How Skin Brighteners Really Work

Almost everyone will admit to wanting prettier, brighter, more even-looking skin. But it doesn’t usually tend to happen by itself—a serious regimen is needed. And, one of the key components of brighter looking skin is a good skin brightener. With so many different ingredients out there that promise to give you a healthy glow, it’s important to know the differences between them and what they do to garner the results you want.

How They Work
To really understand how these products work, you have to take a closer look at the cycle of pigment production. Within the skin live melanocytes, pigment-producing cells that create melanin, which is responsible for skin pigment. Melanin is created as a way for the skin to protect itself from injury, but it can also go into overdrive when it’s overexposed to the sun. West Palm Beach, FL, dermatologist Kenneth R. Beer, MD, says skin brighteners work by decreasing the production of pigment. “They block the enzyme that produces melanin to decrease the pigment. Some products use steroids to do the same thing.”

Brighten From a Bottle
Dr. Beer says that the best brighteners on the market include botanicals or chemicals that block the production of melanin. “Arbutin, gigabright, kojic acid, vitamin C and salicylic acid are all good brighteners. Salicylic acid is wonderful for brightening the skin because it peels back the superficial layers of skin where discoloration can live." 

Brighten With a Prescription
There are also prescription-strength products, namely hydroquinone, which has been prescribed for years to lighten and brighten the skin. “The best chemical products contain hydroquinone. Although controversial, this ingredient blocks pigment. I also prescribe topical steroids to block pigment production,” says Dr. Beer. Hydroquinone can be found in off-the-shelf products, too, but the percentage is less, usually around 2 percent compared to 4 percent in a prescription version, so it’s not as strong.

Countdown to Brighter Skin
The best results from skin brighteners are on skin that’s pigmented from pregnancy or irritation. “They may not work as well on spots that are pigmented from picking,” says Dr. Beer, who says you may need to couple a product with an in-office treatment like a peels, lasers or IPL. It also takes time to see the effects, typically six weeks or longer. “If you’re not using a strong sunscreen (greater than SPF 50) and sun avoidance, you won’t see the changes,” he says.