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Which is Better: Kojic Acid or Hydroquinone?

question marks for hydroquinone and kojic acid

Dear Nicki,

Which is better: Kojic Acid or Hydroquinone?


Dear M,

In a word: Hydroquinone.

A study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology reported kojic acid alone is less efficacious than 2% hydroquinone in treating hyperpigmentation (i.e., sun spots, uneven skin pigmentation, and the like). Kojic acid has also been found to be associated with contact allergy and has a high sensitizing potential (Dermatologic Surgery, 2001).

What About When Kojic Acid and Hydroquinone Are Combined With Glycolic Acid?

In a review on Medscape, it was reported that kojic acid and hydroquinone have the same effect on hyperpigmentation when used together with glycolic acid.  However, kojic acid was reported in the same study to be more irritating.

Why Do Any Creams Contain Kojic Acid if Hydroquinone is Better?

There are two reasons for this. First, kojic acid is sometimes preferred because it has greater stability in cosmetic products than hydroquinone (Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 2001). In fact, it has been affirmed that hydroquinone should be stored at low temperature with the cap tightly sealed in order to preserve its effectiveness.

Secondly, kojic acid is sometimes preferred due to recent concern over a possible link between hydroquinone and ochronosis (skin darkening). According to a comprehensive review of 10000 patients, ochronosis is extremely rare, particularly for those patients with lighter skin (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2007). Still, if you have darker skin tones, you may want to consult with your dermatologist before starting any hydroquinone-based product.

Bottom Line: Use 'Em Together!

However, hydroquinone and kojic acid inhibit tyrosinase in two different ways (Journal of Pigment Cell Research, 2006). Therefore, scientists have advised using both in conjunction to get the highest degree of tyrosinase inhibition. Hope this helps!

All the best,

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Date: June 3 2012 at 12:15 PM
Skin Care, Age Advantage Laboratories Spot Life Serum, Age Advantage Laboratories Spot Life Serum ingredients, hydroquinone, Hyperpigmentation Treatments, kojic acid

Comments (13)

  1. Vicki N
    June 3 2012 at 3:59 PM

    Nicki, Would a combination of hydroquinone & glycolic acid help eradicate melasma? I have a stubborn patch that popped up after giving birth & despite mild chemical peels, mandelic acid serum along with sunscreen it still won't budge. Thanks!

  2. Skin Vitamins
    June 3 2012 at 11:34 PM

    Goodness me....This is the most technical article I ever saw on health products....Whatever happened to images of women swishing their hair around and looking positively radiant!

  3. Perry
    June 7 2012 at 3:08 AM

    Nice article. The one problem with hydroquinone that you didn't mention is that it is banned in a number of countries (e.g. much of the EU). So, for people living in those countries Kojic Acid would be the superior (only) choice.

  4. Mary Jo
    June 13 2012 at 6:45 PM

    Hi Nicki. I know this post is a few months old, but I'm hoping you could respond. Based on your recommendation I was about to purchase Age Advantage Spot Lite Pigmentation Lightening Serum to help with some hyperpigmentation and sun damage, in addition to general antiaging issues. (I'm 43.) It appears that AA has reformulated their product - no more hydroquinone or retinol. Based on the new formulation, do you still recommend this product? Also, do you have an opinion on Civant Skincare Meladerm, based on the research posted at the Civant Skincare website and the ingredients, for hyperpigmentation? Thanks so much! Also, BTW - I LOVE your website! Being a beauty/skincare junkie and research/info fanatic - your blog is my #1 go-to resource when considering new products. PLUS - 1.) I'm originally from Pittsburgh, though I live in NYC, and 2.) You wrote a great review of my sister's beauty biz - "Expert Service Review: XTreme Lashes by Allison Roth Studio (Eyelashes by Allison)" - - which is how I discovered your blog. Love it!

  5. Ana Smith
    August 21 2012 at 10:04 PM

    I have scars in my legs...What is the best product that I will use....Thanks

  6. Barabara
    October 8 2012 at 1:14 PM

    There is a great deal of misinformation regarding hydroquinoine. It is irresponsible to make misleading or ill-informed statements regarding the availability of HQ in other countries. The availablity is based on the percentage of HQ in the respective product. 4% HQ is not banned anywhere and is available by perscription and should be used under a skin care professionals supervsion. HQ is the gold-standard to even and balance skin tone.

  7. Sânziene si Mătrăgună
    October 27 2012 at 10:56 PM

    I live in the EU, and my only choice is kojic dipalmitate. HQ treatmens are not for sale in my country, however someone in a drugstore can prepare "something" if you have a presctiption. To be honest, after taking to a few of them asking what would they be putting in such a cream, I ran away as fast as I could. I would not put that mixture on my face , or my already oily and acne+blackheads prone skin will scream "cooking pan" all over me (those ladies have never heard of a hand mixer and a proper emulsion, they are still on the "mortar and pestle" stage, and nearly water-free creams that "need to stay in the fridge" - so I am assuming that they're also preservative free... geez... how come someone with an IT background can know more about making an emulsion than someone working in a pharmacy, making ointments by following a doctor's prescription?!) Anyway, I would gladly try a HQ cream, if available in my EU country. Sadly, there is none available (whose composition I can really trust)... SO Kojic Dipalmitate (in an already too emollient cream) it is... unless I can buy this ingredient on my own and use it in a lighter serum :)

  8. John Su
    October 28 2012 at 8:52 AM

    @Sânziene si Mătrăgună I know I'm not the author of this post, but I figured I'd jump in with my opinion. :) I'd say that you really don't have to stick with just kojic acid or hydroquinone. Note, that kojic dipalmitate may not necesarily convert to kojic acid; I wouldn't rely on it. But anyways, I actually had a reader bring up a very similar concern on my blog yesterday. Here's what she asked, and what I wrote. Q (her): "I keep reading that 10% glycol acid combined with 2% kojic acid is great for hyper pigmentation. However, I can’t seem to find any products with GA and Kojic. Do you have any recommendations? Thanks in advance!" A (me): "That combination is very good. However, kojic acid has a lot of issues with stability and irritation potential. Furthermore, I do not know of any products that contain those two ingredients at those specific concentrations. But that’s okay. It’s my opinion that to really treat hyperpigmentation, you need to be diligent, consistent, and aggressive. What I mean is that you have to be very diligent with using a full UVA and UVB sunscreen all the time. Also, be aggressive in the sense that you should use multiple skin lightening ingredients together. For example, think about using something like vitamin C during the day (which will also enhance your sunscreen’s UV protective capacity), and use other skin lightening ingredients like hydroquinone, niacinamide, mulberry, licorice, and/or glycolic acid at nighttime! These ingredients address hyperpigmentation via different pathways: inhibition of the tyrosinase enzyme, inhibition of melanosome transfer, and increasing cellular tunrover. Talk about a 1-2-3 punch to hyperpigmentation. Those, combined with an excellent sunscreen will markedly and dramatically improve your skin!" So yeah, it's almost always better to use combination therapy rather than monotherapy!

  9. Sânziene si Mătrăgună
    October 28 2012 at 9:45 AM

    @John - sorry, I was having multiple tabs open, one on future derm and 4 on your blog, I guess I thought everything was on your blog :)) Right now I am using Paula's Choice 10% AHA gel in the evenings and 2% BHA during the day. During the summer, I used her SPF45 lotion, now I have switched to the 30 SPF silicone based spray. Too bad that it will be discontinued. Now, with me putting my hands on 2 oil soluble vit C derivatives , I can create a C+E+Ferulic treatment for the day and a Ferulic+ Niacinamide for the evenings. That is great news :) I will also keep using the cream I have bought (with kojic dipalmitate - in my country there are not too many choices and I am sad to say that many pharmacists do not like me to take a pic of the ingredients list , in order for me to study them at home and make an informed choice :))) So, thanks for the advice and reply :) Just to make sure ... can someone use too much vit C? I am talking about tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (if I used it at 7%) and L-Ascorbyl Palmitate (if I used it at 5%) - both in the same oil based serum or "cold process" water based emulsified gel? The good side of formulating for myself is that I can set the % to max.. but would it be advisable to use 2 forms of vit C at the same time, at a high %? If they boost my daily UV protection, then I would definitely like to hit it hard :))

  10. John Su
    October 29 2012 at 6:44 AM

    @Sânziene si Mătrăgună No, it's virtually impossible to overdose on topical vitamin C. Most will stay in the skin, and the rest will be excreted if they get into the bloodstream. And of course you can use two forms. The more the merrier! Thanks for writing!

  11. Megan
    December 11 2012 at 3:11 PM

    @Vicki N: I'm an Esthetics student and my instructor is certified in Lasers. We got on the discussion about Melasma and treatments for it. Recent studies have shown that heat (like from the sun, or from steamers in a facial) trigger it and can make it worse. Also, there are plenty of bleaching/lightening serums out there that are really beneficial. IMAGE has a bleaching serum with a 10% blend of Hydroquinone, Glycolic Acid, and Azelaic Acid. 2% of that blend is hydroquinone and because Glycolic is a 2 carbon chain molecule it penetrates the deepest out of all the AHAs and helps create channels and pathways so the Hydroquinone can penetrate deeper thus resulting in better results. IMAGE also has a lightening serum that has Rumex (a tyrosinase inhibitor with comparable results to hydroquinone), Licorice Root, Bearberry, and Kojic acid that works amazing. Just be sure to wear your SPF during the day because they do make you photosensitive.

  12. Nikita
    July 31 2013 at 11:05 AM

    Hi Nicki, I was wondering, can kojic acid and hydroquinone cause hypo-pigmentation? I have darker, olive skin (NC 42ish) and I'm terribly concerned about regular skin getting lightened by using these ingredients since it's virtually impossible to apply products to strictly small hyper-pigmented spots. I was considering purchasing the Cosmetic Solution Phyto+ gel and it has a high concentration of kojic acid. Thank you so much for this blog by the way, it's been tremendously helpful in informing me about skin care products and ingredients!

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