The 9 Best Skin Lightening Creams That Are Also Skin-Safe - The Dermatology Review

The 9 Best Skin Lightening Creams That Are Also Skin-Safe

SKIN CARE REVIEWS

12.02.21DISCLAIMER

Skin lightening, also referred to as skin whitening, is when a chemical substance is used to lighten the skin and/or even out the color by reducing the melanin (the pigment that gives human skin, hair, and eyes their color) in the skin. While numerous chemicals in skin lightening creams have proven effective, several have been deemed toxic and dangerous and were even banned in many countries — including the U.S. 

What are the dangers of skin lightening creams? For starters, skin irritation, thinning of the skin, immune system depression, confetti-like depigmentation, and the endangerment of the fetus’s development and the child’s health in pregnant women. Luckily, there are skin bleaching creams that are deemed safe. You can even find a dermatologist-recommended skin lightening cream that’s not prescription-based.

However, it’s crucial to decipher the good from the potentially harmful skin-lightening products. Not sure where to begin? No problem. Here at the Derm Review, we’ve reviewed hundreds of products with a scientific lens to ensure you’re creating a skincare regimen that’s safe and effective. Ahead, nine of the best skin whitening creams to help you safely fade discoloration.

Best Skin Brightening Creams: The List 

Formulyst Dark Spot Solutions, $79

Meladerm Skin Lightening/Whitening Cream, $49.99

Skinceuticals Advanced Pigment Corrector, $92

Clinique Even Better Clinical Skin Tone Correcting Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 20, $54

Dr. Barbara Sturm Brightening Face Cream, $230

Neostrata Pigment Controller, $74

Shiseido White Lucent Brightening Gel Cream, $70

NEOCUTIS Nouvelle+ Retinol Correction Cream, $150

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream, $74

How to Choose the Best Whitening Creams

Back in 2020, Business Insider reported that companies like Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal are pulling skin-lightening products from shelves and removing terms like “whitening.” This action could very well be a sign that there’s a massive movement across the beauty industry – at least, the OTC (over-the-counter) one. Given the global reach of these companies, these efforts are setting essential precedents to fight racism and discrimination across the industry. Even so, the global skin-lightening products market is still expected to reach 8011.17 million by 2026.

Our list of the best skin whitening creams (or best skin brightening creams) is not related to cultural or social influences. Instead, these are products for those who are looking for a safe alternative to prescription creams with potentially dangerous ingredients (think hydroquinone, mercury, glutathione, cysteamine, etc.) to address discoloration issues caused by excessive sun exposure, hormonal changes, and natural aging process. Our list of the best skin whitening creams (or best skin brightening creams) is not related to cultural or social influences.

 

Spot Treatment Versus All Over Cream

What’s your goal? Are you looking to lighten a few sunspots that have popped up with age? In that case, a skin bleaching spot treatment will do. However, if you have more visible signs of discoloration due to excessive sun exposure or hormonal shifts, you’ll want to reach for an overall brightening and lightening cream. 

Related: Best Retinol Creams

Best Skin Lightening Cream Ingredients

Safe skin lightening creams do exist. Look for products formulated with the following ingredients. 

  • Retinol
    For brown spots that give the skin an uneven tone, retinoids slough off brown spots that give the skin an uneven tone while curbing the production of melanin, a darker pigment.Granted, retinol doesn’t come without side effects such as peeling and dryness. However, if you find a skin-lightening cream that’s also formulated with nourishing and hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and ceramides, you can counterbalance irritation.

  • Vitamin C
    While vitamin C is a safe skin-lightening (and brightening) ingredient, it’s also an anti-aging powerhouse that provides potent antioxidant protection, builds collagen, and helps soften fine lines and wrinkles.

  • Kojic Acid
    While this ingredient can cause contact dermatitis in high doses (1-2%), it’s still considered a natural skin lightener (a by-product of malted rice) that ceases the production of an enzyme necessary for melanin production.

  • Niacinamide
    AKA, pro-vitamin B3, niacinamide fights acne, balances oil, calms inflammation, boosts ceramides, fights free radicals, and (of course) lightens.

  • Azelaic Acid

    Azelaic acid has the same pH level as your skin (5.5). Along with lightening, it’s excellent for calming chronic redness (especially for chronic conditions like rosacea) and evening out the skin tone.

  • Alpha-Arbutin
    Derived from the bearberry plant, when used in a 1-2% concentration, alpha-arbutin can be one of the most effective natural skin lighteners. It works similarly to kojic acid by inhibiting tyrosinase enzymes.

  • Glycolic Acid
    While you may know glycolic acid as an effective exfoliant for the skin, you may not know that it’s also an efficient lightener. It works to impede melanin production because of the increased cell turnover rate. It can even boost the results of other natural skin lighteners, like kojic acid, for example.

  • Licorice Extract
    This power-packed extract contains a bevy of actives, some of which hinder tyrosinase activity, while others have their own signature lightning abilities.

  • Glutathione
    There’s still not enough research on how well this robust antioxidant works on its own, so it’s best when used in a product with a blend of natural skin lighteners — like kojic acid, for example.

  • Paper Mulberry
    This natural skin lightener is a bit more new to the scene. Still, some researchers find that it may be even more effective than dangerous hydroquinone — bonus points for protecting against free radical damage.

  • Linoleic Acid
    Linoleic acid works similarly to glycolic acid in that it speeds up cell turnover rate, but it may also curtail melanin production directly. You may not know, but linoleic acid is in natural plant oils such as evening primrose, rosehip, and grapeseed oils.

 

Consider How Long It Takes to See Results

While OTC skin brightening products don’t have the dangers of skin-lightening creams that a doctor prescribes, they take longer to work because they’re not as strong. Prescription skin-lightening creams begin to work in days, but it usually takes about a month to notice an appreciable reduction in pigment.

Products formulated with natural and evidence-based ingredients such as those below are still effective (and safer). Still, it takes around a couple of months to start to see visible results. 

If you have severe pigmentation issues and are not seeing results from an OTC product, speak to a dermatologist about your treatment options. Laser resurfacing, peels, and microdermabrasion help treat discoloration if you don’t want to go the prescription cream route. 

Remember, no matter which type of cream or treatment option you choose, consistency is vital to achieving optimal results. 

How to Apply a Skin Lightening Cream

Potent prescription-strength skin lightening creams are typically applied at night and only in the areas where there’s discoloration. The same can be said for spot treatments — even over-the-counter formulas. 

But our list of the best skin whitening creams also includes moisturizers to take the guesswork out of the application process. As a general rule of thumb, sunscreen by day (the ultimate skin discoloration and anti-aging product) and lightening cream or corrector by night. 

  • Thoroughly cleanse your skin and remove all traces of makeup. 
  • Apply your serum. If you’re using multiple treatments, apply lightest to heaviest.
  • Wait 2-3 minutes for your serum to fully absorb.
  • Since moisturizers and creams penetrate more efficiently when applied to damp skin, mist your face with a soothing toner or floral water first. 
  • Using clean fingertips, start by dabbing on a nickel-sized amount of lightening cream on your forehead, cheeks, chin, and neck. Next, use an upward and circular motion to massage the cream into your skin.

If you’re using a lightening cream that’s not a moisturizer or is a prescription, follow the instructions on the package and make sure you understand the application instructions administered by your doctor. As with any new product, conduct a patch test first — even if it’s over-the-counter — especially if you have sensitive skin. 

Related: Best Face Moisturizers

The Best Skin Lightening Creams

We’re not going to tell you who or why you should use a skin-lightening cream. However, if you want to fade melasma (aka pregnancy mask) or those sunspots you got from one too many unprotected beach vacations in Mexico, here are some of the best skin-safe lightening creams you can try.

Formulyst Dark Spot Solutions, $79
While this isn’t a cream, we wanted to include a results-driven serum that can be used in conjunction with your regular moisturizer. 

Developed for daily use, Formulyst’s Dark Spots Solution Serum targets the appearance of dark spots and uneven skin tone caused by hyperpigmentation. Formulated with HyWhite — an alpha-linolenic acid that helps lighten the appearance of dark spots and visibly improve the uniformity of the skin color — and a lightweight molecular hyaluronic acid, this potent serum intensely nourishes skin while visibly improving the tone of the complexion.

Meladerm Skin Lightening/Whitening Cream, $49.9,
Civant set out to create a powerful skin brightening product free from harsh bleaching ingredients that can irritate the skin more than a decade ago. The result is Meladerm, a natural skin-lightening cream packed with natural extracts such as mulberry, licorice, and bearberry plants. 

Unlike other whitening products on the market, Meladerm skin lightening cream doesn’t contain hydroquinone, kojic acid, or steroids. The formula targets discoloration from acne scars, melasma, and generally uneven skin tone.

Skinceuticals Advanced Pigment Corrector, $92
This dermatologist-recommended skin lightening cream from Skinceuticals addresses discoloration caused by accumulated sun exposure, hormonal shifts, and the natural aging process. Salicylic acid (0.3%), 0.5% ellagic acid, and 1% hydroxyphenoxy propionic acid (a non-toxic derivative of hydroquinone) exfoliates and improves skin radiance and luminosity to reduce the appearance of discoloration.

While it’s void of parabens, fragrances, and dyes, it’s suitable for all skin types except for those with extremely sensitive skin. 

Clinique Even Better Clinical Skin Tone Correcting Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 20, $54
Clinique’s soothing oil-free lightening cream is formulated with various fruit and plant extracts and salicylic acid to help reduce the look of discoloration, while SPF helps prevent new damage. While it instantly brightens, over time, it promotes a more even-looking skin tone. For the best results, use in conjunction with the brand’s Radical Dark Spot Corrector + Interrupter.

Dr. Barbara Sturm Brightening Face Cream, $230
While it comes with Dr. Barbara Sturum’s notoriously high price point attached, this skin brightening cream helps even out skin tone and gradually minimizes visible signs of pigmentation. Extract of cress sprouts supports the reduction of melanin production, brightens the skin, and combats the formation of dark or yellowish discoloration. 

Additionally, vitamin E and ginseng extract protect against environmental stress. Suitable for normal, dry, combination, or oily skin, this moisturizer also addresses fine lines, wrinkles, dullness, and uneven texture. 

Neostrata Pigment Controller, $74
This brightening treatment from Neostrata is packed with an arsenal of natural ingredients to treat hyperpigmentation. Neostrata Pigment Controller contains a blend of natural whiteners, plant extracts, vitamins, and antioxidants. One of the key components is SabiWhite, derived from turmeric root. It lightens skin and fights free-radical damage, and is a natural alternative to hydroquinone. 

NeoGlucosamine is a proprietary blend that exfoliates dark spots and increases cell turnover rate. Rounding out the formula is retinol to boost skin renewal and stabilized vitamin C to even out skin tone and brighten the complexion.

Shiseido White Lucent Brightening Gel Cream, $70
This refreshing moisturizing cream — one of Shiseido’s best-sellers — visibly brightens the skin and diminishes the look of dark spots and unevenness, thanks to the brand’s proprietary SAKURA-Bright complex. Skin is left looking bright, vibrant, dewy, and moisturized. 

Revolutionary ReNeura Technology+ helps improve skin receptivity to stimulate and maintain the effectiveness of this skin brightening cream over time. It helps self-repair existing damage, and improve the appearance of spots, discoloration, and signs of aging.

NEOCUTIS Nouvelle+ Retinol Correction Cream, $150
NEOCUTIS’ retinol correction cream safely lightens discoloration with the brand’s proprietary (and hydroquinone-free) MELAPLEX technology. Additionally, 0.06% retinol, combined with unique micro-bead technology, delivers a gradual retinol release to provide superior wrinkle-fighting benefits with minimal irritation. This formula is also non-comedogenic, dermatologist-tested, and free of color and fragrance. 

Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream, $74
Sure, this cult-favorite moisturizer from Drunk Elephant is known for its anti-aging benefits; but read the reviews, and you’ll quickly notice it’s a formula that has impressive lightning benefits, too — from acne scars to pigmentation — thanks to the addition of retinol. 

But that’s not the only impressive feature. A triple peptide blend supports the benefits of retinol while strengthening the skin. You’ll also find xanthophylls, potent carotenoids that exert a powerful defense against aging, environmental stressors, and blue (HEV) light emitted from electronics — that’s something most of us can get on board with. 

Skin Lightening Creams: The Bottom Line

Skin lightening creams formulated with ingredients like hydroquinone are considered dangerous because they can thin and irritate the skin, cause additional discoloration issues, and trigger immune system depression. Luckily, there are skin bleaching creams that are deemed safe.

While OTC skin brightening products don’t have the dangers of skin lightening creams that a doctor prescribes, they take longer to work because they’re not as strong. Products formulated with natural and evidence-based ingredients such as retinol, niacinamide, kojic acid, licorice extract, glycolic acid, and paper mulberry are still effective (and safer). Still, it takes around a couple of months to start to see visible results. 

If you have severe pigmentation issues and are not seeing results from an OTC product, speak to a dermatologist about your treatment options. Laser resurfacing, peels, and microdermabrasion help treat discoloration if you don’t want to go the prescription cream route. 

Remember, no matter which type of cream or treatment option you choose, consistency is vital to achieving optimal results.

Here are some of the most popular questions about skin lightening creams.

 

FURTHER QUESTIONS
Skin lightening creams or skin brightening creams are formulated with specific ingredients that help lighten skin color. They work by decreasing the amount of melanin, the pigment produced by skin cells that determine how light or dark our skin appears. These products can be used as a spot treatment or for a lighter complexion overall.
The term brightening typically means lightening, fading, or even bleaching. Brightening is also used to describe products that may block pigment production and/or remove pigment from the skin associated with sun or acne scars.
Vitamin C inhibits melanin production in the skin, which helps to lighten hyperpigmentation and brown spots, even out skin tone, and enhance skin radiance. Additionally, C is an antioxidant, protecting skin cells from damaging free radicals caused by environmental aggressors such as pollution and sun UV exposure.

Sun protection and limiting your time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is the strongest is the best defense mechanism against discoloration and sun damage.

Here at The Derm Review, we recommend EltaMD SPF 46 (It was actually formulated for those with skin prone to discoloration), La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Clear Skin Dry Sunscreen, and Dermalogica Pure Light Powerbright TRX SPF 50 it’s formulated to protect from the type of UV light that causes skin discoloration. Check out our entire list of the best sunscreens for the face.

Age spots are caused by overactive pigment cells. Ultraviolet (UV) light speeds up melanin production, a natural pigment that gives skin its color. On the areas of the skin that have had years of sun exposure, dark (age) spots appear when melanin becomes clumped or is produced in high concentrations.

Sources:
Companies are Pulling Skin Lightening Items and Reckoning With Racism,” Business Insider, June 2020.
Global Skin Lightening Products Market is Expected to Reach $8011.17 Million by 2026,” Cision PR Newswire, August 2019.
Skin Bleaching and Dermatologic Health of African and Afro-Caribbean Populations in the US,” US National Library of Medicine National Center for Biology.

  • TDR Original review: Aug 03, 2020. Reply

    Other whitening creams
    Algenist Genius White Brightening Essence
    This remarkable serum combines alguronic acid and algenist algabright complex to not only minimize the appearance of dark spots but also help diminish fine lines and wrinkles. This formula also provides antioxidant benefits to combat free radicals thanks to some botanical extracts that further inhibit melanin production. Finally, vitamin C is added as a bonus skin brightener for a truly powerful punch against age spots.

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