Lightening and Brightening the Skin

There is a difference between lightening and brightening the skin. When talking with clients about their skin care goals, getting rid of dark spots is high on the list. Inevitably, when discussing skin tone with clients, Michael Jackson’s name comes up as their heads shake from side to side. Let’s separate these two options and clear up any misconceptions.

Skin Lightening

Lightening and brightening the skin
Photo by Dr. Komeili

There is a lot of confusion out there regarding what lightening and brightening the skin means. Lightening specifically refers to reducing the amount of visible pigment in your skin. Lightening products can target specific problems, such as sun spots and acne scars, helping to create a more even skin tone. Bleaching the skin is a similar strategy, however, I rarely recommend this approach as it is much more aggressive and sometimes dangerous depending on the products used. Bleaching is the approach Michael Jackson took.

Be very careful when purchasing lightening products from foreign markets. These products are subject to different regulations and often contain mercury, a very dangerous toxin. Some alternative names for mercury include anything that begins with “merc” or say quicksilver, hg, or cinnabaris hydrargyri oxydum rubrum. Any product that warns you about coming into contact with metals is suspect.

Brightening the Skin

Brightening products take a different approach to beautifying skin. They tend to focus on restoring dull, lackluster skin to achieve a vibrant, glowing look. Brighteners typically include alpha hydroxy acids, vitamin C, and retinols. These ingredients help to boost skin cell turnover and exfoliation. Essentially, it’s out with the old and in the new!   

Skin brightening products work by way of melanocyte suppression via tyrosinase inhibitors. Basically, that means that you reduce or shut down the skin’s ability to produce melanin. Typically, these products are serums and should only be used at night. There are natural plant extracts, such as, linoleic acid, mulberry (alpha-arbutin), bearberry, licorice and phytic acid that also suppress melanin production. One of the products I recommend contains several of these ingredients. 

In terms of strategies, there are three general approaches to lightening skin. 

  • First, we can block the production of melanin by using hydroquinone and other lightening agent creams. Agents that block melanin tend to have the most dramatic effect. 
  • Secondly, we can block the transfer of pigment to the upper layers of the skin by using retinoid creams. These vitamin A derivatives can also help to boost collagen production and reduce wrinkles. 
  • The third strategy involves removing the upper layers of skin. We can remove excess pigment in the skin using chemical peels. After the peel, we employ sun protection to prevent increased pigment production and UV exposure.


Lightening and brightening Melasma
Photo by

Hyperpigmentation is a broad term and refers to superficial injury located in the epidermis and more serious damage in the dermis. As a refresher, the dermis is comprised of live skin cells and the epidermal skin cells are dead. Estheticians work on the epidermis and dermatologists work on both. For example, melasma is a type of dermal damage. It is often referred to as “pregnancy mask” and typically happens during pregnancy or a hormonal change.  It’s a common pigmentation problem in people with darker skin tones due to the amount of melanin production. It presents as dark patches on the cheeks, forehead, upper lip, and is usually only found on the face. You can find more on hyperpigmentation, lightening and brightening the skin in my previous post, found here.

Good Skin Brightening Ingredients

  • Kojic acid 
  • Azelaic acid 
  • Nicotinamide (niacinamide or vitamin B3) 
  • Glutathione 
  • Vitamin C
Lightening and brightening cleansing bar
The Brighten Up Bar

On the bright side, you can find several of these ingredients wrapped up nicely for you in the Brighten Up Bar. The Brighten up Bar works remarkably well to “brighten” skin, reduce sun spots and old acne scars. It has three gentle acids that dive into the pores to clear out oil and debris while reducing hyperpigmentation. You’ll also find several antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients. The soapy lather is comprised of coconut derivatives, so it leaves your skin feeling clean and supple, not squeaky. 

You can wash with it as often as you like since it doesn’t strip your skin of its natural oils. In addition to using it on the face, you can use it on your body where you experience darker patches from friction, such as, inner thighs, underarms and along the bikini line. Furthermore, you can lather it up and leave it on your skin as a brightening mask for 5-10 minutes which speeds up the process.

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Shelley Skin Care
Your Guide to Good Skin


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