According to consumer research, hyperpigmentation has become one of the top skin concerns world-wide. The "skin lightening" trend started more than 20 years ago in Asia with "whitening" products, but now "brightening" products — which are essentially the same thing with a less controversial name — are selling like crazy in the U.S.
"There are so many over-the-counter topical products that can actually make a difference," says New York City dermatologist Francesca Fusco, M.D. The trick, she says, is to find an ingredient that works well for your skin type and your specific kind of dark spots. We list six of the most common brightening ingredients to help you figure out which one you should try.
Try enzymes for dark spots
If you're looking to lighten dark spots your dermatologist might recommend a product that contains hydroquinone. However, there's been a lot of controversy surrounding this ingredient, which has been banned in several countries because of nasty side effects, such as excessive redness, dryness and a burning sensation when applied. Fusco recommends Elure Advanced Skin Lightening Lotion as an alternative that works just as well. The key ingredient is a mushroom-derived enzyme called melanozyme, which breaks down melanin (dark pigment) in your skin. Clinical data shows a change in just one week. "I tell my patients that they'll probably need to go through two bottles before they see dramatic results," says Fusco. But the lack of side effects makes it worth the wait.
Use soy for acne scars
When you're trying to lessen the red mark left behind from a recent breakout, opt for a product that contains soy, like Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer SPF. "The proteins in soy help diminish redness and blotchy coloring," says Warren Wallo, a research scientist with Johnson & Johnson. Plus, sun exposure can turn a temporary red mark into a permanent scar (because the "new" skin is more susceptible to hyperpigmentation). So, the sunsceen is an added bonus that'll help prevent scarring.
Apply vitamin C for overall brightness
Vitamin C is a classic brightening ingredient because it not only works to lighten the hyperpigmentation you already have, it also helps prevent further spots. "It's a great antioxidant," says Miami dermatologist Leslie Baumann, M.D. "But it's very unstable, so you have to strategically pair it with other ingredients." The recently-launched Kiehl's Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution contains a new, more stable version of "activated" vitamin C coupled with white birch and peony extracts to maximize skin brightening.
Opt for acids after you exfoliate
While acids like alpha hydroxy and glycolic won't directly target brown spots, they do help even out overall skin tone. "They remove dead cells to reveal healthier, dewy skin," says New York facialist and skin care guru Christine Chin. And Fusco recommends pairing one of these exfoliating acids with another lightening ingredient. "Once you've started using the lightening product and you know your skin is tolerating it well, try applying it right after exfoliating," she says. "The skin will be more receptive, the ingredients will absorb better, and you'll see more significant results." Fusco suggests using Bliss That's Incredi-Peel.
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Botanicals work for improved texture and tone
There are lots of plant-derived skin-brightening ingredients out there — and more will probably be discovered in coming years. Shiseido White Lucent Intensive Spot Targeting Serum contains a mix of yomogi and angelica root extracts — Japanese botanicals that have been shown to speed up cell turnover and break down melanin. "The serum helps diminish dark spots, age spots, and acne marks, and even out skin tone," says Shiseido scientist Kiyoshi Sato. Clinical data shows results can be seen in as little as 14 days.
Reach for licorice for prevention
Licorice has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 4,000 years, and recently it's showing up as a brightening ingredient in skin care. Nuance Salma Hayek Renewing & Brightening Serum uses licorice root as its key ingredient. "Studies on licorice have shown significant [skin brightening] results," says Baumann. By prohibiting the production of tyrosinase, the enzyme that triggers your cells to produce melanin, it helps prevent spots from forming.
Click here to see skin care secrets from a celebrity facialist