What’s the difference between skin brightening and skin lightening?


The first thing you have to know about these much-used terms is that they’re often used interchangeably. But skin brightening and skin lightening are not one and the same. 

Skin lightening treatments are typically a lot harsher than brightening treatments.

Skin brightening is also known as skin illuminating

- A skin brightener's role is to maintain a bright, radiant complexion - not to whiten the skin.
- As we age the skin turnover slows down, cells are not shed quickly enough and they create a dull  appearance together with sun damage and stress. 
- Treatments that brighten skin work through exfoliation (sloughing off top skin).
- The magic trick here is: exfoliation to facilitate renewal.

Skin lightening is also known as skin bleaching

- Skin lightening is a cosmetic procedure that aims at reducing the pigmentation. This has to do with discoloration of the skin.
- Most of these products contain a chemical that inhibit tyrosinase. The active ingredient stops an enzyme (tyrosinase) in the skin from producing melanin.
- The key here is: melanin inhibition to facilitate lighter skin.

Read more: Skin lightening in 2017 - what are people using and how dangerous is it really?


The skin lightening agents uses some harsh bleach to strip all or most of the skin pigment. This irritates the skin and can cause discoloration.

Other people may develop bluish spots (ochrinosis) that look like bruises on their faces which are impossible to treat.

Individuals who use skin lighteners have to be careful about sun exposure because melanin production is actually how the skin protects itself from the sun. Although the skin will be lighter, it can suffer severe sun damage. 

Some skin lighteners contain mercury. In large doses, exposure to mercury can cause really serious health problems. 

Not only is mercury the problem to the user, but people around the user can breath the vapors released by mercury or may touch the towels or touch the face of the person that uses mercury.

Unless a skin lightener is prescribed by a dermatologist, individuals should avoid using them.

What products to avoid

There are countless formulas on skin care products that are used for skin lightening and brightening. I am only going to mention the commonly used products.

Formulas to look for in a lightening products are Hydroquinone, Kojic acid, Arbutin, Azelaic acid.

Formulas to look for in a brightening products are Vitamin C, Retinol, Alpha and Beta Hydroxy acids.

Who can use these products? 

Skin colour?

Lightening skin is more of an issue for skin of colour than it is for fair skin, because it can produce irregular patches of pigmentation.

Skin conditions?

Skin lightening can be used by people who have dark spots, sun damage and hyperpigmentation problems such as melasma, chloasma and acne spots.

Unless a skin lightener is prescribed by a dermatologist, individuals should avoid using them.

It is important to have a good sun routine when using whitening creams (wear a hat and use high SPF sunscreen) as your skin can be more sun sensitive when using whitening products and you want to minimise the risk of further damage.

Skin brightening products should be used to achieve brighter, radiant, and restoring vibrancy to the skin.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Do you think it's important to get married in this day and age?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, it's important in order to create a family unit and for companionship
22% - 570 votes
Not at all. Being single is far more liberating
9% - 240 votes
There is no general answer to this, it's each to their own
49% - 1245 votes
Yes, society still frowns on unmarried people, especially women
1% - 37 votes
It depends on whether you are able to find a compatible partner
18% - 463 votes