Skin Brighteners vs Skin Lighteners– What’s the Difference?

skin lighteners erase frecklesQuestion:  Because I have dark spots on my face and chest, I bought a cream with licorice root  that promised to  “brighten”  my skin.  Then I saw another product with hydroquinone that claimed to “lighten” the skin.  Is there a difference in the promise?   Is one better than the other?

Answer:   Brown splotches and spots can appear on both light and darker skin tones.  There are three different types that are triggered by different situations:

1. Melasma is a brownish discoloration that occurs with pregnancy  or after use of birth control pills.

2. Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH)   are dark areas or spots that are provoked  by injury to the skin like a bug bite, scratch, acne, or exzema.

3. Sun Damage  from unprotected or prolonged exposure to  UV rays is the primary cause of irregular pigmentation in lighter skin tones.  In fact   the sun  can make  melasma  eve worse.

Skin Brightening vs Skin Lightening

Legal definitions are supposed to help us navigate skin care products, but competing words often just add to consumer confusion.  The FDA allows only hydroquinone to claim that it can lighten the skin.  This widely used ingredient acts by preventing new melanin production  so overtime the darkened  cells naturally turnover  and are replaced by healthy unpigmented cells.   Because it is regulated  by the FDA,   products with hydroquinone are required to list their concentrations on the label.    Over the counter skin lighteners have between 1-4% hydroquinone, while prescription treatment products  can have higher levels.

However there are a number of ingredients like soy and licorice root that have been shown to  be able to improve skin clarity.   Soy and niacinomide  can prevent melanin formation   while others like Kojic  Acid  can break down existing  melanin.   Dozens of good quality studies have shown   many of these ingredients to be effective, but the FDA will only allow them to  say they are skin brighteners, not skin lighteners. So while research has shown these ingredients to work, its hard to tell which product to buy because the manufacturer is not required to list the concentration of these other  melanin  fighters on the label.

My personal  recommendation is to look for combination products that use agents that both inhibit and breakdown  melanin.   And whatever  treatment product you select,  make certain   to use a strong mineral sun screen to prevent further UV damage.  My long time favorite is Skinceuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense and my latest find is  Cotz Face available at  Ulta stores  and online at

Remember even the words most effctive  skin lightener/skin brightener ( even  uber expensive  laser treatments)  can’t help  skin that is unprotected  from UV rays.


2 thoughts on “Skin Brighteners vs Skin Lighteners– What’s the Difference?

  1. This is very useful information, thank you. I suffer from hyperpigmentation on my forehead, upper lip and cheeks and I’ve tried a few products that were supposed to lighten it but none of them ever really worked.

  2. Pingback: Announcing New Skin of Color TabNo Nonsense Beauty Blog

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