The Truth About Skin Brightening Treatments

Janell M. Hickman


Sometimes it feels like a new skin care product comes out every single day. Lately though, we’ve seen a trend in masks, lotions, serums, and more that are promising the holy grail of even, glowing, and supple skin with the promise of brightening it up. Most of us know the pros of a consistent skin care regimen, but do we really need to throw a brightener in the mix – and what is it really doing to our skin? We rounded up a few experts to get the good, bad, and iffy on this self-proclaimed craze.

Brightening, Whitening, and Lightening Are Different
“Brightening is done topically with vitamin C and other skin nourishing treatments,” explains Natalie Buenaventura, owner and nurse practitioner at Kalologie in Los Angeles. “Whitening is done topically with bleach and other chemicals, while lightening is done with a laser to lift pigmentation below the skin level.”

Don’t Confuse Brightening with Bleaching
“Brightening and bleaching are two totally different things,” cautions Janel Luu, CEO of  Le Mieux Cosmetics, Inc. “[In my opinion] skin lightening is always the safer treatment option. Skin brightening often employs mild exfoliating agents. In bleaching treatments, one has to be particularly careful, given that most of these products contain extremely harsh ingredients that can also cause other health issues.”

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Stop Pigmentation Before It Starts
“An uneven skin tone, or hyper-pigmentation is a result of too much production of melanin, causing over-pigmentation or dark spots,” explains Luu. “Melanin is responsible for determining factors like you skin and hair color. It also helps protect skin against damaging UV light and absorbs heat from the sun. However, over-exposure to the sun is one of the main causes of uneven skin tone, melasma, age and liver spots.”

Yes, Your Skin Tone Matters
“Darker skin tones run the highest risk [of being impacted] from excess pigmentation,” explains Buenaventura. “IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) treatments are best because they can be controlled on various skin tones [from light to dark].”

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Read The Label Very Carefully
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows only trace levels of mercury — less than 1 ppm — in face products sold to U.S. consumers,” warns Luu. “Many dangerous skin lightening products are imported from countries where legal regulations are not thoroughly enforced. One of the most dangerous ingredients found in these products is mercury. The FDA advises taking the following precautions below to protect yourself from mercury poisoning:”

1. Check the label of any skin lightening, anti-aging or other skin product you use.
2. Stop using the product immediately if you see the words “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio” or “mercury.”
3. Do not use any product without a label or a list of ingredients. U.S. law requires that ingredients be listed on the label of any cosmetic or drug.
4. Do not use a foreign product unless the label also describes ingredients in English.