Beyond Vitamin C: The Best Skin-Brightening Ingredients on the Market
From slathering on vitamin C to exfoliating regularly, the pursuit brighter, more even-toned skin can feel never-ending. Whether acne scars have taken up residence on your jawline or sun spots have started popping up on your cheeks, you may be searching for a solution. But other than the good ol' vitamin C, there are other ingredients that can help brighten your complexion and leave your skin glowing that are far too underutilized by even the most experienced skin-care devotees.
The reason vitamin C is hailed as one of the best skin brighteners — and arguably the most well-known — is because of its high antioxidant content. "Vitamin C combats oxidative damage from free radicals that cause fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation, in addition to skin cancer," dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD, told POPSUGAR. "At high doses it can upregulate tyrosinase activity, which breaks down melanin and inhibits melanin overproduction." This means it helps keep discoloration — like dark spots — from forming on your skin's surface.
But aside from vitamin C, there are far more brightening ingredients to discover in the skin-care world and we created a guide to make navigating the options easy.
The Best Ingredients to Brighten Skin Tone
Brightening Ingredient: Azelaic Acid
"Azelaic acid is a plant-derived brightener that works only on excess melanin, which means that you don't have to worry about it lightening your normal skin," said Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD. In other words, it will only address the "problem areas" on your skin like hyperpigmentation. You can discover the magic of this brightening ingredient on a budget with The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% ($8).
Brightening Ingredient: Kojic Acid
"Kojic acid is a great ingredient derived from mushrooms or fermented rice that can inhibit the formation of tyrosine, an amino acid needed to produce melanin pigment," Dr. Nussbaum said. "Botanical extracts like sophora and emblica have also been clinically shown to prevent melanin transfer from the melanocyte to keratinocytes and therefore greatly enhancing the lightening effects of other ingredients."
The Urban Skin Rx Resurfacing Vitamin C Cleansing Bar ($32) contains kojic acid, as well as niacinamide and lactic acid.
Brightening Ingredient: Niacinamide
Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, has a variety of skin-care benefits, in addition to being effective at brightening your skin tone. "It has numerous skin-protecting and moisturizing benefits that may help improve [the look of] enlarged pores, uneven skin tone, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, wrinkles, and dullness," Dr. Nussbaum said.
Thanks to this long list of benefits, niacinamide makes a great addition to any anti-aging skin-care routine, especially if you want to calm inflammation and support collagen production, according to Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. To discover why this ingredient is a dermatologist-favorite, try the Paula's Choice Clinical Niacinamide 20% Treatment ($48).
Brightening Ingredient: Hydroquinone
Hydroquinone is another skin-lightening ingredient that can lighten your overall skin tone. Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip calls it a "gold standard for addressing hyperpigmentation" because it works well on stubborn skin discoloration. "It decreases the formation of melanin in the skin that is responsible for your skin's pigment," said Dr. Nussbaum. "Hydroquinone-based products are typically used to lighten areas of darkened skin such as freckles, age spots, and melasma (caused by hormones, sun, and genetic factors)."
But with the effectiveness of this powerful ingredient comes a few risks. "Because it inhibits all pigment production, it may result in unwanted lightening on normal skin," said Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. The safety of hydroquinone has long been debated by the FDA but in 1982 it was deemed OK to be sold over the counter in concentrations up to two percent — anything higher than that requires a prescription.
Still, the ingredient is controversial to say the least.
Brightening Ingredient: Tranexamic Acid
For skin discoloration such as melasma, hyperpigmentation, and acne scarring, tranexamic acid is a great ingredient to incorporate into your routine. Tranexamic acid's skin-lightening properties were discovered by accident while the ingredient was being used to treat another medical condition, explained Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. "Although its mechanism of action is not completely understood, it is believed that it prevents UV radiation-induced pigment production."
"Generally, tranexamic acid is safe for all skin types," said Dr. Nussbaum. "Ideally, tranexamic acid would be applied twice a day, but some suggest starting with one application per day to see how it reacts with your skin." For those with sensitive skin or eczema, do a patch test on the inside of your wrist to be sure it doesn't cause irritation.
The SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense Serum ($98) may be a little pricy but you can't beat the results.
Brightening Ingredient: Licorice Root
"Licorice root extract contains the antioxidant glabridin and licochalcone A, which both have powerful anti-aging and skin-soothing properties," said Dr. Nussbaum. "This ingredient can help those with sun-damaged or red, irritated skin." This is because it helps brighten skin by blocking the enzymes responsible for triggering skin darkening from UV radiation. The Coola Moon Silk Moisture Recharging Mask ($48) allows you to experience this brightening ingredient in just a 10-20 minute treatment.
The Type of Brightening Product You Use Matters
When shopping for products to eliminate hyperpigmentation on the skin's surface, Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip stressed that it's important to keep in mind the best brightening agent or product will contain a blend of multiple ingredients. The type of product you use — be it a serums cream, cleanser, spot treatment, or oil — also plays a role in its effectiveness.
Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip and Dr. Nussbaum both agree that serums are superior. "Serums are products that are designed to deliver high concentrations of specific ingredients, and as such, they are extremely effective vehicles for delivering skin-brightening products to the skin," said Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. Not only do they typically contain a larger quantity of the brightening agent, but by formulation, they're better at addressing skin concerns like scars or dark spots. "Serums are generally thin and penetrate easily, therefore quickly absorbing the ingredients," said Dr. Nussbaum. "Serums can also be easily targeted to small areas of skin."
But that's not to say that a brightening moisturizer or lotion isn't worth using. It should just be used in conjunction with a powerful brightening serum. "Moisturizers typically have a lower concentration of active ingredients in order to be able to massage it in to a larger surface area without risking contact dermatitis or irritation," said Dr. Nussbaum.
How to Determine the Potency of Your Skin-Care Ingredients
"The best way to determine the potency of a skin-care product is to look at the ingredient list. If you are looking for a vitamin C product and vitamin C appears at the bottom of the ingredient list, then you are not really getting a potent vitamin C product," says Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. Just like the packaging on food products at the grocery store, ingredients are listed in order of strength or amount in the product. "The most abundant ingredients appear at the top of the ingredient list."
Other Tips for Brightening Skin Discoloration, Hyperpigmentation, and Dark Spots
Retinol, both prescription and over-the-counter, as well as chemical peels and specific laser treatments performed by a professional can be great for brightening an uneven skin tone, too.
"Chemical peels are excellent to treat skin discoloration as they can exfoliate superficial pigmented dead skin cells and also incorporate skin-brightening ingredients which can penetrate deeper," said Dr. Nussbaum. "Lasers are excellent at treating skin discoloration by breaking up the pigment and creating microcolumns of destruction that can then be expelled such as in the fractionated lasers."
"Regardless of what product you choose, sunscreen is always a must-have. The sun exacerbates all types of hyperpigmentation," said Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. Skin-brightening ingredients, laser treatments, chemical peels, and retinol can also increase skin sensitivity to the sun, making sunscreen all the more important.