By Marissa DeSantis
From internal factors that can’t be changed like genetics to external influencers like the environment, there is an exhausting number of elements that affect our skin. If overall dullness or hyperpigmentation are your primary concerns, the factors that contribute to lackluster skin can be just as diverse (think sun damage, acne scars, and exposure to pollution).
But luckily, the steps to achieving clearer, brighter skin are largely the same. In addition to staying hydrated, eating foods rich in inflammation-fighting antioxidants, getting enough sleep, and practicing stress management (we know, easier said than done), there are also skincare products you can add to your daily routine.
First up, exfoliation is key because it removes the skin’s outer layer of dead cells, eliminating dryness, dullness, and flakiness that can occur. Exfoliation also allows for the rest of your skincare to penetrate better and work more effectively. Moisturizing is another necessary step for skin that glows, as is incorporating topical treatments like serums, creams, and gels that use brightening ingredients. Vitamin C and hydroquinone are two of the most commonly used ingredients, but they can sometimes be too harsh on sensitive skin types. For gentler alternatives, there are ingredients like azelaic acid, tranexamic acid, and kojic acid. Of course, avoiding exposure to the sun and wearing SPF daily to keep your skin protected from sun and pollutants is nonnegotiable, too (otherwise, you’re just undoing all of your products’ hard work).
For help with eliminating dullness and fading dark spots, we rounded up some of the best brightening skincare products—whether you want to try a chemical exfoliant face mask that’s surprisingly non-irritating or a nightly cream that improves skin tone as it moisturizes.
Exfoliating doesn’t get easier than these single-use towelettes from M-61. The best-selling product combines two chemical exfoliants—AHAs in the form of glycolic acid and BHAs in the form of salicylic acid—to dissolve dead skin cells and improve the skin’s texture, tone, and clarity. The towelettes are also formulated with calming ingredients like chamomile and bilberry extracts, though it’s still recommended that you start using the towelettes three times a week and build up to daily use as your skin acclimates.
Since serums deliver a higher concentration of active ingredients to your skin, it’s important to include a serum that targets dark spots in your routine (ideally, one that can be applied twice daily). Murad’s Rapid Dark Spot Correcting Serum is formulated with glycolic acid and a patented resorcinol technology to help fade dark spots and dullness through exfoliation. Meanwhile, tranexamic acid will brighten discoloration without causing irritation. You can even use this in the morning before you apply your SPF, and at night under your moisturizer to visibly reduce the appearance of dark spots in 14 days.
For another effective serum option when it comes to treating dark spots—whether they’re a result of sun damage or a past breakout—SkinCeuticals combines several brightening and exfoliating ingredients. The serum uses sulfonic acid to prevent a buildup of dead skin cells from dulling your skin, and tranexamic and kojic acids to fade dark spots as they improve all-over brightness. SkinCeuticals also contains a 5% concentration of niacinamide, which helps with everything from improving skin tone to minimizing enlarged pores, softening fine lines, and reducing the impact of environmental damage by strengthening the skin’s protective barrier.
Ideal for those whose hyperpigmentation is caused by acne scarring, the Paula’s Choice cream-gel booster can be used alone or blended in with your serum or moisturizer. Salicylic acid targets any current breakouts, while azelaic acid gently works to fade past acne marks. Paula’s Choice also includes several skin-soothing ingredients like licorice root extract and bisabolol to calm irritation and redness.
Vitamin C is an all-around skincare favorite, but it’s especially great when it comes to brightening as it lightens discoloration without bleaching the skin. Among its many benefits, vitamin C provides powerful antioxidant protection, which means that alongside SPF, it can help prevent new dark spots from popping up. This booster from True Botanicals comes in a powder that lets you play chemist as you blend it into a few pumps of your serum. The booster also contains ferulic acid, which helps to stabilize the Vitamin C and double down on its skin-protecting benefits.
For those who want to add brightening benefits to their moisturizer as well, this option from Caudalie is both effective and non-irritating. The gel formula uses squalane and hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin, but it’s oil-free, so it never leaves you feeling greasy. To lighten dark spots and improve skin clarity, Caudalie combines pearl particles, niacinamide, and viniferine, which is derived from grapevine sap and is said to be 62% more powerful than vitamin C.
For an instant pick-me-up, try this mask by celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau. Her Triple Berry Smoothing Peel looks (and smells) like an actual fruit smoothie, thanks to a blend of antioxidant-rich berries like blueberry extract, raspberry seed oil, and pomegranate extract. While each berry serves its own purpose in brightening, calming, and protecting the skin, a mix of AHAs and BHAs are the heavy-hitters here. Mandelic, lactic, tartaric, malic, and salicylic acids gently lift away dead skin cells, leaving skin instantly brighter, while helping fade dark spots and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles over time.
While brightening products require long-term use to reap the full benefits, a face primer like this one from Ole Henriksen can help you fake more instantaneous results. Inspired by banana powder (that complexion-enhancing, gold-toned setting powder beloved by makeup artists), this primer combines vitamin C with brightening pigments to keep your skin protected while immediately imparting an illuminated glow.