The newest beauty trend is all about getting a natural glow, sans the sun’s rays (which is great because winter). But what exactly are these skin-brightening creams, and how do they work? A skin brightener lightens and evens out skin tone, says Stefani T. Kappel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon. “What makes skin ‘glow’ is having an even amount of pigmentation throughout your face,” Kappel says. “The brighteners will never take away from your natural pigmentation, which is a common misconception, but they do help lighten areas where there is too much pigmentation.”
Basically, these products control the amount of melanin pigment produced in your skin—too much leads to melasma, uneven tone, and brown spots (by the way, skin brighteners are more than just creams—they run the gamut from serums to oils and even masks). There are several different steps that are necessary for melanin production. “You can think of it as a ladder, and these products are taking different steps off of the ladder to block the production of melanin at the top,” says Kappel.
Common ingredients in brighteners include hydroquinone, kojic acid, vitamin C, alpha-hydroxy acids, arbutin, retinol, and azelaic acid. Kappel says she must note that hydroquinone has gotten a bad rap because of some case studies in which large quantities were used. However, when it’s applied properly, she says, it’s safe and very effective.
Scroll down to see the top 11 skin-brightening creams that Kappel and other skin experts always recommend.
“Ossential Brightalive blocks the skin’s ability to make pigmentation in areas where that production is overactive, like melasma and brown spots. In my experience, over-the-counter bleaching creams like this are more effective and have fewer side effects.” — Stefani T. Kappel, MD, board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon
“I use a safe approach to diminish darkened skin—I send clients home with our XX glycolic acid gel and our Gold Botanical Healing Serum (see below). The glycolic acid exfoliates the surface of the epidermis and allows the red raspberry seed oil in our Gold Healing Serum to work even more effectively.” — Athena Hewett, Cidesco-certified medical esthetician, founder of Monastery organic skincare
“Our Gold Botanical Oil Serum has red raspberry seed as an ingredient, which contains a strong antioxidant that inhibits UV damage and stimulates cell repair in darkened spots.” — Athena Hewett
“This cream uses niacinamide as one of the components of its CalmPlex technology. It’s the driving factor in its ability to brighten skin naturally—it strengthens the skin’s barrier and improves repair function.” — Graceanne Svendsen, licensed master esthetician, cosmetic laser specialist, and Practice Manager at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue
“One of my favorite skin-brightening creams is Retamax. Apply it right after washing your face—it should always go on first under sunscreen and makeup.” — Stefani T. Kappel, MD, board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon
“I recommend cleansing with a Clarisonic brush and then applying SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 twice a day. I also created a powerful skin lightening and anti-aging cream called HQRAiran+, which targets skin discoloration—it’s available exclusively in my New York City office.” — Lisa Airan, MD, dermatologist
“Lytera works at the cellular level. This means that it may take days to weeks to start to see the benefits, but they are real and structural in the skin, not just camouflage or superficial.” — David Shafer of Shafer Plastic Surgery
Ed. note: Four out of seven of our skin experts recommended this cream.
“Arbutin and licorice extract work to brighten skin. Apply the product every other evening and then increase your frequency because the formulation can irritate skin at first.” — Craig Kraffert, MD, board-certified dermatologist and president of Amarte
“This serum contains kojic acid, a natural substance from fungi that works to decrease melanin (melanin protects us from the sun). When melanin levels decrease, the skin lightens dramatically, and I have seen many clients have great results. It’s important to note that if you are using a product with kojic acid, you should be extremely diligent about sun protection.” — Athena Hewett
“I love this lightweight serum because it uses new unique brightening extracts combined with highly-researched peptides for firming. It’s great for targeting brightening while also plumping and lifting at the same time.” —Jordana Mattioli, licensed medical esthetician
"Our Aqua cream contains 1% retinol, alpha-arbutin, elemental sulfur, and a blend of natural extracts for a broad-spectrum approach to brightening. Plus, it’s very lightweight and has immediate absorption.” — Craig Kraffert
“Water may be one of the best ‘brightening creams!’ HA5 Hydrator works on the prediction that as we age, our natural ability to hydrate our skin with hyaluronic acid made naturally in our body diminishes. Five different types of hyaluronic acid create fluffy, bright, and supple skin much like a personal trainer sculpts muscles out of their client’s physiques.” — Graceanne Svendsen, licensed master esthetician, cosmetic laser specialist, and Practice Manager at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue
Videira IFS, Moura DFL, Magina S. Mechanisms Regulating Melanogenesis. An Bras Dermatol. 2013;88(1):76-83. doi:10.1590/S0365-05962013000100009
Pillaiyar T, Manickam M, Namasivayam V. Skin Whitening Agents: Medicinal Chemistry Perspective of Tyrosinase Inhibitors. Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry. 2017;32(1):403-425. doi:10.1080/14756366.2016.1256882
Monteiro R, Kishore Bn, Bhat R, Sukumar D, Martis J, Ganesh Hk. A Comparative Study of the Efficacy of 4% Hydroquinone vs. 0.75% Kojic Acid Cream in the Treatment of Facial Melasma. Indian J Dermatol. 2013;58(2):157. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.108070