What exactly is a brightening product? And what does it do to your skin? 

By Hallie Gould
Updated September 15, 2015
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Woman with glowing skin
Credit: Bill Phelps

This article originally appeared on MIMI.

One of the most prolific questions I'm asked as a beauty editor pertains to the idea of "brightening." I realized, after tons of explanation—each tailored to the specific person inquiring—that I wasn't completely clear on the definition myself. What exactly is a brightening product? And what does it do to your skin? I enlisted the help of both Rachel Nazarian of the Schweiger Dermatology Group and celebrity dermatologist and acne expert Whitney Bowe to get down to the bottom of it all.

The term "brightening" is used pretty loosely, and until you read the ingredients you can't be sure what each product is doing. "'Brightening' might mean 'lightening', 'fading' or 'bleaching'," but not always, says Nazarian. Dr. Whitney Bowe adds, "Brightening products contain ingredients that act to block the production of pigment, or can actually help lift pigment out of the skin."

Let's start from the beginning. When someone has dark spots on their skin, it's most commonly due to two reasons. "One is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation—that's darkening caused by some sort of irritation or injury, such as acne or picking at your skin. It's a result of the cells releasing pigment and staining the skin." The second most common cause of dark spots on the skin is the sun—radiation causes darkening, leaving sun spots and freckles. Dark spots can also be caused by air pollution and even hormones because they can increase the production of melanin, leading to pigment in the skin. Depending on the type of skin you have, you may have a tendency to react more dramatically and release more pigment than others (for example, dark spots are more common among Latinas).

Brightening products have ingredients that work to treat each condition. They work to block the production of pigment, or they help to increase cell turnover so that the darker-stained uppermost layers of the skin can exfoliate away, revealing lighter, healthier skin.

"Hydroquinone is a common one," says Zararian. "This ingredient is usually found in brightening creams and acts by bleaching the skin—or making it whiter. It's safer for lighter skin tones, while darker skinned people need to be cautious they don't lighten their normal skin accidentally (if they don't apply it only to the dark spots)." Vitamin C is an antioxidant that's safer to use because it works by decreasing pigment, and, Nazarian explains, "In this way, vitamin C would be considered more of a 'lightening' or 'fading' cream." Melanozyme and kojic acid are more recently used ingredients that have gained popularity because of their safety profile. They both help lighten sun spots and fade post-inflammatory stains without the risk of bleaching the skin, so they're considered safe even on darker skin tones.

Once I fully understood exactly what dark spots were, and how brightening products help, I wondered what I should do next. In a market so massively oversaturated, how was I to pick a product that was right for me? Nazarian suggests, " Elure Advanced Brightening Lotion is best for sunspots because it uses Melanozyme. I love Ambi fade cream (with hydroquinone) for old acne stains. Vitamin C is in SkinMedica Vitamin C + E Complex, which allows for overall cell turnover."

Though it is doable to buy a product and brighten hyperpigmentation, that's not the first step you should take in protecting yourself. Bowe offers, "Anyone with uneven tone or brown spots can benefit, but it's essential to use sun protective measures as well. You can undo the damage with these creams but then you are fighting an uphill battle if you don't protection your skin from whatever is triggering the pigment production in the first place (the sun, acne, etc). That's why it's so essential to wear sunscreen and make sure you're working to treat the cause of the issue."