Skin Brightening vs. Skin Lightening
by Heather Smith on Nov 13, 2022
"Are skin brightening and skin lightening the same thing?” is a common question we get asked.
Bright skin with a radiant glow is something probably all of us hope to have. I mean, who doesn’t want to have a glowing complexion? Getting a more even, uniform skin tone and a reduction in dark spots can be achieved using skincare products.
Despite the mutual purpose – to have clear, glowing skin, the ingredients and strategies for skin brightening and lightening do differ.
Words like brightening, whitening, and lightening are often used interchangeably in marketing materials and product descriptions. This is because there is significant overlap, but also (as with so many other cosmetic marketing words) there is no standardization or regulation.
Let’s dive deeper into these terms and determine the similarities and differences and how much of it is just marketing hype.
What is Skin Brightening?
Skin brightening refers to restoring the overall natural glow of your skin. It focuses more on removing the dead, dull cells from your skin’s surface than on specific pigmentation spots.
Overall, brighter skin can be achieved using different strategies, products, and ingredients. When your goal is to improve your radiance and glow, the removal of dead cells and dullness is a critical step. This is primarily achieved through physical and chemical exfoliation. Beyond that, having bright and luminous skin involves general skin health – moisturization, sun protection, and hydration.
What is Skin Lightening?
Skin lightening specifically targets pigmentation.
This category would include skin lightening treatments aimed at skin whitening or bleaching; however, that is not the purpose of this article.
Targeting an overall reduction in all pigmentation so that it appears whiter is controversial. As a white woman, I’m not qualified to discuss many of these complexities rooted in colonialism and racially disparate beauty ideals. To properly bleach or whiten your skin requires prescription medications and physician supervision. Off-market use of specific chemicals and drugs like hydroquinone and mercury are associated with severe harm.
For general beauty and cosmetic use, targeting pigmentation is desirable to reduce the look of age spots, photodamage, melasma, scars, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. This is where the overlap between brightening and lightening occurs. Targeting discoloration and the evenness of skin tone can be achieved using ingredients like Vitamin C and retinol. Both these ingredients would also fall into the category of brightening agents based on how they work.
It's just semantics to pit brightening vs lightening against one another. The bottom line is that if you want radiant, glowing skin with minimized scars, spots, and marks, you will need to take a strategy that does it all.
Causes of Uneven Skin Tone and Hyperpigmentation
Both chronologic and photo-related aging change the amount, type, and location of pigmentation in your skin. Other causes include dryness and dehydration, a damaged skin barrier, acne, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, scars, and hormone-related changes, like melasma. Skin brightening treatments and products will target these concerns in different ways.
Natural Skin Lightening
Natural skin brighteners work in many ways.
Depending on your skin type and the extent of the effects you're seeking you might try prescription treatments or skin lightening procedures in a dermatologists office. We’ll leave drugs like hydroquinone and tretinoin out of this discussion and focus on more natural options. If you're looking for a brightening serum for hyperpigmentation, look for these types of ingredients to be included:
Vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid)
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps control the damage to your skin by UV rays and environmental pollution. Besides saving your skin from potential harm, it also contributes to collagen biosynthesis to keep your skin plump, elastic, and firmer.
Research shows that Vitamin C can help reduce hyperpigmentation by blocking Tyrosinase, the enzyme that produces melanin.
Our favourite variety of Vitamin C is tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate. This oil-soluble, synthetic precursor penetrates the skin much better than traditional ascorbic acid.
Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids
Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids are chemical exfoliants commonly known as AHAs and BHAs. Using exfoliants, whether chemical or mechanical, brightens skin in more than one way. This leaves the skin with a more radiant, smooth glow. It also prepares the skin to receive better and absorb other active ingredients. Chemical exfoliation can be done daily using products like toners and creams. It can also be more drastic, as in the case of chemical peels.
Alpha hydroxy acids (especially glycolic) also work to lighten hyperpigmented areas directly. This is due to how deeply it penetrates the skin and how it stimulates cell turnover. In addition, glycolic acid can break up the bonds between melanin and skin cells, resulting in more even skin tone. If glycolic acid is too strong for you, more gentle acids, like lactic acid, will still help skin tone.
A notable natural brightening ingredient is willow bark. It contains phytochemicals and is a precursor to salicylic acid (a BHA). It helps to brighten the skin through it's effects on acne, inflammation, cell-turnover, and chemical exfoliation.
PHAs should also get some attention. Ingredients like gluconolactone and lactobionic acid are still effective for skin brightening, especially because of their hydrating abilities. They are more gentle and much better tolerated than AHAs and BHAs for people with sensitive skin.
The next skin-lightening agent on the list is Kojic acid. It is an antioxidant that also contributes to melanin reduction through the inhibition of tyrosine kinase pathways, leading to skin lightening. The fermentation of rice wine produces it. Kojic acid is chemically unstable and easily oxidizes on oxygen or sunlight exposure.
Kojic acid is considered safe in concentrations of 1% or less. However, at higher levels, it is quite irritating and long-term use makes your skin more susceptible to sunburns. There has also been a cancer scare with this ingredient, but the data is poor and inconclusive.
We leave this ingredient on the shelf because there are better, less controversial, and less irritating options.
Arbutin suppresses melanin activity in the skin through its effects on tyrosine kinase. This will help improve areas of hyperpigmented sun damage. It is also anti-inflammatory, which helps with scar minimization.
Arbutin is a naturally occurring, plant-derived compound structurally related to hydroquinone. Sources include bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), cranberry, blueberry, and pears. Although not as effective as the prescription hydroquinone, it’s also much less risky and is a natural alternative for those looking to brighten their skin.
The organic bearberry extract is an all-in-one ingredient with multiple benefits. It helps lighten age spots, sun spots, freckles, and blotchy skin tone. It is also an excellent antioxidant and helps fight free radicals to avoid skin conditions like skin cancer.
Bakuchiol is a plant-based alternative to retinol and promotes healthy skin by stimulating collagen synthesis. Although it is not a retinoid or vitamin A derivative, it is thought to work on the skin similarly. Clinical studies have shown comparable results to retinol – improved tone, pigmentation, scar appearance, inflammatory changes, and acne – without side effects. Using a Bakuchiol serum can reveal brighter skin tone and a more radiant complexion.
Licorice Root Extract
Licorice root extract is another natural and beneficial ingredient in skin-lightening products. It reduces blemishes and improves scars by inhibiting melanin production. In addition, licorice has a soothing effect on the skin that calms inflammation. Thus, it is excellent to prevent irritation, redness, and swelling while your skin brightens and lightens.
Pterocarpus Marsupium Bark Extract
Pterocarpus marsupium bark extract is a natural pterostilbene isolated from Pterocarpus marsupium heartwood. Pterocarpus marsupium bark extract acts as an anti-aging agent, natural UV protectant, and a skin brightener. It is not known to be a primary irritant and has more powerful antioxidant properties than resveratrol. It can be dissolved in some oils, so it is a powerful active botanical to add to oil serums.
Lemon Peel Bioferment
Lemon Peel Bioferment is safe for use on the skin to reduce hyperpigmentation, dark spots and uneven skin tone. It helps cell regeneration and increases skin luminosity. Like kojic acid, the process of biofermentation results in the production of chemicals that target melanin synthesis. This extract is not the same as lemon essential oil. It is scentless and not known to irritate skin like citrus essential oils would.
Allantoin is also known as 5-ureidohydantoin or glyoxyldiureide. It's an excellent moisturizer and hydrator/humectant. It also stimulates skin healing and protection. Allantoin naturally occurs in the comfrey leaf (though it's synthetically manufactured for cosmetic use). It can have an effect on overall brightness and general pigmentation because it helps stimulate new cell growth and turnover. It's considered keratolytic which means it helps break up the bonds between dead cells.
Azelaic acid is a skincare ingredient that can fall into either a prescription drug category or a cosmetic category. Regulators are working to decide if there should be an upper limit to the allowable concentration of use in cosmetic products.
Brightening effects of azelaic acid are due to several mechanisms. It improves both acne and inflammation levels in the skin. This is important for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation issues. It also improves exfoliation and cell turnover. By acting on an enzyme called tyrosinase, it works to suppress melanin and is effective in treating hyperpigmentation from melasma.
Azelaic acid can be derived from grains like barley, wheat, and rye. However, a synthetically engineered form is typically used in skin care products.
Like allantoin, niacinamide is another ingredient that has multiple benefits for overall skin health. The ways it helps brighten your skin are by: reducing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, reducing inflammation, stimulating healthy cell regeneration, improving acne, improving age related photo-damage. This water soluble B vitamin is naturally derived from nicotinic acid, found in brewer's yeast and other cereals.
Is it Safe to Lighten and Brighten Your Skin?
As discussed above, using whitening products can be a dangerous and requires qualified medical supervision. Please see a dermatologist if your goal is to bleach or whiten your skin.
A realistic goal for more radiant, glowing skin that has an even tone and reduced appearance of dark spots can be safely achieved at home.
Using cosmetic products with the types of natural brighteners listed above is a low-risk approach. Irritation is the most common side effect, but frequency and severity depends on the ingredient used. This is why doing a proper patch test before applying new products to your face is essential.
The Bottom Line
Skin brighteners and lighteners have a similar purpose but differ in exact results. Brightening helps rejuvenate your skin and achieve the natural glow lost under dull skin; while lightening targets dark spots, blemishes, hyperpigmentation, scars, and inflammation.
Many ingredients function in both categories, resulting in a more youthful-looking and even-toned complexion.
If you're shopping for a skin brightening serum, check out bareLUXE Skincare's Radiant Glow Elevated Brightening Oil. This Vitamin C Oil Serum combines many of the above powerful brightening botanical extracts with tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate to target uneven pigmentation and dark spots.
Pair this Vitamin C Facial Oil with our Natural Face Scrub and you'll be glowing in no time!
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