Is “brightening” in Japanese skincare skin bleach!?

If you go to Japan – or other places in Asia for that matter – you will come across words like “skin brightening” or “beautifully white” on skin products. For tourists coming from a more western background, it is not uncommon to associate these words with the harmful chemical skin whitening that we hear about on the news…

…but honestly, it’s not the same thing and I need to set the record straight.

No, these products are not skin bleach!!!

Ana Sobu / Ana A Raisin
2013 Kanebo lawsuit. Credit : GettyImages

I’m not going to deny that upon reading up for this article I did come across some issues and lawsuits in the past.

According to The Japan Times, the cosmetic company Kanebo had to recall an entire line of their whitening products in July 2013 after over 10,000 users reported white blotches appearing on their skin. This ended in Kanebo getting taken to court and having to pay compensation.

However, that doesn’t really happen nowadays and there have been no recent court cases and I was hard-pressed to find anything negative.

After the Kanebo incident, stricter regulations on the ingredients in “whitening” beauty products were put in place with only 14 different whitening agents being allowed. These whitening quasi-drugs (QDs) contain ‘active ingredients that prevent or improve hyperpigmentation in disorders, such as melasma and solar lentigo’, but they do not change the skin colour you are born with.

Harmful ingredients, like hydroquinone, mercury, and lead for example, are illegal in Japan. I read on the Wagamama Diaries‘ blog that hydroquinone (ハイドロキノン) can actually result in an untreatable skin condition called ochronosis!

Additionally, these sorts of products must all be approved by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

Interesting to note :

Due to Japan being a high uncertainty avoidance culture, many Japanese companies like Shiseido – one of the biggest cosmetic companies in Japan) are eager to avoid any lawsuits and so are often more careful than most countries.

There is also the idea that skincare is something traditional in Japan, so those in that market tend to be more dedicated to producing quality in their products.

Okay, so if these products don’t actually make your skin look “whiter”, why do they even say that on the label then?

Bihaku culture vs. tanning culture

Ana Sobu / Ana A Raisin

While the Brits go bonkers at the slightest hint of good weather and leap outside in their bikinis, only to get hideous sunburns, the Japanese idea of “beauty” seems to go completely the other way…

In the UK, we often hear of the chemical skin bleaching culture in black communities where it’s all about drastically altering your skin tone to be whiter and whiter. I must warn you, however, that if this is what you are looking for from Japanese skin “whitening” products, you are wasting your time.

The concept behind skin “brightening” or “whitening” in Japan is fundamentally different to this on so many levels. In Japanese skincare, it is not about forcing your skin to be so-and-so shades lighter than what you were born with, it all about working your way up to the whitest point your skin can be naturally.

If you go down a beauty aisle in a Japanese drugstore, you will see marketing terms like…

  • “Beautiful white” (美白, bihaku)
  • “Care for beautiful white skin” (美白ケア, bihaku kea)
  • “Care for rough skin” (肌荒れケア, hadāre kea)
  • “Brightening” (ブライトニング, buraitoningu)
  • “Beautiful white cosmetics” (美白コスメ, bihaku kosume)
  • “Beautiful white make-up” (美白化粧品, bihaku keshōhin)
  • You can see the term “whitening” (ホワイトニング, howaitoningu) being used, but not very often for beauty products as people associate the term more with teeth whitening in Japan.

The advert at a drugstore that I translated above really outlines what these whitening products are seeking to help you with :

  1. White skin (inhibiting the production of melanin)
  2. Skin dullness (encouraging cell turnover)
  3. Blemishes / freckles (pigementation, discolouration, sunspots, dark circles, etc.)
  4. Texture / Acne scars (minimising any scarring/pores, and also having mochi hada/”rice-cake skin”, which means having a supple bouncy feel to your skin)
  5. Skin radiance/glow (basically “glass skin”)
  6. *Protect (just wear SPF and cover up)

Ultimately, the aim of the game to to simply take care of your skin and its youth so that you have a head start before the ageing process kicks in.

Interesting to note :

Tomizawa Yōko, a researcher at Pola Research Institute of Beauty and Culture, actually says that the alabaster “white” was not quite the tone that Japanese were going for…

‘The tone the Japanese seek to achieve is not milky white but translucent, like a polished stone.’ In other ways, they sought to accentuate their natural beauty rather than change it.

But… why do they want “whiter” skin? Do they want to look “white” like caucasians?

Japanese traditions and beauty values

First of all, it is not because Japanese people want to be “white” like white people. People might be confusing Japan with places like the Philippines – a previous Spanish then American colony – where this idea did exist. The issues and history on this is introduced very well in this documentary by CNA Insider.

The beauty ideal in Japan, however, of having pale or white skin has existed for over 1,000 years and was there long before any white-looking foreigners ever came to Japan.

Credit: julianne.hide / Shutterstock

The trend for white skin can be traced back to the late 8th century in the Heian Era in Japan (平安時代, heian jidai). Higher-class Japanese would use lead powder while the lower-classes would use rice or chesnut powder to get the white complexion. The aristocracy or imperial family would also even blacken their teeth (お歯黒, o-haguro). Well, until this practice was made obselete in 1870. Thankfully, after the 1900s, safer skin products were produced.

This is all frankly not too dissimilar to the Elizabethean period in England when Queen Elizabeth I would slather toxic lead on her face.

These are just a few of the sociological theories that attempt to explain this popularity of pale skin in Japan…

  1. It’s all about status (a bit like how it was in the Tudor times in England too). Having white skin will show that you are rich enough to be able to stay out of the sun.
  2. It’s all about fitting in. In such a historically homogenous society like Japan, having “darker” skin is a sign that you are different from the rest, that you are “other” (which is partly why people from Okinawa were not seen as “Japanese” for a long time). Because of not wanting to stand out, Japanese people then try to maintain a lighter complexion.
  3. It’s all about maintaining or regaining their youth. Women actively avoid sun exposure with parasols (日傘, higasa), put layers of clothing/gloves even during the summer, and never go out without SPF. They want to protect their youthfull looks because they know that the asian skin has a propensity to get sun spots, which is the bane of a middle-aged Japanese woman’s existence).

Some sociologists have taken the idea that pale skin in Japan is linked to traditions a bit further, linking it to a trend among young women in Japan for darker skin…

This trend was called “Ganguro” (ガングロ) and it took off at around the late ’90s to the early 2000s. The expression “Ganguro” itself actually comes from “gangankuro” (ガンガン黒), meaning “so dark it gives you a headache”.

Sociologists tend to interpret this movement as an anti-tradition one that was basically an act of rebellion against the Japanese traditional norms of having fair paler skin. This desire for women to want to break this image is seen as the younger generation feeling frustrated at the expectations of conformity in the Japanese homogenous society. In this way, sociologists then argue that the ‘bihaku culture’ reflects the attitude of conformity in Japan.

In any case, be it due to the media latching onto this 1,000 year old beauty ideal and promoting it in the media, or for health reasons (to prevent cancer, etc.), this desire for white, pale, clear skin still persists in Japan!

Best Japanese brightening products!

A few of the best skin whitening or brightening products I’ve tried ^_^

Remember these are products, I’ve tried and feel I can recommend to perhaps consider buying. I am aware that the Takami Vitamin C product in particular is a little more on the expensive side, but just bear in mind that there are cheaper options out there too! I just felt it was the best.

Vitamin C (ビタミンC誘導体, bitamin-shi- yūdōdai) :

It is better to start on a lower vitamin C percentage and work your way up like you do with retinols, but I found the Takami ampoule really gentle and effective. Vitamin C basically minimising dark pigmentation by focusing on preventing production of melanin (because of this, always wear SPF after using this if you go out).

Kojic Acid (コウジ酸, kōji-san) :

This is another one that helps with hyperpigmentation and prevents breakouts (it comes from rice). I picked up this keana rice mask without thinking very much of it at the time, but I can say it’s one of the nicest sheet masks I’ve tried!

Niacinamide or nicotinamide (ニコチンアミド / ニコチン酸アミド, nikochinamido / nikochin-san-amido)

Honestly, this is one of my go-to products when I have any dark spots or scars on my skin. If I had to choose only one product, I’d probably have to choose the COSRX white ampoule because I found that it was not too expensive and actually gave results (be patient though).

Other whitening products :

  • Arbutin (アルブチン, arubuchin)
  • 4MSK / Potassium 4-Methoxysalicylate (よんエムエスケイ, yon-emu-isu-kei)
  • Tranexamic acid (トラネキサム酸, toranekisemu-san)
  • Chamomile ET (カモミラET, kamomira-ET)
  • Rucinol (ルシノール, rushinōru)
  • Energy Signal AMP (エナジーシグナルAMP, enajīshigunaru-anpu)
  • Ellagic acid (エラグ酸, eragu-san)
  • Linoleic acid (リノール酸, rinōru-san)
  • Placenta Extract (プラセンタエキス, purasenta-ekisu)
  • Magnolignan (マグノリグナン, magunorigunan)

Recommended further reading :

3 thoughts on “Is “brightening” in Japanese skincare skin bleach!?

  1. Thank you for linking to my blog! I really enjoyed your perspective on Japanese whitening cosmetics and how you explored the history of “white” skin in Japan!

    1. Omg thank you! That’s a big compliment that I’m not sure I deserve. :’)
      Loved that article and glad that researching this topic led me to finding your blog (your writing style is easy to read). It was key to me being able to write this article up for my sister. Hope you keep writing!

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