Skin Brightening and Skin Lightening


In This Article:

Too many days in the sun year after year without sun protection can result in unsightly clusters of dark spots or uneven skin tone. These annoying skin discolorations make your skin look older than it really is, not to mention these “age spots” just continue to show up and get larger. What’s even more frustrating is that they are stubborn to diminish and tricky to cover with makeup.

As frustrating as these brown spots are, there’s hope in the form of skin lighteners that contain hydroquinone as their active ingredient. Research has made is 100% clear that hydroquinone is considered the gold standard for lightening dark spots.

For making uneven skin tone more even and radiant, skin brightening products are the perfect choice. We discuss below some of the best skin brightening ingredients based on the latest research. Used together and with the daily addition of a broad spectrum sunscreen, skin-lightening and brightening products can bring back an even, luminous skin tone that looks younger than it has in years!

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What to Expect from a Skin Lightener

First, it’s important to distinguish between a skin lightener and brightener. A skin lightener is an over-the-counter drug product that contains 2% hydroquinone as its active ingredient. This ingredient is approved for reducing the look of brown spots and freckles resulting from sun exposure and other triggers.

Skin brighteners are cosmetics that contain ingredients like vitamin C, arbutin, and niacinamide that have research showing they can visibly brighten skin and make it look more even.

Back to skin lighteners: The obvious expected result from using one is for the brown spots to lighten. And if they fade completely, that’s even better! With once- or twice-daily usage, you can reasonably expect a skin-lightening product with hydroquinone to produce visible results within 2-3 months of consistent use.

We completely understand the desire to see those spots fade NOW, but hydroquinone needs time to work. Putting it in perspective: It took several years of sun damage for the spots show up, so some patience is needed as you attempt to fade their appearance.

No skin lightener with hydroquinone will work well, if at all, if you continue to expose your skin to UV light without daily broad spectrum sun protection. Sun protection (and, some dermatologists would stress, sun avoidance) is a key part of lightening brown spots and preventing new ones. We wish this wasn’t so rigid, but it’s what the research has shown is necessary to tackle brown spots you see now and prevent the ones you don’t want to see later!

What to Expect from a Skin Brightener

Skin brighteners will gradually (in some cases sooner) fade signs of dullness and noticeably improve an uneven skin tone, leaving it smoother and younger-looking.

Brighteners can be used on their own if brown spots or darker areas of discoloration aren’t a concern, but if they are, you’ll want to add a skin-lightening product with hydroquinone, too. Good news: Such products can be used together, and often produce better results when you do!

You May Need More Than One Product for Even Skin

Sad but true: If you’re using a well-formulated skin-lightening product with hydroquinone and being diligent about daily sun protection, it’s still possible your dark spots may not improve much, if at all. Why is this? Simply put, some discolorations are stubborn and can be slower to respond to topical care.

What to do? You can consider seeing a dermatologist to discuss other options, but before you make an appointment, consider adding a brightening product to your routine and see how your brown spots respond after several more weeks of combined use.

Research has shown that for some people, a combination of hydroquinone plus brightening ingredients like high-strength vitamin C or a series of brightening plant extracts does the trick. Bonus: Most brightening ingredients also provide antioxidant and hydrating benefits. That’s multi-tasking at its finest!

How to Add a Paula’s Choice Skin Lightener or Brightener to Your Routine

OK, so you’re ready to add a skin-lightening or brightening product to your Paula’s Choice skincare routine—or maybe both! Here’s how to work it in:


  1. Cleanse
  2. Apply toner
  3. Apply your AHA or BHA exfoliant (either can also help improve dull, uneven skin, so don’t leave this step out!)
  4. Apply the skin-lightening product to affected areas or all over your face
  5. Apply brightening product all over your face (or you may wish to reserve this step for evening only)
  6. Apply daytime moisturizer with sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater


  1. Cleanse
  2. Apply toner
  3. Apply your AHA or BHA exfoliant (if you prefer to only apply your exfoliant in the morning, skip to step 4)
  4. Apply the skin-lightening product to affected areas or all over your face
  5. Apply skin brightening product all over your face
  6. Apply serum and/or targeted solution product, such as a Paula’s Choice booster, all over your face

Apply nighttime moisturizer and/or eye cream

You do not need to wait for the exfoliant to dry before applying the skin lightener with hydroquinone, but it’s fine to do so if that’s what you prefer. The same advice applies for other products in your routine.

What if you’re also using an anti-acne product? This would go on before the skin lightener and/or brightener, applied all over or just to the breakout-prone areas.

Sunscreen is a Must

We mentioned this above, and it bears repeating: No skin-lightening or brightening product will be of much use if you’re not willing to apply a broad spectrum sunscreen every day of the year. It has to be a package deal.

Note that this doesn’t apply to just those times when the sun is shining; if you can see daylight, even if you’re in your home or office, it’s affecting your skin, keeping your brown spots and uneven skin tone from responding to products as well as they otherwise would.

For more sun protection tips, see our article Sun Sense: What You Must Know.

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! See Paula's Choice Skin Lighteners.

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!

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