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NOW READING What Does “Whitening” in K-Beauty Really Mean & Should You Be Worried?
August 17, 2018

What Does “Whitening” in K-Beauty Really Mean & Should You Be Worried?

Freaked out by all the K-beauty products with the word “whitening” in their names? You shouldn’t be (unless you cower in the face of lit-from-within glow). Here, contributing editor Sheryll breaks down what “whitening” products in K-beauty really mean and why she’s now a convert.


Before I moved to Korea to teach English, I went to Sephora, Target, and my favorite department stores to stock up on skincare, haircare, and makeup because I just knew that I wasn’t going to be able to find anything suitable for my skin and hair. I’d heard allllllll about Korean skincare products and how they whiten your skin and how they are definitely not suitable for black women. I’d been scared out of my mind so I literally packed an entire suitcase of products to bring with me. I didn’t want to run out and be caught up and have to use products that would *gasp* bleach me. I didn’t want to look like Sammy Sosa.


After much trepidation, I tried K-beauty products for the first time about a month after I moved. I went to the local Skinfood because I figured that was the place that was the most “organic” and “natural” (LOL I was such a newb). After some thought, I ended up getting products from one of the anti-acne lines, and the rest is history.




But even after becoming a full-blown K-beauty advocate, I avoided anything that said “whitening” or even mentioned the word “white.” I still believed that those products used ingredients that would turn my skin into an ashy, chalky mess. But do these whitening products actually “whiten”? What does whitening really mean? Let’s do a quick li’l history lesson.


Then: White = Fair-Skinned = Not Working in the Fields


In Korea and most of East Asia, fair skin is in. Why is this? Well, back in the day (like way back in the Joseon Era-day), fair skin was associated with wealth, high social status, and leisure. If you were fair, this meant you weren’t out working in the farms getting tan like the common poor people. Being “white” or fair-skinned in this context didn’t mean you were trying to become a different race; it was more about perceived social status. And let’s be real here — we all wanna look and feel rich, right?


“Wolha Jeongin” (1805) drawn by Shin Yun-bok


Unfortunately, the term “whitening” in most contexts outside of South Korea means to legit lighten or bleach the skin. Some brands have even gotten into a bit of hot water using the word “white” in their products. Our beloved COSRX had to do a rebranding/renaming of their Whitehead Power Liquid after it was initially named “White Power Liquid.” It’s not too hard to see why that name would be a problem for a majority of Western consumers.


Today: Whitening = Brightening


The word “whitening” in K-beauty has been lost in translation because in South Korea, products that are labeled as “whitening” really mean that they brighten and even skin tone, giving you a that lit-from-within glow and lightening those pesky PIH spots. So really, whitening = brightening.




One of my biggest skincare concerns is dull skin. I’ve always coveted skin that looks like I sleep 48 hours a day and live on a diet of kale juice and carrots. After I realized that whitening doesn’t mean to actually bleach the skin, my K-beauty world opened up. Some of my favorite glow-giving products are the SanDaWha Camellia Oil Whitening Mist, pretty much anything from the Su:m37 White Award line, especially the Bubble Mask, and the Sulwhasoo Snowise EX line.


Some of the ingredients used to brighten the skin in these products are niacinamide (my bae), licorice root extract, truffle yeast, green tea, and vitamin C. Hanbang lines like The History of Whoo use ancient Korean herbs like chilhyangpalbaeksan (that’s a mouthfull) to inhibit melanin production (aka stop dark spots from forming) and brighten the skin. None of these ingredients will actually cause your skin to “whiten,” so go ahead and get your life!


What are your favorite “whitening” products? Let me know in the comments!



Sheryll Donerson got her start as a beauty writer by writing K-beauty reviews for her blog, The Wanderlust Project. These days, she's lifting heavy weights, eating tacos, drinking (too much) coffee and is 1/4 of the beauty podcast, Beauty Beyond Basics (or Triple Bees for short). You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @sheryllrenata.




I'll second (and third) the niacinamide and licorice root chorus! I honestly haven't found vitamin C serums to really make that huge of a difference for me personally but those two really have done a lot for the overall evenness of my skin. Also, thank you for speaking on the fact that none of these products are meant to bleach your skin in any way. Literally no one is trying to become a different race here lol


I have to say, ever since I started using mostly K-beauty, my skin has definitely brightened significantly. Yes, I use vitamin C, but my (unscientific) theory is that it's also because niacinamide is in like every single K-beauty skincare product, and super high up in the ingredients, too.


I feel like I'm one of the only people who haven't had a ton of success with vitamin C serums. I've tried so many concentrations, different frequencies and never saw a huge different. Acid toning and niacinamide however has made a world of difference :)


Niacinamide and vitamin C have been my friends for acne scars!


This whitening thing has definitely been an issue with my little brown skinned girl child! I frankly got tired of explaining and just told her the Korean word for getting rid of acne scars, redness, etc. translated to "white" in English. So the whole lost in translation thing worked for her. She is still living the browner the better life, she is 19 to be fair. However, I am "exhibit A" in the case against sun damage. So, "whiening" products could be called "turn you pink with purple polka dots" products, and I would still slather on... Read more


I wince every time I see my nieces' super dark tans every summer. (To me, that tan looks like future dark spots and sun damage, like I now have.) All their friends are tan and I guess it's inevitable in the summertime. One of the first things they noticed when we went to Korea this past summer is how "pale" everyone was. My nieces really did stand out!


The funny thing is, to me "tone up" sounds like it'd be brightening, but on my skin it's more of a white cast-type situation. I actually never grew up hearing anything about fair skin being a preferred thing (other than my mom telling me not to tan, but that was more of a skin health thing). My mom is pretty fair-skinned (definitely a 21 or lighter), while my dad had a deeper skin tone (or was he just tanned from year-round golf?), so I never realized fair skin was a thing in some cultures. Growing up in SoCal, I personally... Read more


The same thing happens to me with a lot of these "tone up" products. I think it's because I learn so yellow but it's not as apparent, especially on my face, because I tend to be more on the light to light medium side of things so I never get tan enough (anymore) for those golden tones to come through. The tone up type products tend to lean neutral to pink and I swear it just makes my face look sunburned lol+


Okay so I had to google chilhyangpalbaeksan because I was super curious as to what it actually is. To my surprise, it's a combination of different herbs, not just one. Interesting! I haven't tried any hanbang products for whitening, but now I'm thinking about it.

I love me some niacinamide and licorice root! I always try to have a few sheet masks with these two ingredients on hand for events and performances.


I loooove niacinamide and licorice root! They\'re mainstays in my routine as well.

Just curious xomarthamarie, what kind of performances do you do?


I run a small production company in Texas that does shows based on Japanese pop culture. We perform a lot at anime conventions, comicons, and the like. I've also started producing idol acts (we currently have 6 on our roster), and I'm on the administrative end of the Texas Idol Festival, which showcases Texas idol talent in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio!

I'm constantly on the road so emergency sheet masks are a must! Not to mention I'm constantly working with folks younger than me (WELP) so my skin has to stay on point!!


Wow! That sounds so fun! I know what you mean about younger co-workers. Mine always seem to stay the same age even as I get older haha! Thank goodness for sheet masks!