If you’ve ever been inside a Korean beauty road shop, or if your regular drugstore has recently added Korean beauty products to its shelves, chances are you’ve come across more than a handful of items that have the word “whiten” on them. You may find everything from cleansing foams to toners, essences and emulsions making this bold claim. While it’s true that Koreans and a majority of Asians prefer lighter skin, this word has a completely innocuous meaning especially in the K-beauty and skincare context. We break the myth down for you below:
So what do they actually mean?
The phrase “skin whitening” can give someone the distinct impression that the goal is to literally make the skin more “white” by lightening its color, typically via bleaching or some other harmful and painful method. In certain countries, typically in the Southeast Asian region where there’s a painful history of colonization, that’s exactly what it means. Having whiter skin is seen as an attractive trait and is often considered a standard of beauty, which then leads to people resorting to all kinds of measures in order to reduce the natural melanin content of their skin and make it appear whiter.
Skin whitening has a completely different definition in East Asian countries like Korea and Japan, though. Here, what they mean by “whiten” is usually to attain radiance and luminescence, similar to the finish of a white pearl. When K-beauty products have a “whitening” claim, what it usually means is that it improves the skin’s overall health and texture in order to project a glow from within.
What do the products actually do?
Products that have an explicit whitening claim, such as the Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power Essence from CosRX, are recommended for dry, dull, and more mature skin, for example. It provides deep hydration alongside a brightening effect, thanks to its all-natural galactomyces ferment filtrate component — a nutrient-dense yeast derived from the production of fermented sake, the Japanese liquor. Other whitening Korean skincare products such as creams and toners are formulated with antioxidant-rich vitamin C, or extracts from natural botanicals such as licorice root and mulberry, which break down melanin clusters that form sun spots, age spots, freckles and other types of pigmentation. They also help even out the skin tone by providing some measure of exfoliation and sloughing off dead skin cells that contribute to a dull appearance.
If you take a moment to examine the ingredients lists of many products that claim to whiten the skin, you’ll find that they are all made with natural ingredients derived from botanicals. At the same time, you are not very likely to find harsh bleaches in these ingredients lists. This is because harsh ingredients only damage the skin, which goes against the whole philosophy of Korean skincare.
What should I look for in a Korean whitening product?
Your skin goals and needs should be the primary driving force in making any product decision. If you suffer from hyperpigmentation caused by skin aging or exposure to the sun, look for a product that contains vitamin C or niacinamides, which helps brighten spots and prevent these spots from reappearing. If you have normal, healthy skin and would like it to have a radiant glow, seek a product that brightens the complexion and boosts smoothness, for that pearly finish. If you want to revitalize dull-looking skin, use something that provides deep moisture and nourishment, as this can go a long way towards making you look as though you’ve had a full night of sleep.
As our final word, certain people do have a sensitivity to yeast and its by-products, including galactomyces ferment, which is featured in many whitening products. Always read the ingredients lists and make note of any sensitivities you may have in order to prevent inflammation and other negative reactions, and don’t forget to patch test any new products you purchase before using them all over your face.