With so many terms in the world of skincare, it's easy to confuse one for another. And with new products launching daily promising to help you achieve different goals, keeping track of what your products do and what results you can expect adds another layer of complication.
Take "skin brightening," a term you've probably spotted on your favorite vitamin C or exfoliation product. Though the two words sound similar, skin brightening is not skin lightening. "Brightening refers to a combination of effects to give your skin a radiant glow," says board-certified dermatologist Azadeh Shirazi, MD. "Brightening has less to do with pigment and more to do with vibrancy, whereas lightening refers to reducing discoloration and skin pigmentation."
Ahead, Shirazi and board-certified dermatologists Divya Shokeen, MD, Brendan Camp, MD, and Marisa Garshick, MD, break down what skin brightening is and how you can achieve brighter skin.
Meet the Expert
- Divya Shokeen, MD, is a board-certified medical, surgical, and cosmetic dermatologist and the founder of Ocean Skin & Vein Institute.
- Brendan Camp, MD, is a double board-certified dermatologist specializing in medical and cosmetic dermatology at MDCS Dermatology in New York City.
- Marisa Garshick, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and a clinical assistant professor at Cornell University.
- Azadeh Shirazi, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in La Jolla, California, and the founder of AziMD Skincare.
What Is Skin Brightening?
"Skin brightening refers to reducing dullness of the skin and making it more radiant," says Garshick. But as our experts note, technically, the term is subjective.
Shokeen offers a more in-depth breakdown: "Skin brightening refers to the process of enhancing the radiance and clarity of the skin without altering its natural color," she says. "Brightening products aim to improve the texture and tone of the skin by exfoliating dead skin cells, promoting cell renewal, and increasing hydration. [They] can help reduce the appearance of dullness, fine lines, and acne scars, [and] enhance the penetration and efficacy of other skincare products."
Shokeen continues: "As brightening agents do not affect melanin production, they are generally considered safer and milder than skin-lightening products. However, some people may still experience sensitivities or allergic reactions to certain brightening ingredients, so you have to be careful when mixing too many agents." To ensure skin safety, you must pair these products with sunscreen.
How to Brighten Your Skin
Develop a Daily Skincare Routine
You have to start with the basics, step one being developing a healthy daily skincare routine. Shokeen emphasizes that it's essential to follow a consistent skincare regimen that includes cleansing, serums focused on maintaining your skin, moisturizing, and applying sunscreen without fail every day. "Moisturizing the skin regularly can keep the skin looking healthy, hydrated, and vibrant," adds Garshick.
Use Ingredients Like Vitamin C and Niacinamide
"Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant and plays a crucial role in skin health," says Shokeen. "It can help to brighten the complexion, reduce the appearance of dark spots, and protect the skin from damage caused by free radicals."
Other helpful ingredients, Camp tells us, include alpha-hydroxy acids (like glycolic and lactic acid) that gently loosen the bonds between dead skin cells and aid in the exfoliation process; retinols, which regulate cell turnover and help prevent the accumulation or buildup of dead skin cells that might otherwise contribute to a dull complexion or acne formation; and niacinamide, a versatile skincare ingredient that can improve the radiance of skin through upping hydration and minimizing inflammation.
Across the board, the experts agree: Exfoliation is a crucial step in skin brightening—but should be done with caution.
"Exfoliating can improve skin brightness by facilitating the natural process by which skin cells are shed from the skin," says Camp. "Removing the dull, dead top layer of skin will reveal a healthier, more vibrant layer of skin."
However, there is such a thing as too much exfoliating, and it's important not to go overboard. "[I recommend] exfoliating one-to-two times per week to get rid of dead skin cells and leave the skin looking refreshed," says Garshick. "That said, while it may be tempting, it is important to avoid exfoliating too frequently as this can disrupt the skin barrier and leave the skin red and sensitive."
Try Professional Peels and Treatments
Treatments are a vital aid in keeping skin refreshed and healthy. You must work with a dermatologist or aesthetician to understand the best course of treatments for you, but when it comes to brightening, the experts share their top recommended treatments:
- Laser Resurfacing: "Laser resurfacing treatments work to stimulate new collagen and can brighten the skin, improving both tone and texture," says Garshick.
- Microneedling (With or Without PRP): "This creates micro-injuries to the skin to stimulate new collagen while also improving skin tone," Garshick explains. "Generally, multiple treatments are needed for best results."
- Chemical Peels: "Often using a higher concentration of exfoliating acids, chemical peels can be a great way to help brighten the skin," says Garshick. "They can range in intensity, with some causing very little downtime and others with more downtime." Adds Camp: "Peels are a great way to reveal brighter skin while addressing specific skin concerns, such as acne, dark spots, or fine lines."
- Deep Cleansing Facials: "[Deep cleansing facials] such as the Diamond Glow Facial helps clean out pores, gently resurface the skin, and hydrate the skin," shares Shirazi.
Get Good Sleep
As with many things in life, sometimes the key to improvement is just a good night's sleep. "Getting enough sleep is essential for overall health, including skin health," says Shokeen. "When we sleep, our body repairs itself, and this includes the skin. Inadequate sleep can lead to dull, tired-looking skin."
Eat a Balanced Diet
The myths are true: A balanced diet can work wonders, whether it be feeling better mentally and physically, or, in this case, improving your natural glow. "A healthy and balanced diet can help to promote healthy skin," says Shokeen. "Eating foods rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals can help to maintain a bright complexion."