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By the end of summer 2018, my skin was in need of some serious brightening rehab. I'm genetically predisposed to freckles—I've had them since I was a little kid—so no matter how diligently I try to avoid the outdoors, in the summer sun and heat, those little leopard spots pop out like chickenpox (or if I'm trying to be kinder to myself, stars in a pitch-black night sky?). The truth is that I love my freckles, but when there are too many of them, they start to bleed together and make my face look muddy. Combine that with all the facial self-tanner I use in the summer and the lack of exfoliation because I don't want to remove that self-tanner, and my skin tone starts to look pretty darn uneven. See photo below for proof.
I needed a brightening detox like nobody's business. So I got in touch with a panel of four trusted dermatologists (perks of being a beauty editor, right?), who designed a skin tone–evening regimen for me, which I followed faithfully for the past week.
Want to see the products they recommended and the results? Just keep scrolling.
Step One: Exfoliation
There were five brightening steps to this routine that all my derms agreed on. They started with exfoliation—either chemical, physical, or both. "Incorporating an exfoliant that will gently buff away dead skin cells while brightening the skin tone is a great thing to do to maintain the vibrancy of freckles," says aesthetic and surgical dermatologist Naissan O. Wesley. After all, dark pigment gets trapped in dead cells on the skin's surface, so clearing them away will make you look instantly brighter. Wesley recommends Arbonne RE9 Advanced Prepwork Cleansing Polish, which is infused with superfoods for gentle physical exfoliation.
As far as chemical exfoliation goes, our derms recommend killing two birds with one stone and choosing a cleanser that contains AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) and/or BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) to use every morning. For sensitive skin types, Austin, Texas–based dermatologist Ted Lain, MD, suggests SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser with Glycolic Acid ($35), which has a 3 percent glycolic acid concentration that's low and non-irritating enough for most skin types and also contains glycerin to stave off dryness. For oilier skin, try Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser, at first using it a few times a week and then working up to every day.
Step Two: Antioxidants
"Antioxidants, such as vitamin C and ferulic acid are also required as part of a brightening regimen," says Lain. "They brighten and protect, so are best applied in the morning, as a serum, with sunscreen applied as the next step." SkinCeuticals' iconic C E Ferulic serum is Lain's go-to antioxidant.
Board-certified dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, also makes an intense brightening cream as part of her eponymous skincare line, which I tried in combination with C E Ferulic. The potent product contains 20 percent L-ascorbic acid ("the most clinically tested and proven effective form of vitamin C," says Ciraldo), and the texture is water-free and velvety, so it works beautifully under makeup.
Step Three: Sun Protection
Of course, antioxidants can't protect the skin from sun damage and uneven skin tone on their own: "Sun protection is also essential in maintaining the skin's brightness and youthful appearance," says Wesley.
Step Four: Retinol
I'd always been a little wary of retinol, but according to Lain, using the ingredient will enhance the benefits of all your other brightening products. Retinols "augment the lightening effect of antioxidants, the exfoliating effect of the AHAs as well as being collagen-inducers," he says.
A week is not long enough to reap the full benefits of retinol use, especially because I started applying a low concentration just twice, but I'm planning to work my way up to every night (always followed by moisturizer, of course). Lain's favorite retinol is SkinMedica's, which comes in 0.5 and 1.0 concentrations and is non-irritating. For a more affordable option, Lain recommends Clark's Botanicals Retinol Rescue, which is formulated with colloidal oatmeal meant to reduce inflammation, and CeraVe Skin Renewing Night Cream ($16) with 1 percent retinol, which Lain says is an incredible deal for less than $20.
Step Five: Chemical Peel
Chemical peels, both at-home and professional varieties, are the final bonus step to bright skin. "It's very effective to peel away the dead surface cells since they store excess pigment and also make skin look duller and feel rougher," Ciraldo explains. "Regular at-home micro-peels, especially with my fave, glycolic acid, help reveal brighter and smoother skin after just one use."
BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz makes a powerful glycolic-based peel kit ($98) that you can use at home. Board-certified dermatologist Roberta Del Campo, MD, of Del Campo Dermatology & Laser Institute also swears by Glowbiotics Probiotic Instant Resurfacing Pads, which are formulated with brightening goodies like 5 percent lactic acid and a Kakadu plum extract boasting a rich form of vitamin C. "This is my absolute favorite brightening product on the market," she says.
For something even more effective than an over-the-counter peel, Del Campo recommends hitting up your dermatologist for a medical-grade one. "What sets medical-grade peels apart from at-home treatments is that the in-office peels target specific skin conditions and are performed by professionals that can gauge the intensity of the treatments to give the best results," she says. If you're pressed for time (and on a budget), Dr. Schultz has a pop-up Peel Bar with locations in six different states where you can get a 40 percent concentration glycolic peel that costs $50 and takes just two minutes.
The Final Takeaway
It's flabbergasting (though I suppose it shouldn't be) what just a week of using the right ingredients can do for your skin concerns. In the photo above, I'm wearing no foundation (just under-eye concealer, blush, and a little cream highlighter), and my complexion is clearly much brighter. In terms of skin rehab, I'd call it a success.
Cleveland Clinic. 5 ways to exfoliate your skin without irritation. Updated February 12, 2020.