The Science Behind Skin Brighteners

Call it glowy, radiant, or luminous—we’re all after a complexion that looks like we’ve never touched an Oreo or stayed up too late watching YouTube videos. While we know there is a science to skin glow, you also need great products—and that’s where skin brighteners come in. They can help undo UV damage, fade acne spots, and lighten up a dull complexion. We got the scoop on how brighteners actually work—plus the best ones for different skin issues—from dermatologist Dr. Debra Jaliman, author of Skin Rules.

The Complexion Drag: Sun Damage

The Derm Prescription: The key to reversing UV damage—and in turn, brightening your skin—are antioxidants, according to Jaliman. Vitamin C, pomegranate, and green tea are all great sources. To get rid of dark spots in particular, look for skincare with niacinamide (a form of vitamin B3), which hampers the melanin transfer process that causes them. Ingredients like licorice root extract and bearberry extract erase dark spots by targeting tyrosinase, the enzyme that makes pigment in the skin.
The Brightening Products: Smooth on Caudalie Polyphenol C15 Anti-Wrinkle Defense Serum for a mega-dose of free radical-fighting vitamin C or dr. brandt® dark spots no more for a blend of vitamin C and pomegranate enzymes. Dr. Jart+ Premium Firming Sleeping Mask will infuse skin with niacinamide and licorice root while you snooze. Dr. Jaliman also recommends trying a sonic cleansing system (we like the Clarisonic Mia 2) to help pigment-reducing products penetrate your skin better.

The Complexion Drag: Post-Acne Spots

The Derm Prescription: Acne means inflammation, which often leaves hyperpigmentation (read: dark spots) in its wake, explains Dr. Jaliman. (Similar dark spots can pop up after eczema flare-ups, too.) To reduce the inflammation—and thus shrink the appearance of the spots—reach for potent anti-inflammatories like aloe vera and green tea.
The Brightening Products: After you wash your face, apply a layer of The Aloe Source Vitamin C Antioxidant Complex, which contains inflammation-reducing aloe and green tea as well as a hefty dose of vitamin C. To simultaneously treat and cover complexion imperfections, use W3LL PEOPLE’s Bio Brightener Stick. The organic formula calms inflammation with aloe, while imparting a natural-looking radiance with light-reflecting microcrystals. Dust the Bio Brightener Powder on top to increase coverage and luminosity.

The Complexion Drag: Dullness

The Derm Prescription: Dead cells collect on the surface of the skin, leaving it anything but bright. The solution, of course, is exfoliation. Alpha hydroxy acids slough off dull skin to reveal the more luminous layer beneath. Glycolic acid is a good go-to, and lactic acid is a gentler option if you have sensitive skin, Dr. Jaliman says. Other ingredients can nudge skin to produce newer, fresher cells—which helps slough away the old ones. Papaya enzymes, for instance, contain papain, an enzyme that encourages cell turnover.
The Brightening Products: Scrub up three to five times a week with Vasanti BrightenUp! Enzymatic Face Rejuvenator, which has papaya enzymes and exfoliating microcrystals, as well as inflammation-calming aloe. Or smooth on Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant with glycolic acid and soothing green tea. If a mask is more your style, try Balance Me Radiance Face Mask, infused with an exfoliating AHA fruit acid complex.

Final Thoughts: Moderation, Moderation

Most of us are dealing with sun damage, inflammation and dullness simultaneously. To brighten your skin without going overboard, Dr. Jaliman suggests beginning by integrating two new products into your routine: one that focuses on exfoliation and one that targets dark spots. And always, always apply SPF to prevent complexion-dulling sun damage.

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