Recently, a friend asked me via Instagram what I would recommend for brightening. This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked about this! I get asked this all of the time from clients, friends, and family. In Southern California, the single most concern I hear about is pigmentation, and I’m sure in many other sunny and bright areas of the country (and world), it continues on as the number one skincare concern. Fortunately, there are many active ingredients that are able to combat spots, uneven skin tone, texture, and others to prevent it from even happening. Now for the bad news: there are way too many poor formulations out there with fancy packaging and marketing to woo us. Hopefully through this post, you’ll feel empowered when choosing the right brightening product for your skin’s needs. This is a LONG one, so thanks to anyone who sticks it through the whole post.
I want to break down how pigmentation forms in a snapshot. Tyrosinase is an enzyme produced by melanocytes (which are pigments created by cells when exposed to UV light). Tyrosinase inhibitors are the best defenses against brown spots! UV exposure folks. You can use a weather app to see what the UV index is where you live and avoid being our doors during times with a high UV index, or else wear high protection sunscreens which you should reapply if you are going to be outdoors.
It’s useless to include brightening ingredients to your skincare routine without the inclusion of sun protection daily. Let me make that 100% clear.
Now. Let’s talk about some incredible skin brightening ingredients:
- Vitamin C: Possibly the most famous of skin brightening ingredients. Also boosts collagen and has incredible anti-oxidant abilities. Ascorbic Acid (or L-ascorbic Acid) is widely known as the most potent form of Vitamin C, and especially in high concentrations (think Vitamin C at 15% or more). There are multiple forms of Vitamin C worth noting, but for the sake of brightening, look for Ascorbic Acid. This is a very unstable molecule however and must be combined with other antioxidants to remain stable, and must NOT be exposed to light and air (say NO to jar packaging for this one, and just in general with many antioxidants).
- AHA (alpha hydroxy acids): Regular exfoliation increases cellular turnover, reduces rough texture, and actually boosts skin’s ability to retain moisture, among many other amazing benefits. Regular exfoliation is critical for over all skin health, and contributes to better absorption of active ingredients. It’s critical to include these in your regular skincare routine.
- Retinol: This ingredient is one that gets a bad rep from the natural skincare world, despite it’s incredible restorative properties. It can shrink pores, reduce fine lines and wrinkles (but really, it does), as well as minimize pigmentation in the skin. This is a very powerful active that you need to slowly introduce your skin to.
- Arbutin: I’m happy to see the growing love of Arbutin in skin brightening products! Arbutin is safe, gentle, and proven effective at brightening skin discolorations. Arbutin works like other pigment blockers: by inhibiting tyrosinase. It’s found in bearberry extract, which you may have seen in skin brightening products in the past.
- Niacinamide: This form of vitamin B3 is great since it’s light and heat stable! This power antioxidant not only brightens, but also minimizes pores and contributes to a smooth texture.
There are even more ingredients that have little research but are worth mentioning because it is there (snail secretion filtrate found in many Korean skincare products like those from CosRX for example and, palmitoyl grapevine shoot extract like that found in Caudalie’s Vinoperfect Radiance Serum). We’ll get there one day: this is long enough without it tonight. For now, there is one ingredients I would say, let’s avoid…
- Hydroquinone has been historically slammed by natural skincare companies, and while it can be safe when used in minimal amounts, and when used for a minimal amount of time, I’ll go ahead and recommend you avoid it. It’s more work than it’s worth for the average consumer to be sure they’re using it effectively and safely, and there is growing research showing it’s toxicity (you can read an abstract here for just one example).
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, allow me to introduce some of my favorites in each category mentioned above! The best way to brighten is combine more than one of these. However, I recommend a Vitamin C Serum and AHA at minimum.
Let’s talk about Vitamin C! This is a must for everyone, all the time, in my opinion. This amazing ingredients is a collagen booster, anti-oxidant, and big player in the tyrosinase inhibiting game. There are billions of Vitamin C serums, and it’s best to choose one in dark packaging, with a pump or dropper. No clear packaging (like Ole Henriksen’s Truth Serum), and no jars! Also worth noting that you should attempt to choose a Vitamin C serum void of fragrance or essential oils. These ingredients are likely to cause sensitivity to a product that already may cause some (Ascorbic Acid is very acidic and may feel warm on the face: it does for me for a moment). Citrus we eat contains Vitamin C. Orange, lemon and other citrus essential oils are volatile fragrant ingredients that contain many other chemicals that can cause photosensitivity and actually break down collagen (Ole Henriksen’s very popular Vitamin C serum contains these essential oils I do not recommend it). Here are my top two recommendations for Vitamin C. I often mix them with an emulsion or into my serum or moisturizer, during the day, under sunscreen (fun fact: it can boost sunscreen’s protective benefits).
- Paula’s Choice RESIST C15 Super Booser ($49): I add quite a bit of this to my serum and go through it quickly (the $49 gets you .67 ounces), and since it’s price as grown, I’ve repurchased the Drunk Elephant C-Firma which contain a full ounce of product. This does mix well with ANYTHING and containts an amazing array of antioxidants, and is stabilized by ferulic acid and vitamin e. Well worth the buy, especially with a discount code, which Paula’s Choice does pretty often, so sign up for her emails!
- Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum ($80): Contains the 15% stabilized ascorbic acid, as well as a plethora of skin softening and anti-oxidant ingredients. I will mix this with my day emulsion like I did with the Paula’s Choice, since it is quite fluid, and I do get a warming sensation when I apply 15% ascorbic acid directly to my face.
Let me know what kinds of Vitamin C products you’ve tried or recommend! Always looking for great quality skincare.
AHA (alpha hydroxy acids) are incredible at helping pigmentation. There are a ton of them on the market and the ones pictures above are a small snapshot of some of my favorites. It’s worth it to note that AHAs are contingent on pH to work. This means they must be within a certain pH range to actually “work” on your skin. We’ll look for the range beteen 3.4-4. Any hire than that, and your acids begin to become less and less active. Don’t even think about glycolic cleansers: the pH of cleansing ingredients is far too high, and the minimal contact with your skin means that it’s not doing much work at all. Here are my recommendations for AHAs:
- Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90): a blend of AHA (and some BHA), to gently buff away dead skin cells. This is my FAVORITE product! Cleanest ingredients, pH balances, and feels delightful in it’s gel texture (sans silicone too).
- IOPE Moisture Peeling Essence ($40 at Aritaum / Amore Cosmetics): This is a blend of only AHAs in a very simple, alcohol and fragrance free formula. I tested the pH of this at 4. It’s a cusper as far as efficacy, but it’s price is great and it’s quite gentle formula is good for all skin types. I included an ingredients list here because it’s not easy to find online. INGREDIENTS: water, butylene glycol, glycerin, glycereth-26, squalane, lactobionic acid (PHA), glycolic acid, sodium lactate, glyceryl stearate, glyceryl stearate citrate, glyceryl caprylate, cetearyl alcohol, stearic acid, arginine, ammonium acryloyldimethyltaurate/VP copolymer, xantham gum, palmitic acid, polyglyceryl-3 methylglucose distearate, hydrogenated lecithin, hydrogenated vegetable oil, disodium EDTA.
- Paula’s Choice RESIST Weekly Resurfacing Treatment 10% AHA ($36): A fantastic once (or more) weekly treatment of AHA in a liquid that you dispense onto a cotton and swipe on the skin. Has a strange odor and is the most likely to cause some temporary stinging. Unless it truly burns or hurts, do not be alarmed! Continue with your normal skincare routine and this will subside.
If you have any questions about these or other AHAs, ask me! I’ve tried many and looked at many, so I would be happy to chat about them. Or, if I haven’t used it, I would be interested in giving it a try and test the pH for you if I can.
Ahhhh Retinol! The ingredient that “thins the skin.” Well it does. In a good way. Just like AHAs do in a good way. Getting rid of dead skin cell build up, calloused skin, etc. (Ew okay I’m being dramatic, but it can help that!) Nothing impacts my skin in more positive ways than with the regular use of Retinol. Seriously, it will soften every fine line, it will minimize pores, it will soften rough texture, and most of all, even skin tone. There are many amazing Retinol formulations. (I intend on a detailed Retinol-only post in the future.) I use Retinol at night, every other night or two nights. Paula’s Choice makes my favorite Retinol products over all (and she makes many, any of which are a hit). I picked up this newly formulated Retinol from IOPE though after trying a sample and loving how emollient and moisturizing it was! I experienced no sensitivity to it either. I should note that when using Retinol for the first time, try every couple of days first to ensure you do not experience any side effects (most notably, the annoying flakiness). Your skin will become acclimated to the use of Retinol after a few weeks and you can use daily, if you want. I use these two together on those nights I use Retinol, using the more emollient IOPE on targeted areas, where I will just use a half pump of the Paula’s Choice Retinol Booster into my serum or moisturizer .
- Paula’s Choice RESIST 1% Retinol Booster ($52): This is a lot of Retinol. You can add a half pump (a tiny pump btw) to your serum or moisturizer to control the dose or a full pump if you’re a veteran retinol user. I love that this is silicone free, so it plays well with others without pilling/balling, and it includes other anti-aging anti-oxidants, as well as skin softening and skin soothing ingredients! It’s a win.
- IOPE Bio Anti-Wrinkle Serum with Retinol ($85): This one does include silicone and oils, so it’s very emollient and acts as an occlusive. I use this in targeted areas (dry areas and / or wrinkle prone areas) as a last step in my skincare routine. It includes an array of lipid rich skin moisturizing ingredients, anti-oxidants, and skin restorative ingredients. I quickly realized I did not care to type out this very long ingredients list, so I took a quick photo: They’ll be at the bottom of this post, so for those that are into it, it’s there for you.
Since there are so many Retinol products (including prescription retinoids), I’d be curious to know what you’ve used if any.
So, I’m gonna lump Arbutin and Niacinamide together. I’ve only added these to my routine over the last three weeks and have already started to see a difference. I’ve been using the Paula’s Choice RESIST Brightening Essence day and night, during my essence step (after toning), and I’ve been using the Radiance Renewal Mask every other night, with a few drops of the 10% Niacinamide Booster added into it as the next to last step in my routine (the mask is a gel-cream and therefore goes under my very emollient moisturizer). Arbutin is also found in Goldfaden MD’s Light Treatment serum that has a great, gentle base of ingredients. Niacinamide is found in a LOT of Korean skincare products (makes sense: it brightens, minimizes pores, and textures, it’s a power house). It’s in my own Essence I use daily (Missha Time Revolution: The First Treatment Essence Intensive) and is in the Essence I will be replacing that with (IOPE Bio Essence Intensive Conditioning). I digress. Here are my Arbutin and Niacinamide Recommendations:
- Paula’s Choice Radiance Renewal Mask ($36): Incredible gel-cream texture that is ideal for any skin type! Also contains sodium hyaluronate, vitamin C, bearberry extract, allantoin for soothing, and the list goes on. This feels sooooooo good on the skin. I cannot emphasis that enough! It’s one of my most favorite products as of recent. It has an amazing texture and feels so soothing on contact. I use this every other or every two days right before my night cream, which seals it in.
- Paula’s Choice RESIST Brightening Essence ($42): This is clear and watery. A very light weight, watery gel. I love the texture of this too. It doesn’t feel like I’ve added another layer: it just feels like a burst of light moisture on my skin before the rest of my routine. Considering how many steps my skincare routine has accumulated, I appreciate this texture greatly. I use this after my original essence and before my serum. This also includes multiple hyaluronic acids, niacinamide, peptides, antioxidants, and skin soothing ingredients. This is truly anti-aging and brightening combined into one step.
- Paula’s Choice RESIST 10% Niacinamide Booster ($42): Amazing booster to my nighttime brightening mask, this also contains hyaluronic acids, coenzyme Q10, licorice extract, allantoin… Amazing formulation to boost a treatment. I add this to my Radiance Renewal Mask that I do every other or every second night.
Have you used anything with Arbutin? I don’t feel like I see too many options readily available. Curious to know what I’m missing.
Phew. Okay wow friends, thanks for hanging on with me if you’ve lasted this long. I know, it’s been information overload. My hope is that you learned something new! Please let me know if I can answer any questions about the products and ingredients I mentioned: I will do my best to answer. You can also hit me up on Instagram @itshollyrenee and leave me a comment or a message. In the meantime, also please read some reference articles if you want to learn even more.
- Retinol Myths Busted by Paula Begoun, which I love since Retinol has such a bad rep.
- Abstract, demonstrating AHAs amazingness on pretty much every skin issue. If you’re not using AHAs, go get one NOW!
- EWG’s Skin Deep snapshot with sources proving the toxicity of Hydroquinone. Too many sources to ignore really.
- An article by Byrdie about Arbutin. I love this simple, to the point article on this effective ingredient.
- Another great article by Paula Begoun and her team on how amazing Vitamin C is for you!
- A great overview of the multiple benefits of Niacinamide by The Dermatology Review.