Skin Brightening vs Skin Lightening vs Skin Whitening: What’s the Difference?

If you’ve ever been faced with dull, lackluster skin or with pesky dark spots that refuse to go away, you’ve most likely gone out in search of solutions…and quickly discovered that there are a whole lot of available fixes.

The thing is, though, you only have to dip a toe into the vast ocean of skin brightening products to be overwhelmed by a bunch of terms that all sound similar but seem to promise very different outcomes.

The main culprits of confusion? The terms: “skin brightening” vs “skin lightening” vs skin whitening.” You see these words pop up everywhere and you wonder what the difference is and if there even is a difference.

Well, we’re here to cut through the confusion once and for all so you can find the best product to get the results you want. Here’s everything you have to know to differentiate between skin brightening, skin lightening and skin whitening products!

Skin Brightening vs Skin Lightening vs Skin Whitening: What’s What?

The first thing you have to know about these much-used terms is that they’re often used interchangeably. But there are shades of difference between each one.

So how do you know which products do what? Well, it all comes down to the ingredients.

Once you know which ingredients do what, you’ll be an expert at navigating the world of skin lightening. Get to know the best ingredients to accomplish each outcome and the next time you see a product promising to brighten, lighten or whiten your skin – check out its active ingredients.

They’ll tell you more about what the product does than the label. So let’s get started…

What is Skin Brightening?

Skin brightening is not about taking your skin to lighter, whiter shades – instead, it’s all about transforming dull, tired, and sluggish-looking skin into fresh, glowing skin. 

skin brightening vs skin lightening

The magic trick here is: exfoliation. 

When you’re in your teens, your skin cells turn over every 28 days, which is a huge reason why youngsters have that natural, radiant glow (well, when they’re not suffering from pubertal acne).  As you get older, this process of cell renewal gets lazy and by the time you hit your mid-30s, your skin cell turnover rate slows to every 40 days.

So why does this even matter? Because you get that glow and radiance when your complexion is smooth enough to reflect light. As dead skin cells pile up, they diffuse the light and make your skin look dull, lackluster, and tired.

Exfoliation simply speeds up the process of natural skin cell renewal. By regularly sloughing off the build-up of dead skin cells, you quickly remove the gunk that’s hiding the fresh, radiant skin cells underneath. Result? Brighter, more even skin with a natural glow.

This is why the best skin brightening products are stocked with exfoliants that slough off dead skin cells and stimulate the production of new skin cells.

What are the best ones? Here are the ingredients to look for in a skin brightening product:

Manual exfoliants. These are the “scrubs” we all know and love, composed of tiny little exfoliating particles that we rub onto the skin to slough off the outer layer of dead skin. Just keep in mind that ehen it comes to exfoliating your delicate facial skin, skip plastic microbeads and go for gentle, fine exfoliating particles made from nature like rice bran powder, Manuka honey, or ground oatmeal.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). AHAs are the most popular ingredient found in skin lightening products and for good reason – they’re chemical exfoliants that are able to penetrate more deeply into the skin than manual exfoliants for a gentle yet very thorough exfoliation.

Of the AHAs, glycolic acid has the smallest particles and goes the deepest but can be the harshest on skin. For more sensitive skin types, choose gentler AHAs like lactic acid and mandelic acid.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). BHAs like salicylic acid go even deeper into the skin than AHAs and have the unique ability of being oil soluble, which means they can cut through the oil that’s clogging pores. Thanks to this, BHAs are great for oily, acne-prone skin types although they can be a bit harsher than AHAs.

Fruit enzymes. If you have sensitive skin and can’t handle AHAs and BHAs even in small concentrations, no worries – you can get a very gentle chemical exfoliation with all natural fruit enzymes. Certain fruits like papaya, pineapple, pumpkin and even figs contain enzymes that gently remove dead skin without irritation.

Retinoids. Retinoids like retinol, retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde are all derivatives of Vitamin A that are amazing at doing one thing: working to increase cell turnover. This stimulation of new skin cells not only brightens and evens out hyperpigmentation but it also boosts collagen and elastin production, helps the skin stay hydrated and helps pores stay clear and free of blemishes and acne. 

Vitamin C. Last but not least, a very helpful factor to look for in skin brightening products is the presence of antioxidants that protect the skin from the dulling effects of environmental pollutants and UV radiation. A well known and powerful antioxidant that does just that is Vitamin C, which neutralizes free radicals that age and damage skin.

It also helps skin repair faster and scar less, inhibits the production of melanin, and even boosts the production of another important antioxidant, namely Glutathione. The levels of vitamin C in the skin naturally decline with age so adding on a skin care product that’s loaded with Vitamin C is a very good idea for skin brightening and lightening. 

Okay, now you know what ‘skin brightening’ is about, let’s move on to another much-mentioned term…

What is Skin Lightening?

A huge difference between skin brightening and skin lightening is that everyone wants brightening – after all, who would say no to more radiance and more glow?

On the other hand, not everyone wants lighter skin. A big exception, though, is when it comes to hyperpigmentation like acne spots, age spots and sun damage – in these cases, skin trauma has caused too much pigment to be released, causing dark spots that most people are all too happy to be rid of. And that’s just one of the things that skin lightening promises.

skin brightening vs skin lightening

Whereas skin brightening is mostly about restoring the skin’s natural radiant glow, the world of skin lightening encompasses a few related but different goals, like:

  • Evening out skin tone by getting rid of dark spots caused by sun damage, acne scars, age spots and skin conditions like melasma
  • Fading out a tan or restoring the skin back to its ‘original,’ pre-sun or light-exposed skin color
  • Lightening your skin to its original, natural skin color – to get an idea of what yours is, look at the inner part of your upper arm for your natural color without the influence of ultraviolet light

In essence, skin lightening is all about fading, be it specific dark patches or overall skin tone. The key here is: melanin inhibition.

Melanin is the pigment that gives your skin its color – what melanin inhibitors do is go to work inhibiting the tyrosinase enzyme and interfering with the melanin production process. Over time, your skin stops producing as much melanin. Result = lighter skin.

The cool thing is that there are a lot of melanin inhibitors to choose from and even better? A lot of them are all natural, fairly gentle, and suitable for all skin types. Here’s a quick roundup of the best melanin inhibitors to look for in skin lightening products:

Arbutin. Arbutin is a botanical and naturally-occurring, safer derivative of hydroquinone. Like hydroquinone, arbutin inhibits tryosinase activity and provides skin lightening benefits without the side effects and risks of hydroquinone. 

Azelaic acid. If you have pesky dark spots you want to get rid of without risking lightening your overall skin tone, azelaic acid is a great bet since it reduces melanin production by selectively targeting abnormal pigment-producing cells, which makes it a great melanin inhibitor to fade away unnatural hyperpigmentation like melasma or acne spots. It won’t do much for natural spots, though, so it’s useless for freckles or age spots. 

Hydroquinone. As controversial as hydroquinone can be, there’s good reason it remains the most popular skin lightening ingredient around: it works. Even at the low concentration that’s found in over the counter hydroquinone, it’s a potent enough melanin inhibitor to get the job done. The downside, of course, is that unlike natural skin lighteners, it’s not suitable for all skin types and best used only short term. 

Kojic acid. The second most popular skin bleaching ingredients around and a totally natural alternative to hydroquinone, kojic acid works by inhibiting the conversion of tyrosinase to melanin and interfering with the uptake of oxygen required for enzymatic browning.

Licorice root. A safe and very gentle bleaching agent, licorice root is perfect for those with sensitive skin. It contains two compounds – glabradin and liquirtin – that act as tyrosinase inhibitors and disrupt melanin synthesis to lighten skin with little to no irritation.

Mulberry extract. This one’s relatively new to the skin lightening world but it’s getting more popular since it’s been found that various species of the mulberry plant effectively inhibit melanin production. It’s also gentle and non-irritating, making it ideal for delicate skin types. 

And, of course, there are ingredients like Vitamin C that both brighten and lighten. It’s not just Vitamin C, either – there is some overlap between ingredients for skin brightening and lightening, which is a really good thing since the various ingredients work synergistically.

For example, melanin inhibitors don’t just lighten – they also help brighten skin by fading out dark spots. Exfoliants also don’t stop at brightening the skin – they also help speed up skin lightening by removing dead skin cells and helping the melanin inhibiting ingredients to penetrate deeper.

So don’t be surprised to see ingredients that lighten in brightening products and vice versa.

What is Skin Whitening?

skin brightening vs whitening

Okay, now we’ve come to the deepest skin lightening waters – and also the one that causes the most confusion. That’s ’cause the term ‘skin whitening’ is used in a few different ways:

  • As marketing lingo. In Asian countries where whiter skin is prized as a beauty ideal, many skin brightening and lightening products simply get labelled as ‘skin whitening’ products to appeal to consumers. It’s not trickery or anything like that – brighteners and lighteners used together do help whiten overall skin tone. But if you check the ingredients, you’ll find that the actual ‘skin whitening’ product is not some novel formulation but instead a combination of brightening exfoliants and melanin blocking skin lighteners.
  • As another term for skin lightening. You already know that these terms are used interchangeably so this should come as no surprise. Two products with very similar ingredients can be labelled differently – one as a ‘skin lightening’ product and the other as a ‘skin whitening’ product.
  • As a more intense lightening process. The term ‘skin whitening’ often refers to an intention – the intention to go beyond brightening and lightening your skin and actually get dramatic skin whitening. This can include using a more potent combination of melanin blockers to fade the skin – for example, combining over the counter hydroquinone with retinols and natural melanin inhibiting ingredients. It can also mean simply using a higher concentration of skin lightening ingredients, like getting a prescription grade hydroquinone cream. Either way, the intention goes beyond simply trying to brighten and fade dark spots – you’re intention is instead to lighten the skin several shades whiter.
  • As an actual bleaching agent. Melanin blocking ingredients can lighten but there are also more serious skin bleaching agents that go a step beyond to strip the skin of its natural pigments, producing dramatic skin whitening. Mequinol, for example, is a derivative of hydroquinone that kills the melanocytes (pigment-producing skin cells) in your epidermis and leaves the skin looking extremely pale. Monobenzone is another example of a skin whitening bleach. Such products don’t just lighten – they’re capable of whitening the skin to a lighter shade than you were born with.

As you can see, there’s a huge variance when it comes to the term ‘skin whitening’ – and it’s because some of it veers off into more risky territory that ‘skin whitening’ is the most controversial term on this list.

Unlike brightening and lightening products, skin whitening products have the potential to contain serious bleaching agents so please tread carefully when delving into whitening products.

The Recap of Skin Lightening Terms

Now that you know what each term is about, it should be clear to you that the first thing you’ll want to know when you set off in search of skin lightening products is: what results are you hoping to achieve?

Once you know what you’re after, make sure to check the ingredients of the product to see if it’s aligned to the actual goals you’re after. In short:

  • Brightening is about increasing radiance and glow and restoring vibrancy to the skin.
  • Lightening has to do with reducing pigmentation, getting rid of discoloration and evening out skin tone.
  • Whitening can either just be a combination of brightening and lightening or involve seriously bleaching the skin to produce a drastic whitening effect that’s several shades lighter than your natural tone.