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The Difference Between Brightening, Lightening, and Whitening in Skincare

By Faith Cummings

Glow is one of the most coveted goals in skincare—sometimes denoted by dewy, plump skin and other times punctuated by the kind of brightness and cheer that can be seen across the room. It’s an aim that is possible for every complexion, but inequities in skincare and a racist bent in beauty that prizes fairer and lighter skin tones in many cultures has led to the proliferation of whitening products for deeper and richer skin tones.

In 2017, there were estimates that the skin lightening market was valued at $8.3 billion.

This quest for fairer skin stems from the colonization that affects nearly every continent on the planet. First systematized in 15th century Spain as a part of the Spanish Inquisition, race became a way to divide and categorize people based on their skin’s melanin content—which to note, every single person has, even if how much they have is low. That division placed those with the fairest skin—the ruling class—at the top and those with darker skin furthest away from them at the bottom. As the powerful nation colonized with precision and traded with other authoritative nations, it spread its message of racism—giving rise to Spanish expeditions that eventually conquered the Philippines starting in 1521, the trade of enslaved humans from Africa to Brazil in 1530, the trade of enslaved humans from Africa to the United States in 1619, and countless others.

In a hierarchical society in which fairest skin gets the most opportunities and privileges, it only makes sense that the most disadvantaged, marginalized, and oppressed people would seek to lighten their skin by any means necessary if they weren’t already in possession of it. 

There are a lot of words like brightening, lightening, and whitening on packaging, and these product claims are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is a definite difference in result, goal, and ingredient makeup. So, if you’re curious about the difference between brightening, lightening, and whitening products, here’s a breakdown:

BRIGHTENING

Skin cell regeneration is a continuous process that our body undergoes, with new skin cells constantly replacing those that are older. A buildup of dead cells on the skin’s surface can cause it to appear dull and lackluster. That radiance starts to return through the process of exfoliation, in which the skin is rejuvenated by removing dead cells from the skin’s surface. Ingredients like vitamin C and acids aid in that process, as do other antioxidants that help with hyperpigmentation. You might think of brightening as an increase of healthy glow and radiance.

You’ll know your skin is brighter because your complexion beams, and overall skin brightening is thought to be safe, as long as you’re paying careful attention to the ingredients in your products and their balance. But brightening still has its drawbacks from a naming perspective as many have called out the term as bigoted. For instance, can a shade of brown be bright? Or is that only used as a descriptor for colors that are lighter in shade? 

The dictionary definition of brightening is “to make or become more light,” so the word is complicated, and the issue at hand is very clear. Glow and radiance (these are terms YTTP prefers over “brighten,”) apply to every skin tone; have you seen Khoudia Diop’s radiance?

LIGHTENING

Products that use the term “lightening” claim that they’re seeking to get rid of hyperpigmentation and discoloration using ingredients like arbutine and hydroquinone. But one look at the before and after of some of these products reveals decidedly impacted skin: the blemish-clearing benefits may be there but so is the lightening effect.

WHITENING

Skin whitening is the most aggressive method of melanin reduction, stripping the skin of it using ingredients like mercury (which is a poison) and hydroquinone. Like lightening, tyrosinase inhibitors are applied in larger doses that bleach the skin. The whitening process can be very painful and is generally deemed incredibly dangerous, causing many side effects including skin infections. The proliferation of whitening creams the world over has made the process more accessible, affordable, and less painful. Skin lightening surgeries and medications also exist, but as with lightening, the results of these procedures and topicals are not permanent. Within just a few weeks’ time of failing to apply, melanin production will kick back in.

IN CONCLUSION

To have your best complexion ever, you must be committed to nurturing it. For some, it does come easy and you probably know those who don’t have to do much more than use cleanser and water to have glowing skin. But for the rest of us, we need to be dedicated to nourishing our skin health so it can reach its highest potential.

We can’t ignore or shun those who seek to alter their complexion given globally pervasive colorism—it must be remembered that even in our present day, having a lighter skin does give some access to more privilege and opportunities. But diversity of skin tone is something to be celebrated and uplifted, and YTTP stands by that. All skin is beautiful. All skin tones, all skin types.

Written for Youth To The People by Faith Cummings