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 Asian countries.

What bihaku products do NOT do:

  • They do not give skin a whitened appearance!
  • They will not permanently or temporarily alter the natural skin colour you were born with. They cannot 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 and 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 an 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.

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 a 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 a 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 the 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 a 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 the mid-1990s and it is a naturally occurring polyphenols found in certain plants. Its mechanism is similar to kojic acid. Source

E.g. of a 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 continues to be widely used.

E.g. of a 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 by 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 equally as popular and has been used as an active for as long as Vitamin C in Japan. It used to be bovine-derived but due to concern over Mad Cow Disease, it is now derived from pig or plant when used in beauty products.

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

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

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

E.g. of a 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 a lot of common actives used for fading hyperpigmentation not listed (banned ingredients aside).

Popular actives like dipotassium glycyrrhizate, liquorice, 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 labeled/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.

If you are finding this English content outside of RatzillaCosme.com, then the site is guilty of plagiarism! RatzillaCosme does not participate in paid product placement posts. If you buy something I link on my site, RatzillaCosme may earn a small commission.

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Melissa A Randall
Melissa A Randall
10 months ago

What would you suggest for a good body lotion? I’ve searched to NO avail for “sake” containing body lotion, but no luck. Other than “the face shop” had a line, but it ezpired in 2016. Kojie san soap just didn’t work very well for me. I used it daily for about 6 months to fade a stubborn arm perma tan Anyways…any suggestions perhaps?

Melissa Randall
Melissa Randall
8 months ago
Reply to  G. Haruka

I chose sake because of the kojic acid/sake similar effects on skin supposedly. I just haven’t had much luck yet…Do you have any recommendations for a body lotion for fading a tan?

Erika
Erika
4 years ago

Hi, I am 25 years old and I had a lot acne when I was a teenager, I took a treatment with issotretinoin but at the end I have dark spots in my cheeks, I guess I got them because the hormone and the sun, I am using a hydro quinine cream many times but it is not working so I would like to try a Japanese product.

TashK
TashK
4 years ago

Hi there! I love your site, its so helpful! I had a few questions though! First, what products would you recommend for someone who is looking to lighten/even/brighten skin tone (both face and body)? I’m mainly interested in a product that would fade any tan/color I might accidentally get from the sun and help fade any minor hyperpigmentation/freckling that might develop from it. I have very fair, porcelain skin that burns easily, normal to combination (I wouldn’t want anything too moisturizing but ideally would prefer to avoid alcohol if possible- if thats not possible though, I’ll tolerate some alcohol in… Read more »

carterchan
carterchan
5 years ago

Since you mentioned these are quasi-drugs are they allowed to be purchased from sites like Ichibankao to be shipped to US? I see them sold all over the internet and mentioned as normal skincare (OTC stuff, so not sure where the distinction is). Is there anywhere I can read up on the Japan-US purchase laws? Thanks for all your information as always!

carterchan
carterchan
5 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

Gotcha, yeah I would just be purchasing as a customer so didn’t know where the rules were for that. I have not purchased any products labeled bihaku yet so…Anyways thank you again for your quick response!

Shondra Williams
Shondra Williams
5 years ago

Which actives would you recommend to a black female with old chickenpox and acne scars?

Shondra Williams
Shondra Williams
5 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

Pigmentation issues. I use to see a dermatologist but he was more into old fashioned stuff and doesn’t do stuff he considers cosmetic treatments. I use sunscreen, did the C20 serum for a while. So I thought I would look to Japan for help in fading my scars.

Shondra Williams
Shondra Williams
5 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

Those sound good. It’s too bad I can’t show you my profile pictures I take as a way of monitoring any progress in scar lightening. I wish I could afford to try the HABA Medicated White Lady. I was wondering what do you think of tranexamic? I was thinking about buying a box of Kose tranexamic daily sheet masks.

Shondra Williams
Shondra Williams
5 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

Oh ok. Are there any other recommendations or product suggestions (I’m ordering daily mask from Rakuten and wanted to make sure I get the right masks with the right actives)?

ann
ann
5 years ago

i lived here in dubai uae,,where i can purchase your skin whitening pills and skin whitening cream??is there any shop here in dubai??

violet5348@aol.com
4 years ago
Reply to  ann

Dear Ann, can you tell me where I could buy a whitening pills & cream? I do appreciate very much if you can tell me because I have sooo much dark spot on my face arm neck & other parts of my body. Thank you.

Chispa
Chispa
6 years ago

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.

Sawasawa
Sawasawa
6 years ago

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/ ,… Read more »

Sawasawa
Sawasawa
6 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

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.

Sawasawa
Sawasawa
6 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

Wow sounds great! Thank you so much!

violet
violet
4 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

where I can buy Tonymoly?

Sawasawa
Sawasawa
6 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

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… Read more »

Sawasawa
Sawasawa
6 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

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.

Veny
Veny
6 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

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

simo
simo
7 years ago

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… Read more »

JaneG
JaneG
7 years ago

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.

JaneG
JaneG
7 years ago
Reply to  Ratzilla

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.

angeljc
angeljc
7 years ago

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.. 🙂

angeljc
angeljc
7 years ago

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.. 🙂

Hirohaha
Hirohaha
7 years ago

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.

abyadhari
abyadhari
7 years ago
Reply to  G. Haruka

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

abyadhari
abyadhari
7 years ago
Reply to  G. Haruka

thanks a lot!
many thanks 🙂 im ging to HAC now

eno
eno
8 years ago

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.… Read more »

Glamour
Glamour
8 years ago

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

Pedro
Pedro
8 years ago

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

michu
michu
8 years ago

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! 🙂

Daniela
Daniela
8 years ago

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
Daniela
8 years ago

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

Joseane
Joseane
9 years ago

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

Cristal Cox
Cristal Cox
3 years ago
Reply to  RatzillaCosme

What are the best physical non matte sunscreens?

Joseane
Joseane
9 years ago

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

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