It is not uncommon for people to want brighter and/or lighter skin. While skin brightening and skin whitening are two terms used interchangeably due to marketing, they mean very different things.
Skin brightening refers to restoring the natural glow of your skin, while skin whitening, as its name literally suggests, refers to whitening your skin.
Most people want the former; when they say they want lighter skin, what they really mean is, “I want skin free of pigment and blemishes”. That can be achieved without the need for skin whitening, a potentially dangerous procedure.
Let’s find out more.
What is skin brightening?
Skin brightening is a cosmetic procedure aimed at improving the skin’s radiance and reducing discoloration or uneven skin tones. It is focused on restoring the vibrancy and glow to the skin, rather than changing its natural colour. Primarily, this involves promoting the removal of old, dull skin cells and encouraging the growth of new ones, thereby enhancing the skin’s natural glow.
There are many ways to achieve brighter skin, from brightening serums to facials. But as a bare minimum, some form of exfoliation (physical and/or chemical) is involved to remove dead skin cells. Beyond that, your skincare routine may also include products that contain tyrosinase, an enzyme that inhibits tyrosinase activity and suppresses melanin production in your skin.
What is skin whitening?
Skin whitening, often also referred to as skin bleaching, is focused on reducing the skin’s melanin content to achieve a lighter skin tone. Whitening products typically contain stronger agents like high concentration hydroquinone, mercury, and steroids that suppress melanin production. However, these substances can have harmful side effects and can potentially cause skin irritation and inflammation.
In Singapore, chemical peels and even laser therapy (e.g. pico laser, Q-switched laser) are commonly marketed as whitening treatments. Please take note that these treatments work to lighten pigmentation, not whiten skin per se.
Treatments that actually whiten skin, such as whitening drips, are banned in Singapore.
Skincare ingredients for skin brightening
There are some specific ingredients you can look out for if you’re in the market for skin brightening skincare products.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant essential to the health of our skin. Vitamin C reduces skin dullness, promotes collagen production, and helps to neutralise the free radicals that cause oxidative stress to our skin cells. Often added to brightening serums, Vitamin C can inhibit the enzyme tyrosinase, which catalyses the production of melanin. Due to its sensitivity to light and air, Vitamin C is often found in dark, airtight bottles in the form of serums, creams, and masks.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Another ingredient to look out for is Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs). These are water-soluble acids derived from sugary fruits, and include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric acid. AHAs are used as exfoliants, breaking the bonds between weakened skin cells and allowing them to be easily sloughed off to reveal fresher skin. AHAs also stimulate new skin cell and collagen growth, promoting a more vibrant and youthful complexion. Products with AHAs range from cleansers and toners to brightening serums and peels.
Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs), like salicylic acid, are oil-soluble acids that penetrate deeper into the skin and pores to exfoliate and cleanse them. While not as commonly associated with skin brightening as AHAs, BHAs can also help in enhancing skin brightness by reducing acne and congestion, which can cause dullness and discoloration.
Derivatives of Vitamin A, retinoids are a category of ingredients that include retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinoic acid. Retinoids work by increasing skin cell turnover. By promoting this renewal process, retinoids help to even out skin tone and boost skin brightness. On the flip side, retinoids can make the skin more sensitive to sun exposure, so it should be used in tandem with a high-SPF sunscreen for the best outcome.
Known as vitamin B3, niacinamide has numerous benefits for the skin. It boosts skin hydration, reduces redness and inflammation, regulates sebum production, and strengthens the skin’s lipid barrier. When it comes to skin brightening, niacinamide does not work by directly inhibiting tyrosinase like many other ingredients on this list. Instead, it works by preventing the transfer of melanin to the keratinocytes (the primary cell type in the epidermis) that are near the skin’s surface, thus helping to even out skin tone and reduce the appearance of dark spots.
A by-product from the fermentation process of certain types of fungi, Kojic acid inhibits the function of tyrosinase. This reduces melanin production and helps to lighten the skin. Kojic acid is found in a variety of skincare products, including serums, creams, and cleansers.
Derived from the bearberry plant, arbutin is a natural form of hydroquinone, a potent skin lightener. It works by slowly releasing hydroquinone through hydrolysis, inhibiting tyrosinase from doing its job, thereby lightening skin over time. Arbutin is considered a safer and milder alternative to direct hydroquinone, which can cause skin irritation when used excessively.
You should also be looking out for licorice extract, which contains an active compound called glabridin, which also inhibits tyrosinase. As an added perk, licorice extract also has powerful antioxidants that help protect the skin from environmental stressors.
Finally, we have azelaic acid. Produced naturally by yeast that lives on healthy skin, azelaic acid helps the skin renew itself more quickly, reducing pimple and blackhead formation. It also helps to kill the bacteria that cause acne and rosacea. Moreover, azelaic acid inhibits tyrosinase, which makes it effective in reducing hyperpigmentation and brightening the complexion.
Treatments for skin brightening
Maintaining a vibrant and healthy complexion is not just about the skincare products you apply. Sometimes, brightening requires a little bit more effort and care. For this, there are treatments to help make the skin brightening process easier.
This treatment involves the application of a chemical solution to the skin, causing it to exfoliate and eventually peel off. The new, regenerated skin underneath is usually smoother, less wrinkled, and more even in color, contributing to a brighter appearance. Chemical peels vary in strength, from mild to deep, and the choice depends on your specific skin condition and desired results.
In microdermabrasion, tiny crystals are sprayed onto the skin to gently remove the outer layer of the skin. This treatment is less aggressive than chemical peels and doesn’t require a recovery period. It rejuvenates the skin surface, promoting a more vibrant and youthful appearance by reducing the appearance of sun damage, wrinkles, fine lines, age spots, and other skin-related concerns.
Laser skin resurfacing uses beams of light to treat damaged skin. This procedure stimulates the growth of new skin cells and boosts collagen production, resulting in firmer, smoother, and brighter skin. Laser resurfacing can be used to treat a variety of skin conditions, including wrinkles, acne scars, and age spots.
Microneedling involves using a device with small needles to puncture the skin. This treatment stimulates the body’s wound healing process, boosting collagen and elastin production. As a result, microneedling can help reduce scars, hyperpigmentation, and enhance overall skin brightness and texture.
In addition to these in-clinic procedures, there are topical treatments often prescribed by dermatologists to brighten the skin, such as retinoids, vitamin C serums, and skin-lightening creams. These treatments work by exfoliating the skin, boosting collagen production, or reducing the production of melanin in the skin.
It is important to be consistent in going for follow-up treatments as they encourage a variety of processes like cell renewal. This consistency will help you to obtain a brighter, more radiant outlook.
A brightening serum for your skincare routine
If you’re looking for a product to start your skin brightening journey, try SkinLab’s Brightening Serum with Pure Vitamin C. Suitable for all skin types, this brightening serum uses the Intradermal System, which helps the skin to better absorb the L-ascorbic acid for revitalisation.
Reach out to us to get your brightening serum now.