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How Brightening and “Whitening” Skin Care Products Work

Here’s the breakdown on exactly how brightening skin care products work and how they are nothing like true whitening products.

Have products like the Yuja Water C Whitening Ampoule made you do a double take? I know, seeing “whitening” in product names can make anyone question how exactly they work, which is why we’ve decided to break down what this language means, plus highlight how brightening products effectively treat acne scars and hyperpigmentation.

Whitening almost always doesn’t actually mean whitening

The truth is, Korean skin whitening products are really just skin brightening products. There’s absolutely no “bleaching” of the skin involved. Let’s be real though, there are certain products on the market that aim to literally whiten the skin, so I’m not going to deny that those products do exist, but I do want to highlight that a lot gets lost in translation.

Nine times out of ten, a product that claims to be whitening just means it helps to even out skin tone and overall brighten the skin. While the language used can be seen as offensive, it is important to realize that these particular K-beauty products aren’t going to affect your skin tone negatively. Instead, try to understand how brightening products function so you can choose those that work towards your specific skin care goals.

How brightening (AKA most whitening products) work:

Brightening products can be split into three different categories: those that inhibit pigment producing cells, those that prevent the transfer of pigment, and those that speed up cell turnover.

For example, vitamin C, hydroquinone, kojic acid, arbutin and licorice extract work by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme that’s important for the development of skin melanin (AKA the pigment that gives our skin its color). This means that when you use these ingredients you’re essentially decreasing the pigment production. Think of it this way: When we get acne, it can damage the skin, causing more melanin to be produced, resulting in hyperpigmentation and acne scars.  These brightening ingredients work by reducing the pigment production, helping to prevent and lighten acne scars.

Other ingredients, like niacinamide, slow down the transfer of melanin to your skin cells, therefore effectively preventing hyperpigmentation. These products are especially important because they work to prevent the unwanted pigmentation before it can appear. The third category uses beta and alpha hydroxy acids to attack acne scars by speeding up cell turnover. This helps to get rid of old, dead skin cells and push the new ones to the top revealing brighter and more even toned skin.

Product recommendations:

To get the most from your brightening products, it’s best to use a variety of these ingredients in your routine to effectively leave you with healthy, glowing skin. Most products will contain multiple brightening ingredients, like the Hanskin Bio Prism Brightening Alpha Serum. This treatment contains a blend of niacinamide and naturally brightening plant extracts like camu-camu (which is full of vitamin C) and dolwoe extract to fight pigmentation at its source.

brightening skin care

For a more intense acne scar fighting product, the Triple C Lightning Liquid is for you. It contains 20.5% of pure ascorbic acid aka vitamin C, meaning it packs a serious punch of illuminating power. Remember, you can use multiple treatments to reach your desired goals but make sure to alternate use if your find your skin experiences any irritation. Keep in mind: You have to use these products on a regular basis to effectively lighten pigmentation.

Bottom line:

Skin brightening products are often misunderstood, especially in the K-beauty world where the term “whitening” frequently makes its way into product names. But just remember that these products don’t work to whiten the skin but instead work to effectively target hyperpigmentation, helping to even out your skin tone, and give you brighter—not whiter—skin.

+ What are your favorite brightening skin care products? Let us know in the comments below!

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