The Science Behind Skin Brightening

The Science Behind Skin Brightening

Dark spots can be a real nuisance, especially as we age. A one-two punch is required to fade discoloration—pigment blockers like tranexamic acid and kojic acid alongside ingredients that stimulate cell turnover, such as retinol.

Unlike bleaching products, which suppress melanin production, brightening makeup products simply even skin tone. The Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab tests hundreds of skincare and makeup products to find the best ones for fading dark spots.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is one of the best skin brightening products or ingredients for dark spots. This powerful antioxidant can lighten dark spots and hyperpigmentation by inhibiting the process that produces excess melanin pigment. It also helps fade blemishes, acne scars, and hyperpigmentation caused by melasma and even out skin tone.

We found a new way to deliver this powerful ingredient with our Activated C Serum. This specialized formula takes the clarifying power of pure L-ascorbic acid. It makes it more targeted to help fade dark spots and other discolorations without affecting normal skin pigmentation. We combine this with tranexamic acid, a tyrosinase inhibitor that prevents the formation of new discolorations and lightens those pesky ones that are already there.

Our Activated C serum also includes ferulic acid, another skin-saver that helps fade discoloration and boosts the brightness of your complexion. Pumpkin ferment extract and Indian gooseberry provide added brightening benefits.

For an extra boost, we’ve included licorice extract, which has long been known to lighten dark spots and reduce the appearance of other types of hyperpigmentation. The compounds in licorice help balance the excess production of melanin and brighten the overall appearance of your skin.


Most of us are familiar with vitamin C and niacinamide regarding fading hyperpigmentation. But these aren’t your only options—there’s an under-the-radar brightener that’s a beauty editor’s fave: alpha arbutin.

This glycerine-derived lightening ingredient is a naturally-occurring compound found in botanical extracts like bearberry, cranberry, and Japanese pear, but it can also be manufactured synthetically. It works by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme in your skin that creates melanin pigment and dark spots, says cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos.

According to Dobos, alpha arbutin is also a gentler alternative to hydroquinone, which can irritate those with sensitive skin. The good news is that it has not (yet) been shown to interact negatively with other active ingredients, so you can efficiently work it into your existing routine without fear of an adverse reaction.

That means it’s safe to use on all skin types, including sensitive, acne-prone, and retinol-using skin—though you should always patch-test any new product before total usage. Dobos explains that it works incredibly well when paired with other spot-fading and brightness-boosting ingredients, like kojic acid and azelaic acid. You can find it in skin-lightening creams, overnight masks, and serums. Ensure that your product contains a proper concentration of 3-4 percent to get results.

Kojic Acid

Kojic acid, a natural compound found in several different types of fungi and a byproduct of the fermentation of rice, is a powerful skin-lightening ingredient. It targets areas of hyperpigmentation, including dark spots and age spots, and can help fade melasma and sun damage. It works by interfering with the proteins in your skin that produce melanin pigment and is also a powerful antioxidant. You can find it in many products, but it’s often used with other ingredients to make it more effective.

It takes some time to see results from kojic acid, but consistency is critical. You’ll need to use it regularly and consistently for a minimum of 90 days to see a noticeable improvement in the lightening of age/sun spots or the treatment of melasma. This is because it interferes with the synthesis of melanin, but once you get used to it, it will gradually start to work its magic.

Like vitamin C, kojic acid can be used with other brightening ingredients, such as glycolic acid or niacinamide. However, it’s important to note that using too many of these ingredients together can make your skin too dry, and you could experience excessive peeling or redness. That’s why we recommend starting with a small amount of each product and increasing your usage slowly to allow your skin to adjust.

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is one of those super-cool ingredients that does multiple things at once. It’s found in the body, where it helps cushion and lubricate joints. Still, you can also find it in skin care products and injectables that Dermatologists and Plastic Surgeons use to add facial volume and reduce deeper expression lines for their patients.

This long, chain-like molecule has plenty of spots for water to latch onto, making it excellent at retaining moisture. It can hold as much as a quarter teaspoon of water per square inch, which is why it’s an essential ingredient in moisturizers and serums.

When paired with brightening products, the extra moisture that hyaluronic acid provides allows active brighteners to function more effectively. That’s because the more water the skin has, the less melanin it can produce – a significant factor in fading dark spots.

Hyaluronic acid can also help with acne because it can control sebum production, an oily substance that can clog pores and lead to breakouts. A 2017 study found that hyaluronic acid reduced the amount of sebum produced by the skin and helped prevent sebum build-up in the pores.

Hyaluronic acid is safe for most skin types, but it’s best suited for those with dry skin. For it to penetrate the skin, it needs to be formulated to have a lower molecular weight. Benjamin explains that “chemical engineers can manipulate the size of HA molecules to make them smaller, which allows them to penetrate the skin.” You’ll often see products with this type of hyaluronic acid formulation advertised as suitable for all skin types.

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