When it comes to skin care, it’s safe to say that we’re all after that illuminating glow. Whether your goal is to reduce hyperpigmentation, sunspots, and acne scars, or you’re just aiming for a radiant complexion overall, brightening ingredients can be a shining savior.
But with so many products on the market claiming to brighten skin, it can be confusing—and overwhelming—to know what will actually work for your skin.
One factor that plays a big role in determining which brightening ingredient is right for you depends on your skin tone. Here, we talked to top dermatologists to explain more and share their thoughts on the best brightening ingredients in the market for every skin tone.
First things first: What causes dull skin?
Glenn Dale, MD dermatologist Valerie D. Callender, MD says that dull skin is a result of many factors including reduced skin exfoliation, dehydration, and UV damage.
The fix? In addition to using brightening ingredients, Dr. Callender recommends, “Microdermabrasion or superficial chemical peels, hyaluronic acid or ceramide containing moisturizers, sun protection, and drinking plenty of water.”
What to know before using a brightening ingredient
Before we dive into the details on brightening ingredients, there are a few key things to be aware of. Dr. Callender emphasizes the importance of using a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily—this is always a skin-care “rule” but even more so when using brightening ingredients as it protects your skin from further damage and helps maintain results of the product.
Keep in mind that everyone may experience different results. “It can take anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks of consistent use to see noticeable improvements in skin tone and the reduction of dark spots or hyperpigmentation,” says Aventura, FL dermatologist Dr. Bertha Baum. “However, it’s important to note that some people may see results sooner or later than this timeframe, and to be patient and consistent with the use of the product to achieve the desired results.”
Also, know that skin irritation can occur with all topical products. Dr. Callender notes, “In addition, individuals with darker skin can develop hypopigmentation (skin that is lighter than their normal skin). This side effect is reversible once the agent is discontinued.”
The best ingredients to brighten every skin tone
This ingredient is super popular, and for good reason. According to Dr. Callender, it protects the skin from oxidative stress caused by UV light and neutralizes the free radicals that are produced.
“Vitamin C lightens skin by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase and thus decreasing melanin synthesis or the production of pigment in the skin,” she says. What’s more: it’s also anti-inflammatory and is a cofactor used in collagen production, so it can also aid in the improvement of fine lines and wrinkles.
A form of vitamin B3, niacinamide helps reduce the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation. Dr. Baum notes it can also improve the overall texture and tone of the skin, and is safe for all skin types, including sensitive skin.
The best ingredients to brighten lighter skin tones
“This natural ingredient helps to lighten the skin and reduce the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. Baum. Kojic acid is safe for most skin types, but can be irritating for those with very sensitive skin.
Alphahydroxy Acids (AHAs)
These acids exfoliate the skin, revealing brighter, smoother skin underneath. “Some AHAs, like glycolic acid, can be irritating for some skin types, so it’s important to start with a lower concentration and patch test before using on the entire face,” says Dr. Baum.
Arbutin is a natural ingredient that inhibits the production of melanin (the pigment that gives skin its color). “It can help to lighten dark spots and even out skin tone,” says Dr. Baum, who adds that it’s safe for most skin types, including sensitive skin.
Looking to lighten discoloration, acne scars, melasma, and sunspots? Hydroquinone is known to effectively tackle these but it shouldn’t be used for long periods. Through our research, it’s recommended to use a safe, doctor-approved formula, follow the instructions and stop using it after three months (switch to arbutin, niacinamide, or kojic acid to maintain your results).
“In addition to its anti-aging and acne-fighting properties, tretinoin has also shown to have brightening effects on the skin,” says Dr. Baum. “It can help to reduce the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation by increasing cell turnover and exfoliating the skin, which can lead to a more even skin tone.”
The best ingredients to brighten darker skin tones
“For darker skin tones, it’s important to be cautious as some ingredients can be too harsh and lead to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH),” says Dr. Baum. One of the ingredients that are gentle enough for most skin types is azelaic acid, which helps to reduce the appearance of dark spots and acne scars.
Licorice Root Extract
Dr. Baum notes, “This natural ingredient helps to brighten and even out skin tone, and is safe for all skin types.” Another benefit of licorice root extract: it can have potent anti-inflammatory effects on rosacea.
“One of the unique benefits of mandelic acid is that it has a larger molecular size compared to other AHAs like glycolic acid, which means it penetrates the skin more slowly and gently,” says Dr. Baum. “This makes it a great option for those with sensitive skin or darker skin tones, who may be more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) or other forms of irritation.”
Tranexamic Acid (TXA)
Dr. Callender notes TXA can be used orally off-label to treat melasma or topically and intradermally to treat hyperpigmentation. She adds, “TXA is a plasmin inhibitor and tyrosinase inhibitor. Topical TXA is typically found in combination with other cosmeceuticals. It can be used daily or twice daily.”
Cysteamine is a natural substance in mammals and humans, with the highest concentration found in milk, according to Dr. Callender.
“The exact mechanism of action on how it works is incompletely understood, however it acts as a scavenger of free radicals (potent antioxidant), tyrosinase inhibitor (blocks the production of melanin), and has been shown in clinical studies to be equivalent to hydroquinone (the gold standard for skin lightening),” she says. Cysteamine can be applied daily or nightly to the face for 15 minutes then washed off.