Brightening, Lightening, Whitening—What They Mean And What They Do

Sable Yong


Ever since the advent of K-beauty hitting our shores, their whole slew of skincare products with rave reviews in tow have overwhelmed pretty much all of us beauty-obsessed. It’s a LOT to take in–especially from a country that touts a 12-step skin care routine twice a day. Among the products you didn’t know you needed (essence? emulsion?), you’re probably discovering a lot of questionable stuff that you didn’t even think a person needed, in general. You may have noticed “whitening” skin care products becoming more common in the beauty aisle than something you’d find in a specialty beauty shop or prescription medication.

MORE: The Expert Scoop On The Korean Beauty Craze

Whether they work or don’t work is less the issue than what they actually do. Can one achieve white skin by some topical treatment? In short, no. In the family of pigment-manipulating products, skin whiteners are the harshest level in the tier of brightening and lightening products. They all have different purposes. Brighteners address things like hyperpigmentation—sun spots, acne scars, freckles–they are not meant to mess with the color of your natural skin tone. Lighteners work by inhibiting melanin production so you don’t tan in the sun, and depending on how strong a formula you use, they can gradually make your skin as pale as it might be if you never saw the sun. Whiteners generally contain a bleaching agent to strip pigment from the skin. If you can guess from the way it sounds, it’s very irritating to your skin and can whiten unevenly or cause other reactions like redness or hyperpigmentation.

Pretty much all of these leave your skin very sensitive and vulnerable to UV light, more so going from former to latter. Some popular lightening/whitening ingredients are Hydroquinone, Melanozyme, Azaelic acid, Kojic acid, mulberry, licorice root, vitamins A and C, and papaya, to name a few. Most of these incorporate an acid to attack hyperpigmented spots and remove dead skin cells. Despite the “natural” nature of some of these, don’t trust that they can’t be harmful to you. Depending on concentration of an ingredient, anything can be harmful in too strong a dosage. There is some controversy on the safety of hydroquinone, but any over-the-counter version is not likely to have enough concentration to really damage your skin.

So what’s up with all these “whitening” products being offered as just another casual step in your skin care routine? Anything over the counter won’t have enough of its whitening active ingredient to make your skin the color of notebook paper, but after time should have an affect on overall tone. Skin brighteners can be used by anyone with acne scars or discoloration from things like sun exposure. The trick with “whitening” products, depending on where they’re coming from, is of slight cultural question. For instance, in Asia pale even-toned skin is highly coveted because it speaks to a class system wherein high society finds tanned skin unfavorable because it indicates agricultural lifestyles, working in fields all day. Lots of their “whitening” products are in fact brighteners–working to even skin tone and remove dark spots– but the translation point is a bit muddled.

The tricky part of other whiteners that are meant to bleach skin is that aside from side effects (UV sensitivity, irritation), cultural implications are suspect especially depending on how a whitening product is marketed. They’re not all evil– meant for the purpose of making everyone white, but understanding how the ingredients perform is important, depending on what your concerns are. Everyone would love a bright glowing complexion, but that isn’t to say that no matter how pervasive a cultural premium on lighter skin is, should you potentially harm your skin to get it. Any skin tone is capable of looking its best and brightest.

MORE: The Best Of The Brightest Skin Care Products