7 Ingredients To Use To Brighten Your Skin

‘Bright skin’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot in makeup lingo – we all know (and love) the magic that a strategically placed highlighter or illuminating primer can do. That ‘lit from within glow’ is the end goal of every beauty look – but what if you want to get that glow without makeup? 

Good news for those suffering from dull, scarred, or uneven skin – there are plenty of ingredients that can help to reduce dark spots, fade pigmentation, and create an overall radiant complexion. By adding these ingredients into your routine, you can wake up with naturally radiant skin – instead of having to rely on makeup. 

These ingredients can be split into different categories – those that block melanin (pigment) from affecting cells (and leaving marks), and those that speed up cell turnover (fading existing marks and removing dead skin).  

From glycolic acid and vitamin C to retinol and enzymes, here’s the breakdown on the best skin-brightening ingredients and exactly how they work. 

1. Vitamin C

Category: Tyrosinase inhibitor (prevents pigment from developing)

How it works: Vitamin C keeps skin bright and clear by blocking pigment production. This stops skin from forming marks after trauma (e.g. post-acne pigmentation) which gives the appearance of a dull, uneven complexion. It also helps to prevent skin from developing the photodamage and dark spots caused by sun exposure.

Top tip: Use in the morning (vitamin C is an antioxidant so also offers skin defence against pollutants) and avoid mixing with active ingredients like retinol and exfoliating acids.

2. Glycolic Acid

Category: Exfoliating (removes dead skin)

How it works: Glycolic acid works by breaking down and removing the dead skin cells in the top layers of skin. As the dull, dead skin cells are removed, they are replaced by fresh, new ones. This makes the skin appear clearer and brighter, and over time helps to fade the appearance of scars and pigmentation. 

Top tip: Use in the evening after cleansing and before applying serums and moisturiser. Avoid using retinol or vitamin C immediately after. 

3. Retinol

Category: Speeds up cell turnover and reduces pigment production

How it works: Upon application, retinol breaks down into retinoic acid, which stimulates cell turnover and prompts an exfoliation effect. As each renewed layer comes closer to the surface, skin appears brighter and clearer, and marks or scars increasingly fade. In addition, retinol also inhibits melanin production to help diminish hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and acne scars.

Top tip: Apply in the evening, avoid layering with exfoliating acids and vitamin C, and always wear SPF the morning after application. 

4. Lactic Acid

Category: Exfoliating (speeds up cell turnover)

How it works: Similarly to glycolic acid, lactic acid dissolves the upper layers of dead skin cells, kickstarting a process of renewal that means fresh new cells come to the surface and make skin appear brighter. Lactic acid has larger molecules than glycolic acid, so doesn’t penetrate as deeply and is less likely to irritate sensitive skin. 

Top tip: Use in the evening after cleansing and before applying serums and moisturiser. Avoid using other exfoliating acids, retinol, or vitamin C immediately after. 

5. Azelaic Acid

Category: Tyrosinase inhibitor (prevents pigment from developing)

How it works: A natural skin brightener derived from wheat, azelaic acid has anti-inflammatory properties, so is particularly effective at treating redness and uneven skin tone caused by conditions such as acne, rosacea, and melasma. It cleverly only targets excess melanin, so only targets the areas that need it.

Top tip: Azelaic acid also has antibacterial properties and helps to clear dead skin cells, so is an ideal ingredient in a skincare routine for acne-prone skin. 

6. Alpha Arbutin

Category: Tyrosinase inhibitor (prevents pigment from developing)

How it works: A safer (yet still very effective) alternative to hydroquinone (a popular skin brightening ingredient that has been banned in the UK), alpha arbutin is a natural ingredient that reduces skin’s melanin production. It’s particularly effective at fading the appearance of dark spots left behind by sun damage and breakouts. 

Top tip: Use with vitamin C for maximum benefits. 

7. Enzymes

Category: Exfoliating (removes dead skin)

How it works: Enzymes break down the keratin protein in the upper layers of the skin in order to break away dead skin cells. This results in smoother and brighter-looking skin. They offer a very gentle form of exfoliation as they don’t adjust the skin’s pH – so are suitable for sensitive skin.

Top tip: Use an enzyme cleanser or mask in the shower – the heat increases the rate of enzyme activity.