Updated January 2022
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Buying guide for best brightening treatments

Who doesn’t want a bright, glowing complexion? Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy for your skin to get dull and sallow, particularly if you have dry skin. If your regular skincare routine isn’t taking care of the problem, it may be time to introduce a brightening treatment to boost your skin and bring back its glow.

A brightening treatment is a skincare product with ingredients that help exfoliate dead skin cells, hydrate the skin, fight free radical damage, and minimize melanin production. That means that a brightening treatment is not only effective for restoring glow but also fading dark spots and other hyperpigmentation. Brightening treatments are available in a variety of forms, too, so it’s easy to find a product that will fit perfectly into your skincare routine.

Our buying guide can help you make sense of all the options so you can find the right brightening treatment for your skin. If you’re still not sure which one to choose, check out our shortlist of the best brightening treatments to get your shopping started.

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Brightening ingredients like vitamin C, alpha arbutin, licorice extract, and niacinamide tend to work best in combination with one another, so treatments that include more than one are usually most effective.

Key considerations

Types of brightening treatments

Brightening treatments are available in a variety of forms. You can use more than one type of brightening product in your skincare routine for maximum results, but you should be careful about combining treatments since some of the ingredients are fairly potent.

Brightening cleansers are like traditional facial cleansers that remove dirt, makeup, oil, bacteria, and other pollutants from your skin, but they contain ingredients that are known to have a brightening effect. You can use most brightening cleansers twice a day, though they typically aren’t the most effective brightening treatment because they only sit on the skin briefly before being washed off.

Brightening serums have a thinner texture, which allows them to absorb into the skin more easily than other treatments. They’re usually applied to the skin right after cleansing to allow for maximum absorption. Some brightening serums are only meant for use once a day, but others can be applied morning and night. Brightening serums typically offer the best brightening results because of how deeply they penetrate the skin.

Brightening moisturizers are ideal for anyone who wants to brighten their skin but needs plenty of hydration, too. They contain hydrating ingredients that can add and keep moisture in the skin as well as brightening ingredients. Brightening moisturizers can usually be used twice a day.

Brightening peels or exfoliators contain ingredients that help remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin to help with overall brightening and fading dark spots. Some peels or exfoliators sit on the skin for a brief period and then are washed off, while others can be used as overnight treatments. In most cases, they should only be used one to three times per week.

Brightening masks are treatments that are applied to the skin for a brief period and then rinsed off. They contain potent brightening ingredients, so even these quick applications can provide a noticeable brightening effect. Most masks should be used one to three times per week.

"If you have stubborn dark spots and hyperpigmentation, a brightening treatment may not be enough to even out your skin tone. Consult your dermatologist to explore your other options."


For a brightening treatment to be effective, it must contain the right ingredients. Here are some high-performing ingredients to look for in any brightening treatment that you’re considering:

  • Vitamin C is the most common ingredient in brightening treatments. It’s a powerful antioxidant, so it can guard against free radical damage to prevent dark spots and other signs of premature aging. It’s also included in brightening treatments because it slows melanin production, which can make the skin brighter and more radiant as well as fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation.
  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are plant-derived acids that are known for their anti-aging effects. They help slough off dead cells to reveal fresher, brighter skin. In particular, AHAs like glycolic acid and citric acid work well in brightening treatments.
  • Alpha arbutin is derived from the bearberry plant and can help prevent the formation of melanin in the skin. It helps lighten hyperpigmentation, evens out skin tone, and restores a healthy radiance to the skin.
  • Niacinamide is a water-soluble B vitamin that can help slow melanin production at the cellular level. That allows it to keep existing dark spots from getting darker and prevent new spots from forming.
  • Vitamin E is another antioxidant and is often paired with vitamin C in brightening treatments. It can help treat hyperpigmentation and even out skin tone.
  • Kojic acid is extracted from mushrooms and can help fade dark spots and acne scars as well as brighten your overall skin tone.
  • Licorice extract comes from the licorice plant root and works as an antioxidant. It stops the skin from producing an enzyme needed to form melanin, so it can help fade dark spots. It’s often used with vitamin C and niacinamide in brightening treatments.



When you’re choosing a brightening treatment, pay attention to how often it should be applied. Some treatments are meant for daily use and can even be used up to two times a day. In most cases, the more often you use a brightening treatment, the sooner you’ll see results.

Some brightening treatments feature a more potent formula, though, so you only need to use them one to three times a week. If you use these treatments more frequently, you risk irritating your skin. But even though these brightening products are fairly strong, you usually don’t see results as quickly as you would with a daily treatment. In fact, brightening treatments that are only meant for use several times a week are best used in conjunction with daily brightening products to amplify their effects.


The packaging for brightening treatments varies based on type. Cleansers typically come in a squeeze tube or pump bottle, while serums generally have medicine droppers or pump dispensers. Moisturizers and masks come in tubs and squeeze tubes.

Some common brightening ingredients like vitamin C can degrade if they’re exposed to light, so the packaging should be designed to protect the treatment. That means dark glass or opaque plastic packaging that blocks light from reaching the brightening treatment inside.


Like other skincare products, brightening treatments sometimes feature a fragrance. Some formulas contain natural scents from their ingredients, but others have artificial fragrance added. If you have sensitive skin, avoid brightening treatments with artificial fragrance because it can irritate the skin.


Sunscreens: Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen, SPF 30
When you’re using a brightening treatment, you want to be sure to apply sunscreen every day to keep additional dark spots from popping up. Many brightening treatments will also make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. We love this formula from Drunk Elephant because it goes on sheer but still features 20% zinc oxide for serious sun protection.

Brightening treatment prices

Brightening treatments vary in price based on the type of product, quality of the ingredients, and size of the bottle. Most brightening treatments cost between $3 and $300.

The most affordable brightening treatments are typically cleansers, serums, moisturizers, peels, and masks from the drugstore. They often contain lower-quality ingredients or don’t have packaging that protects the integrity of the ingredients. You’ll usually pay between $3 and $30 for these treatments.

Mid-range brightening treatments are typically serums, moisturizers, peels, and masks that contain higher-quality ingredients. Their packaging is usually designed to protect ingredients that are sensitive to light. They generally cost between $30 and $75.

The most expensive brightening treatments are usually serums, moisturizers, peels, and masks that contain the highest-quality ingredients. They feature packaging that protects the integrity of light-sensitive ingredients. You’ll usually pay between $75 and $150 for these treatments, though those from high-end skincare brands can cost as much as $300.


  • When you’re using brightening treatments on your skin, applying sunscreen with at least SPF 30 is essential. It prevents new dark spots and hyperpigmentation from forming and existing spots from getting darker.
  • Even if you’re not using a brightening cleanser, you should wash your face morning and night to remove the dirt, makeup, oil, and other pollution that can leave you with dull skin and lead to breakouts.
  • Consistent application of brightening treatments is crucial to seeing results. Using a product that you can apply daily usually brings about the fastest results.
  • Eating foods that are rich in antioxidants, like nuts, berries, and leafy greens, can help boost the brightness of your skin, too.
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Some brightening ingredients like vitamin C and AHAs can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, which is another reason to make sure to wear sunscreen daily.


Q. Are brightening treatments safe for the skin?
Brightening treatments are usually perfectly safe for the skin. They may contain very potent ingredients, though, which can irritate the skin if used too often. Signs of irritation include redness, itching, and dryness. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for proper usage. Some brightening treatments also contain ingredients that make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so you must wear sunscreen daily.

Q. How long does it take to see results with a brightening treatment?
It depends on the treatment you’re using, how often you use it, and the condition of your skin when you start using the product. Some people see results with a brightening treatment in as little as a week, while it may take up to three months for noticeable results with other products.

Q. What skin types can use brightening treatments?
Nearly any skin type can use a brightening treatment. Those with oily or acne-prone skin should use an oil-free formula, while those with dry skin should opt for a treatment that contains hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid.

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