, micronised zinc oxide, and silicone-coated zinc oxide, each has to be clearly identified on the ingredient list in order of quantity instead of simply grouping them together on the labelling as ‘zinc oxide’.

    Bihaku actives approved by MHLW that are developed in Japan

    They all reduce hyperpigmentation but the process differs. As you can see the chart below, it’s best to pick active(s) that will best treat the type of hyperpigmentation you have.

    The chart from American Academy of Family Physicians summarises the different causes and the process of hyperpigmentation. Quick Definition: Melanin = pigment, Melanocytes = pigment-producing cells

    My sources of info are linked if you are interested in scientific studies and journals which explain each in details. Hover your cursor over the links for more info.

    These are all the actives approved for treating hyperpigmentation:

    • 4-(4-Hydroxyphenyl)-2-butanol (4-HPB) → It inhibits melanin production.

    Developed by Kanebo in 2007 and it is a has been shown to be effective for treating UV-induced hyperpigmentation and brightening and evening overall skin tone. source

    • 4-n-Butylresorcinol (Rucinol) → It inhibits melanin production.

    Developed by Pola in 1998 and it has been shown to be particularly effective for treating melasma. source, source 2, source 3

    E.g. of product with this as main active: POLA White Shot W

    • 5,5-Dipropyl-biphenyl-2,2-diol (Magnolignan) → It decreases melanin production to treat UV-induced and hormone/medication-induced hyperpigmentation.

    Developed by Kanebo in 2005 and it is a type of polyphenol with a similar structure as Japanese whitebark magnolia. source, source 2, source 3

    E.g. of product with this as main active: Kanebo Impress IC White Returnery

    • Adenosine Monophosphate Disodium Salt (AMP) → It prevents accumulation of melanin in the skin.

    Developed by Otsuka Pharmaceutical in 2004 and it speeds up cellular renewal rate to help in skin rejuvenation. source

    E.g. of product with this as main active: InnerSignal Rejuvenate Clear-up Mask

    • Arbutin → It inhibits melanin production.

    Developed by Shiseido in the late 1980s and it is a natural derivative of hydroquinone but it is non-cytotoxic. Source, Source 2

    See products that contain this as an active ingredient: HERE

    • Chamomilla Extract → anti-inflammatory agent. It inhibits UV-induced hyperpigmentation.

    Developed by Kao in late 1990s and it is the only whitening active from botanical extracts approved in Japan. It inhibits melanin synthesis in melanocytes. Source

    E.g. of product with this as main active: Curél Whitening Moisture Essence

    • Ellagic Acid → It inhibits melanin production to treat UV-induced hyperpigmentation.

    Developed by Lion Corporation in mid 1990s and it is a naturally occurring polyphenols found in certain plants. Its mechanism is similar to kojic acid. Source

    E.g. of product with this as main active: Helena Rubinstein Age White Reverser Superior Serum (a.k.a. AG White Reverser Concentrate).

    • Kojic Acid → antibacterial agent. It inhibits melanin production with very mild antioxidative effect.

    Developed in the late 1980s and it is a by-product of Japanese sake’s fermentation process. In 2003, MHLW briefly warned against using kojic acid due to the possible carcinogenic effects but after further revaluation in 2005, it has been deemed safe as a cosmetic ingredient and continue to be widely used.

    E.g. of product with this as main active: Albion IGNIS Whitening Concentrate Energist

    • Linoleic Acid → It suppresses melanin production and accelerates skin cell turnover to treat UV-induced pigmentation.

    Developed by Sunstar Inc in 2001 and it is an unsaturated fatty acid derived from hydrolyzed plant oils. Source, Source 2

    • m-Tranexamic Acid → It targets spots to suppress melanin production to treat UV-induced hyperpigmentation and it improves skin roughness caused environmental factors.

    Developed by Shiseido in 2002 and it is also used orally to treat melasma. Source

    See products that contain this as an active ingredient: HERE

    • Placental Extract/Protein → It accelerates skin cellular renewal rate to remove pigmentation.

    It is equality as popular and has been used as an active for as long as Vitamin C in Japan. It used to be bovine (cow) -derived but due to concern over Mad Cow Disease, it is now derived from swine (pig). Despite the strong presence in bihaku products, placental extract has been to shown to increase melanin production.

    E.g. of product with this as main active: SOLANOVEIL Medicated Bihaku Milk

    • Potassium Methoxy Salicylate (4MSK) → It reduces melanin production.

    Developed by Shisieido in 2003 and its mechanism is similar to arbutin.

    E.g. of product with this as main active: Shiseido HAKU Melanofocus W

    • Vitamin C → It prevents UV-induced hyperpigmentation by its antioxidative nature.

    Ascorbic acid and its derivatives are the most popular actives in Japan and they have been used since the late 1980s. Many Japanese companies have developed their own ascorbic acid derivatives. E.g. magnesium sodium L-ascorbic acid 2-phosphate, L-ascorbic acid 2-glucoside (AA2G), L-ascorbic acid ethyl ester

    See products that contain this as an active ingredient: HERE

    What about the other actives?

    Some of you probably noticed that there’re quite of lot of common actives used for fading hyperpigmentation not listed (banned actives aside).

    Popular actives like dipotassium glycyrrhizate, licorice and all other plant extracts, AHA, retinoids, etc. are all not (yet) approved by the MHLW for skin lightening.

    What does that mean? Those ingredients can still be used BUT… without adding at least one of the approved actives, those products are not allowed to be labelled/classified as a medication for treating hyperpigmentation. Which implies to the Japanese consumers that they’re not as effective for treating hyperpigmentation (regular cosmetics VS quasi-drugs).

    There’re generally 2 reasons why an active is not approved:

    1. The active is deemed not effective enough.
    2. An approval request for the active has not been submitted to the MHLW.

    • Chispa

      I am so sorry, this is so in-depth and informative but I still had a question. I looked at your chart and through your list of actives and what they do, but I was confused as to which actives help fade a tan. Would that be any of the ones that say “reduces melanin production” next to them? Thanks in advance and sorry again.

      • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

        Yes, although the majority of them are intended to treat localised discolouration like dark spots. For fading a tan, vitamin C (and its derivatives) is a good choice. A good sunscreen everyday is essential regardless of the active(s) you use.

    • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

      The recall is concerning all products that contain Rhododenol (4-HPB), a whitening quasi-drug active ingredient by Kanebo. Impress IC’s makeup removers and cleansers do not contain any actives.

    • Sawasawa

      Would you be able to recommend bihaku products for the body? Soap, cream, lotion etc does not matter to me. I browsed your page that lists the hyperpigmentation products on your site and the ones I looked at seemed to be for the face. The only other thing I have been able to find that looks remotely legit is Tokyo Love body whitening soap, but lots of the reviewers said that it dries out their skin and makes them peel. If that’s the only thing out there I’m game to try it since I have hyperpigmentation similar to: http://www.bioskinoil.co.uk/article/bio-oil-skincare-uses/ , as well as just uneven tan from a while ago that I would like to fade so I can just be all one color. Also, do Japanese (or atleast those concerned with hyperpigmentation and/or using whitening products on body) wear sunscreen under their clothes? I read normal clothes generally only have a upf of about 8, or is that just American clothes and Japanese clothes are made with higher spf/upf?

      • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

        Whitening products for the body aren’t common. The most effective thing is to treat the skin on your body the same way as you do for the face. I personally use face products on the body.

        • Sawasawa

          Oh wow, is that also done everyday? Although I’m assuming once a day or is it twice a day like face also? May I ask what products you personally use on your body(if you don’t mind my asking)? Also, sorry for all the questions, hyperpigmention is such a confidence killer so this is really helpful to me and I really appreciate it.

          • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

            I use whatever products I don’t like for my face on my body, so the specifics change all the time. I use lotions, serums, moisturisers (depends on what I’m trying to get rid of) on areas that constantly get exposed to the environment.

            The only “special” thing I do is I apply diluted Retin-A cream (mixed with hand cream) on the back of my hands.

            • Sawasawa

              Wow sounds great! Thank you so much!

        • Sawasawa

          I tried out that Tonymoly whitening serum you wrote a best pick review of on my body, and went through it so fast haha. I knew I would of course, even though I didn’t use it on my whole body, but was wondering if you could recommend some options that are a bit more economical? I really like the Medicated Sekkisei lotion, does mixing that in with some body moisturizer then applying that to the body sound like it would be ineffective or a bad idea for any reason? And are there any lip whitening products out there? When I was younger I was quite bad about lip sun protection, or any sun protection, and I’ve been covering my lips when I do my lotion mask, but after a while my lips get really cold (not just because of something wet on it, but really really cold) and I’m starting to wonder if I’m not supposed to do that. It doesn’t hurt, but I just want to make sure it’s not bad for me or anything. Also I’ve been looking for lip protection on Rakuten, and a bunch of them say “uv cut” but give no spf number or pa rating. What exactly does just “uv cut” and nothing else mean?

          • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

            I don’t see the benefit in mixing the Medicated Sekkisei lotion. You’re just diluting it.

            Lips dont have melanin; they don’t tan, so applying whitening agents that work by inhibiting melanin production (i.e. most whitening actives in Japan) is pointless.

            • Sawasawa

              Oh ok I see thanks :] I’ve never applied just a liquid to my body before maybe I’ll try using a cotton square to try putting it on. That’s so interesting about the lips I have something that looks like sun spots on them but I must have been mistaken. Thank you very much.

    • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

      What product are you talking about?

      • Veny

        Hi…I am talking about the whitening bihaku product… Thank you!!

        • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

          I still don’t know what product you’re referring to as my article is about Japanese whitening products in general, not a review on a specific product. Where to buy would depends on which exact product you’re talking about. The link here (http://www.ratzillacosme.com/sos/hyperpigmentation/) is all the products for hyperpigmentation listed in the site.

    • simo

      Hello, I just stumbled upon your website and I am literally blown away. Wooaa great info!!! Thank you so much for doing this. I am too battling some melasma spots (probably from hormones and/or BC). I have not used HQ and the idea just sounds terrible. I am trying retinoids but I peel like hell. Is there anything from the Japanese market that I should give it a try? I noticed you mentioned AHA and mandelic acid to a prev. question. How about the Neostrata level 2. Do you think that would do it? I got here because I was researching sunscreen. I can’t wait to try your recommendations Allie and Biore. I just recently got Anessa and my combo skin seems to be OK with it.

      • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

        Thanks Simo — retinoids are geat if you can get pass the initial adjustment stage. If you’re skin is peeling like crazy, it’s best to either cut back or try a lower strength (if you’re already using it every other day).

        Neostrata Level 2 has 8% glycolic acid and 2% BHA, but no mandelic acid (a type of AHA). Mandelic acid is said to be one of the most effective treatments for melasma (more so than retinoids) so I would suggest try giving that a try.

        Also according a clinical trial study, many people have success fading melasma with Pycnogenol supplements. Here is a study if you want to read more about it http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12237816

    • JaneG

      Hello, I recently visited Japan and purchased some cosmetics. The shopping assistant recommended me Kanebo impress and Shiseido elixir white. I bought it not knowing that it is whitening products. I do not have a big problem with skin pigmentation, even though past year I started noticing tiny freckles after being in the sun (I use sun screen). I don’t know should I use these products or not, as word “medicated” and “quasi drug” is a bit off putting. Can it do any harm? Any advise would be very welcome. Thank you.

      • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

        I would suggest reading this post again, as everything you asked has been addressed already.

        If you have find them “off putting” as you said, then perhaps just use something else? There’re countless non-medicated, non-quasi-drug, non-whitening skincare products available in Japan (in all price range).

        • JaneG

          There are not much information on side effects of these products. To me it is also not completely clear whether people without pigmentation problem should use it if its used for treatment. On the actual kanebo website it doesn’t say much at all. I have over 500$ worth of cosmetics so its not a matter of one bottle of lotion.

          • http://www.ratzillacosme.com/ Ratzilla

            Side effects of the active ingredient(s) or the products? These are beauty products not drugs. Just like any other skin care products, results (and adverse effects) will vary.

            You can always do your own research on the ingredients used in whatever products you’re using.

            Quasi-drug is a classification used in Japan only. In another countries, these drug-drug produst are just regular cosmetics.

    • angeljc

      hello there, I’m right now in Japan and just like the others here, i’m wondering what creams or facial wash would be best for me. I’m prone to having pimples. Visiting the stores here just frustrates me since almost all products are in Japanese characters. So what can you recommend me? I want to have a supple, bright, smooth face.. haha, And I hope the product is just cheap. Looking forward to your reply. thank you.. You’ve been a huge help to those people here.. :-)

    • http://gravatar.com/angelicacusay angeljc

      hello there, I’m right now in Japan and just like the others here, i’m wondering what creams or facial wash would be best for me. I’m prone to having pimples. Visiting the stores here just frustrates me since almost all products are in Japanese characters. So what can you recommend me? I want to have a supple, bright, smooth face.. haha, And I hope the product is just cheap. Looking forward to your reply. thank you.. You’ve been a huge help to those people here.. :-)

      • RatzillaCosme

        Unfortunately, no one would be able to tell you what be best for your skin — other than yourself.

        My reviews can tell you what products I personally like (and why I like them), and you can use them as a starting point if it would help. Also, browsing through the cleanser section here will give you lots of options to consider.

    • Hirohaha

      Hi,
      im in Japan now
      I want to get rid these dark spots because of UV lights
      what product will you recommend me?

      im not using sunscreen now, i do my daily regimen with Orbis (wash-lotion-serum), only for moisturizing, since I work daily, indoor. I also do not wear make up.

      • http://www.ratzillacosme.com ratzilla

        Unless you work in a windowless environment and you don’t step foot outside during the day, you’re exposed to plenty of UV rays, especically the dark spot-causing kind (UVA). Using a sunscreen daily is a must to prevent existing dark spots from worsening and also prevent new ones. Some treatments also make skin more sensitive to the sun. There is no point in using dark spot treatments if you’re not using good sun protection daily. It’s one step forward, two steps back. There’s myriad of sunscreens formulated especially for daily use in Japan. I would strongly recommend getting yourself a high protection sunscreen that you can use daily first.

        • http://shiroarishiroari.wordpress.com abyadhari

          thank you :)
          im getting myself sara2 SkinAqua.
          what about the dark spots? any product recommendation?

          • http://www.ratzillacosme.com ratzilla

            Shiseido Haku Melanofocus W, Shu Uemura Tsuya Youthful Radiance Generator Essence, Rohto’s Mentholatum MelanoCC, and HABA White Lady all are excellent in their own way depending on your budget.

            • http://gravatar.com/ajengpramono abyadhari

              thanks a lot!
              many thanks :) im ging to HAC now

    • eno

      Hello! I use Kanebo Blanchir regularly, and I noticed that the latest version (Blanchir Superior) have no parabens in the written ingredients. Although some sites stated parabens are save, I prefer to stay away from it as much as possible because of hyperestrogen possibility. Parabens are everywhere (tooth paste, shampoo, body lotion), and the more containing-daily products we use the more our body absorb it. I only need to fade tan on my face, so I used to apply half pump of Blanchir Conclusion in the morning only (instead of two pumps twice a day as recommended), and it works. But I can’t find the Conclusion Superior (without paraben) nearby, and there was Hada Labo (still with paraben). Is it wise to use Blanchir regiments (magnolignan) combined with Hada Labo Whitening Essence (arbutin)? Can you inform me about parabens regulations in Japan? I use SPF 50+++ everyday, very very very hot here. Thank you. Your site is so informative to me.

      • http://www.ratzillacosme.com ratzilla

        Parabens are approved for use in cosmetics in Japan. Ingredients that are replacing parabens are far worse as many are formaldehyde releasers or lack longterm testing and research. Chemist Corner has 2 very good articles on this subject, “What is Wrong With a Cosmetic Company Caving to Fearmongers?” and “The 12 Most Maligned Cosmetic Ingredients“. Personally, I feel the city air I breathe and my reliance on mobile phone will affect my health faster (or far worse) than parabens will.

        As far as I know, there is no adverse effect combining Magnolignan with arbutin.

    • Glamour

      I have dark skin and want to lighten and even my skin tone. What would you recommend as a gradual lightening skin treatment?

      • http://www.ratzillacosme.com ratzilla

        You want to fade a tan or lighten your natural skin colour? Japanese whitening products cannot do the latter. Using a highly protective sunscreen (not SPF in makeup) daily is a must no matter what treatment you use.

    • Pedro

      Hi. I’ve read here* now hydroquinone is allowed in Japan. Is it true? TKS.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904932/#b14-ijms-11-02566

      • http://www.ratzillacosme.com ratzilla

        Hydroquinone itself is legal (and has been for years) but only as a topical medication from the pharmacies. It’s not permitted for use in cosmetics (including ‘quasi-drug’ skincare products) so you’ll not find it in Japanese whitening products.

    • michu

      Hi! im currently residing in japan and i really want to get lighter whiter skin! what is the best whitening lotion/ pill/ soap i could use cause i really want fast effects. THANK YOU! and your blog is the best that ive seen when it comes to japanese cosmetics! :)

      • http://ratzillacosme.com ratzilla

        There is no “best” as results will always vary in the end. Also, it depends on why you want “lighter whiter skin”. Are you trying to fade acne marks, freckles, melasma, etc.? Are you trying to fade a tan? If so, what is your current skincare routine and do you wear a highly protective sunscreen daily? Even the most potent products will take time (few weeks minimum) to work and they will not prevent your skin from developing more if you’re not taking preventative measures.

        Or you have none of these problems and just want lighter skin? You will not be able to lighten your skin beyond the natural skin colour that you are born with using Japanese whitening skincare products. There are no products that can safely do that.

    • Daniela

      Thanks for the answer. I’m already using hidroquinone 4% to sleep with, in Brazil it is legal, my idea with the allie whitening is only to help the effects of hidroquinone, my brazilian sunscreens are so oily and even the oil control types are greasy, and they don’t help me to keep the whitening effect. After allie whitening I will try Biore UV perfect or Biore bright milk, to get de matte effect. thank you very much. Daniela

    • Daniela

      Hy, could you recomend me a whitening sunscreen with matte finish? I bought Kanebo Allie Whitening and I am wating for, I am from Brazil and ordered on Ichibankao. Did I choose well? thanks. daniela

      • http://ratzillacosme.com Ratzilla

        In my opinion, whitening active ingredients in sunscreens will not do very much as they too far away from the skin. Between your bare skin and the sunscreen, you most likely have on serum and moisturizer. These products will act as buffer. Active ingredients need be as close to the skin as possible to be the most effective. Kanebo Allie sunscreens are excellent but I highly doubt the Whitening version will make a difference on the skin (compared to Allie’s other non-Whitening sunscreens).

    • Joseane

      Thanks forthe feedback
      I do not speak English well, I’ll try google translator
      I’m using during the day classis
      Sofina sunscreen and white 50+++
      The night use day in and day hidroquinona 4% solaquin
      And alternate whit retinóic acid
      And alternate dermelan
      My problem is due to contraceptive use since 1997, I have polycystic ovaries, if I stop using the pimples pop up on the head.
      I do not know what to do whit these horrible spots, thanks you very much

      • http://ratzillacosme.com Ratzilla

        Unfortunately, melasma is a documented side effect with all birth control pills. I would recommend retinoid, AHA, etc. and a good sunscreen… but you’re already using them.

        I cannot speak from experience but I have read from others suffering from melasma that mandelic acid can be quite helpful. It also seems that using a physical-only sunscreen with high zinc oxide content (instead of a chemical sunscreen) can make a big difference. Perhaps give them a try if you haven’t yet?

    • Joseane

      Boa tarde, sou brasileira e tenho problemas com melasmas na face. Trato há mais de 6 anos e não consigo ter uma melhora.
      Já fiz peelings, lazers luz pulsada LIP, CO2 e uso clareadores e hidroquinona a anos.
      Gostaria de encontrar a cura dessa doença de pele.
      No Brasil é tudo muito caro e sem resultados.
      obrigado

      • http://ratzillacosme.com Ratzilla

        Meu português é pobre,,,, espero que você possa me entender em inglês.
        Melasma is hard to treat. What are you using on your skin now? Do you use a sunscreen daily? If so, which one?