Skin Brightening and Skin Lightening
When you don’t protect your skin from the sun 365 days a year (yes, every day), brown spots, uneven skin tone, and premature aging of skin are inevitable. If you’re starting to see dark spots, skin lighteners containing 2% hydroquinone are considered the gold standard for making them lighter.
To make uneven skin tone more even and radiant, skin-brightening products are the perfect choice. Whether it's lightening dark spots or brightening skin's overall appearance, these products, coupled with daily application of a sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater, can reveal a luminous tone that will help your skin look younger than it has in years.
What to Expect from a Skin Lightener
First, it’s important to distinguish between a skin lightener and a skin brightener. A skin lightener is an over-the-counter product that contains hydroquinone as its active ingredient. This ingredient is approved for reducing the look of brown spots, dark spots, and freckles that result from sun exposure without using sunscreen and from other triggers.
Skin brighteners are cosmetics that contain ingredients such as various forms of vitamin C, arbutin, mulberry extract, various forms of licorice, and niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3. All four of these ingredients have research showing they can visibly brighten skin and make it look more even—and they tend to work best in combination rather than alone.
Back to skin lighteners: The obvious expected result from using a skin lightener is for brown spots to noticeably lighten; if they fade to being barely noticeable, that’s even better. With once- or twice-daily use, you can reasonably expect a skin-lightening product with hydroquinone to produce visible results within 2–3 months, if you use it consistently. For some people, results show up even sooner.
We completely understand the desire to see those spots fade NOW, but lightening dark spots takes time. To put it in perspective: It took several years of sun damage for the spots to begin showing up, so it makes sense that you’ll need patience as you attempt to fade their appearance.
What to Expect from a Skin Brightener
Skin brighteners will gradually (for some it’ll be sooner, for others slower) minimize signs of dullness and noticeably improve an uneven skin tone, leaving it smoother, more vibrant, and younger-looking.
Brighteners can be used alone 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. Using these two types of products together (again, with daily sun protection) often produces the best results.
You May Need More Than One Product for Even Skin
Unfortunately, sometimes, even 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 as much as you like. Some discolorations are so stubborn and entrenched they are slower to respond to topical care and need more help.
What to do? Consider seeing a dermatologist to discuss other options, but before you make an appointment, try adding a skin-brightening product to your routine and see how your skin responds after several weeks of combined use.
Research has shown that for some people, a combination of hydroquinone plus brightening ingredients, such as high-strength vitamin C or a series of brightening plant extracts, does the trick. Bonus: Most brightening ingredients also provide antioxidant and hydrating benefits—multi-tasking at its finest.
How to Add a Skin Lightener or Brightener to Your Routine
OK, so you’re ready to add a skin-lightening or skin-brightening product to your routine—or maybe both! Here’s how to work it in:
- Apply toner
- Apply your AHA or BHA exfoliant (both can also help improve dull, uneven skin, so don't leave this step out)
- Apply the skin-lightening product to affected areas or all over your face
- Apply the skin-brightening product all over your face (or you may wish to reserve this step for evening only)
- Apply daytime moisturizer with sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater
- Apply toner
- Apply your AHA or BHA exfoliant (if you prefer to apply your exfoliant only in the morning, skip to step 4)
- Apply the skin-lightening product to affected areas, or all over your face
- Apply skin brightening product all over your face
- Apply a serum and/or a targeted solution product, such as a booster, all over your face
- Apply your 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 you prefer. The same advice applies for the other products in your routine.
What if you're also using an anti-acne product? You should apply this before the skin lightener and/or skin brightener, all over or just to breakout-prone areas.
We mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: No skin-lightening or skin-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—you really need to commit to this for the sake of your skin, and that includes not tanning, be it indoors or outdoors. Spending time in the sun not only increases your risk of early signs of aging like brown spots, but also the risk of skin cancer. To decrease the risk, regularly use a sunscreen with broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher.
Note: The warning about applying sunscreen every day does NOT mean to apply it only 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 the products as well as they might otherwise.
References for this information:
The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, August 2014, pages 13–17
Indian Dermatology Online Journal, April-June 2013, pages 143–146
Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery, January-March 2013, pages 4–11
Indian Journal of Dermatology, October-December 2009, pages 303–309
Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, Volume 36, 2013, pages 1722–1730
International Journal of Molecular Sciences, September 2009, pages 4066–4087
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:
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!