If you have ever struggled with different forms of dark blemishes or maybe felt that your skin appeared lack-luster, dull, or sluggish, then you’ve probably looked for skin lightening, brightening or whitening products to help change your skin and make it look and feel brighter and more alive.

Asian people always had a penchant for lighter skin color. This inclination can be explained by cultural factors and influences in many Asian countries. This can be seen in countless formulas on the skincare market that address dark spots and other pigmentation concerns.

However, what is the real difference between skin brightening, lightening or whitening (and illuminating, toning, clarifying, and correcting)? People often use these words as synonyms and think that it means lighter skin tone. In truth, these three generate distinctly different results.

Often, people pick up skincare products labeled with one of these terms without thinking about what results they want to get. If you better understand these words and their differences, it will greatly help you in choosing the right product or ingredient for your skin concern.

The first thing you need to understand and take away is that the ingredients contained within the formula are what matters for the effectiveness of a product and how it will perform once applied to the skin.

Skin Brightening

The skin creates continuously new skin cells in order to replace older skin cells. This is how the skin can heal small cuts and wounds. Frequently the older, dead skin cells stay on the skin’s surface and may make it appear dull.

Exfoliation sloughs off the dead skin cells from the skin surface. Therefore, skin brightening is restoring the skin so that it exposes a more radiant appearance. The goal here is not to change the skin color to a lighter tone, it is to remove the dead skin cells and make room for the clearer, brighter, fresher skin cells. The goal is to have a more radiant and glowy appearance, rather than have a lighter skin tone.

Often, brightening products are exfoliants. Their aim is to change dull and drained skin caused by premature aging or skin dryness into a glowing complexion.

Ingredients for skin brightening products

Alpha hydroxy acids popularly labeled AHAs. These are often used in many skin brighteners. In a nutshell, AHAs are chemical exfoliants that can penetrate deep into the skin’s dermis. They are gentler on the skin compared to mechanical exfoliants.

Of this chemical compound, glycolic acid can penetrate much deeper into the skin as it has the smallest particles. It, therefore, is also the harshest on the skin. Gentler AHAs are lactic acid or mandelic acid and can be considered to use for those with sensitive skin.

Beta hydroxy acid (BHA). Compared to AHAs, BHAs (like salicylic acid) penetrate even deeper into the skin’s dermis. BHAs are oil-soluble, which means they can dissolve through natural oils that clog pores. BHAs are great for oily and acne-prone skin, but they can be stronger and harsher than AHAs.

Fruit enzymes: Should you struggle with sensitive skin and may have experienced irritation from using AHAs or BHAs, even in small concentrations, look for products with fruit enzymes. Fruit enzymes are enzymes in fruits like pineapple, papaya, pumpkin, and figs.

Retinoids, retinol, retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde are all derivatives of Vitamin A. It stimulates the skin to increase cell turnover. Vitamin A are great for brightening, evening out hyperpigmentation, and also boost collagen and elastin production. Last but not least, it helps the skin to stay hydrated. This is also why vitamin A are often used for acne-prone skin.

Vitamin C is a popular and well-known all-natural skin brightening ingredient. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that protects the skin from the dulling effects of environmental pollutants and UV radiation. It neutralizes free radicals that age and damage skin.

It boosts the skin repair mechanism so that it can repair faster and scar less, inhibits the production of melanin for a lighter skin tone, and even boosts the production of another crucial enzyme needed for our bodies.

With the years, the levels of vitamin C within the skin drop naturally with age. Opt for skincare products with vitamin C for your anti-aging regimen.

Skin Lightening

There is a big difference between skin brightening and skin lightening. After all, everyone wants a more glowing and healthy complexion. But not everyone wants to have a lighter skin tone.

Regarding hyperpigmentation though, that is when people want to get rid of age spots and sun damage, acne spots, and scars. That is one of the goals skin lightening aims to do.

People who want to lighten skin want to tackle these concerns:

Fading dark spots due to sun exposure, acne scars, age spots, and skin conditions like melasma and so getting an even skin tone.

  • Fading dark spots due to sun exposure, acne scars, age spots, and skin conditions like melasma and so getting an even skin tone. But not everyone wants a lighter skin tone.
  • Lightening the skin to its original, natural skin color. That is restoring the skin back to its original color before a sun tan. You can get an idea of your natural skin color when you look at the inner part of your upper arm where it is normally covered with clothes and not touched by sunlight.

Skin lightening is all about fading, getting rid of specific dark patches or spots, or overall skin tone. This means we need to look into melanin inhibition.

Melanin is the chemical that gives skin its color. Melanin inhibitors suppress or inhibit an enzyme (tyrosinase) that is needed for melanin production. When you consistently apply a formula with melanin inhibitors, over time, your skin will slow its melanin production. The change is gradual and the results are not dramatic. The skin tone itself is not altered, it only appears a shade or some shades lighter.

Ingredients for skin lightening products

Arbutin is a plant-based and naturally-occurring, a safer derivative of hydroquinone. Like hydroquinone, arbutin inhibits tyrosinase activity. It has skin lightening benefits without the side effects and risks of hydroquinone.

Azelaic acid precisely targets anormal pigment-producing cells in the skin and thus reduces melanin production. It is great for fading forms of hyperpigmentation like melasma or acne spots. But it won’t help in fading natural spots like freckles or age spots.

Hydroquinone might be the best known melanin inhibitor. But is controversial as research suggests that there may be serious side effects associated with the long term use of this synthetic lightener. It, therefore, is not an over the counter product that is freely available everywhere.

Kojic acid is the second most popular skin lightening ingredients. It inhibits tyrosinase activity and reduces melanin production. It is an all-natural alternative to hydroquinone.

Licorice root is a safe and gentle ingredient for sensitive skin. With its two compounds (glabradin and liquirtin) it inhibits tyrosinase activity to lighten skin with little to no irritation.

Mulberry extract found in various species of the mulberry plant effectively inhibits melanin production. Like licorice, it’s gentle and non-irritating.

Overlapping effects of the ingredients

You may have noticed in the section brightening ingredients that vitamin C and A have both brightening and lightening effects.

Some ingredients have both properties, which is a good thing as you can layer the various ingredients to work synergistically.

Melanin inhibitors, for example, don’t only have lightening effects, but they also help to brighten the skin as the dark spots fade. Exfoliants also have several properties, they brighten the skin and at the same time speed up skin lightening by removing dead skin cells and helping the melanin inhibiting ingredients to penetrate deeper.

Therefore you shouldn’t be surprised to see ingredients that lighten in brightening products and vice versa.

Skin Whitening

Skin whitening seems to be the most controversial term on this list as it is used in different ways:

In Asian countries, many skin brightening and lightening products simply get labeled as ‘skin whitening’ products. When you read up the ingredients, it contains a mix of above mentioned skin brightening and lightening ingredients.

Often, whitening and bleaching are often used interchangeably. In the ’80s skin bleaching was more popularly used than today. But it is essentially the same as skin whitening. The difference between skin lightening and whitening is largely based on the rate with which melanin production is reduced.

Please note that unlike brightening and lightening products, skin whitening products have the potential to contain serious bleaching agents.

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