Best Tips To Brighten Skin: Products, Advice & Common Mistakes From The Pros
When I think of the words I use in our skin care articles most frequently, "healthy" certainly tops the list. But in a very close second comes "bright." Just following that, I'm sure it is "glow." There's something about a luminescent complexion that is equal parts aspirational and enviable: Almost everyone, on some level, wants it. And as a beauty writer, I've practically built my career around helping people (and myself) achieve it.
Yet, there's still so much to be learned about the most effective (and healthiest) way to get it. Throughout my skin care journey, I know I've dabbled in a few formulas and treatments that touted brighter skin but left me with a complexion that was less-than-desired. For any experimental beauty fans out there, I'm sure you have, too.
So what is the state of brighter skin now? What advice and science-backed lessons should we follow in our quest for a more vibrant complexion? Oh, I'm so glad you asked.
The 101 on how to brighten skin.
Typically, I like to start these things with a definition. Of course, there are no defined outlines for bright skin. A scientist can't look under the microscope at a skin cell and deem it "bright." Nor can a dermatologist look at a complexion, check a few boxes, and declare the skin to be "bright." It's a subjective description that most in the beauty space associate with an overall aura of health and well-being. If all of this sounds vague, it's because radiance is a hard concept to put into tangible terms. But after spending several years as a beauty editor, interviewing countless experts, here are the qualities I hear most commonly associated with bright skin:
- Well-hydrated and supple skin tends to appear more luminescent, and on the flip side—dry skin often appears dull and flaky.
- Your outermost layer of skin is made up of dead skin cells (a good thing, as they offer a protective buffer). However, glowing skin is achieved through a healthy balance of removing buildup of these dead skin cells so younger cells below them peek through—while not compromising the barrier. These young cells are better at reflecting light, hence the glow.
- Bright skin was usually well nurtured internally, meaning vibrant skin comes with taking care of yourself, feeding the skin a nutritious diet, getting sleep, and so on.
- Finally, glowing skin and skin issues like blemishes, ruddiness, and texture are not always mutually exclusive. Yes, you can have glowing skin and still break out or have uneven texture.
Glowing skin can come naturally, be improved upon with skin care, and be mimicked with makeup—no matter how it's achieved, you know it when you see it.
The 8 things we're getting wrong right now.
Even the most diligent skin care devotees can have habits that may be working against them. Here, common skin care practices that may be reducing your skin brightness:
- Not exfoliating properly. For so long we've been told that exfoliation is the gateway to brighter skin. What was often left out? Go overboard and you'll end up with irritated skin—the opposite of what we're looking for here.
- You're using a too light moisturizer. Or worse yet, not at all.
- Not prioritizing internal hydration & nutrition. Lit-from-within skin has to start, well, within. And while makeup and glow-enhancing topicals can pull a lot of the weight, you're better off starting internally. While the skin care space is getting better about prioritizing nutrition's effect on the complexion, it's still often thought of as an afterthought.
- Not getting enough sleep. Sleep is the most important recovery and rejuvenation time for the skin, and without it your cells can't reach their full potential.
- Day-to-day life is stressing you out. When your body is stressed, it redirects nutrients to more vital organs—leaving the skin looking lackluster.
- You're using mattifying makeup. Mattifying makeup has reigned supreme over the last several years on social media—you may be using shine-reducing formulas and not even realize it.
- We're forgetting about environmental stressors. Pollution and climate change can dull the skin—yes, there's even research on it.
- You're not moving your body. Circulation is a vital part of a healthy complexion. And so many of us didn't get out to move, walk, and work out as much as we used to over the past several years. (Understandable, by the way.)
The 5 steps you need to know.
Let's get into what you can actually do to better support your precious skin cells:
Find gentle, non-bleaching brightening ingredients.
There are so many ingredients that can aid in your brightening journey. Each has its own unique set of qualities that can make them better or worse for different skin types. It's important to find the right options for you. How you use these ingredients is up to your routine preferences—be it in a wash, serum, mask, cream, or so on. (Need help finding one? We love these glow-inducing products.)
- Vitamins C and E: These antioxidants not only support collagen production (which is essential for generating new, healthy, vibrant skin), but can brighten the appearance of the complexion overall. Grab these if you're also interested in improving your skin's firmness and fine lines.
- Alpha Arbutin: Naturally found in blueberries and cranberries, alpha arbutin helps correct dark spots if that's your primary roadblock for a glowing complexion.
- Azelaic Acid: This underrated ingredient is particularly useful for those who experience ruddy complexions as well as dullness.
- Niacinamide: Vitamin B3 is an incredibly multitalented ingredient that is great for supporting the skin barrier function.
Additionally, avoid all bleaching or lightening ingredients such as hydroquinone. These often get lumped into the same category as brightening products, but they are not the same and shouldn't be treated as such. Brightening is about a quality and a glow, whereas bleaching products are about physically lightening skin tones.
Find your exfoliation sweet spot.
"Exfoliate!" is the advice handed out the most when talking about brightening. And when it's touted as the end-all-be-all of glowing skin, it's no wonder people take it to the extreme! In reality, exfoliation is an incredible tool—but only when used responsibly and sparingly.
The first exfoliation step is to find a method you enjoy, be it physical or chemical. Physical exfoliation is using things like scrubs and masks, which are best formulated when they are nonabrasive. (Read: Skip chunky sea salt and opt for something like sugar.) Chemical exfoliants are derm favorites, and they work by sloughing off the skin over time and with consistent use—things like enzymes; lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acids; and retinol (these are in order of most gentle to strongest—select accordingly.)
Then, of course, there's the question of how often. "The most important tip is that 'less is more.' You want to exfoliate just enough to increase cell turnover and reveal fresh new skin," says Ife Rodney, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Eternal Dermatology. We recommend starting low and slow and building up from there, but usually no more than three times a week. And I must note: Some people can't tolerate any exfoliating. (Looking at you, friends with extra sensitive skin.) If that's you, don't feel pressure to grab a scrub in the search for brighter skin—just stick to the products discussed in the last step.
Nurture your barrier.
Without a strong, robust skin barrier, you're not going to glow. Full stop. So keeping hydrated and supporting your skin microbiome should be key parts of your overall routine. This is best achieved in two parts: Limit irritation and then layer on barrier-supporting creams and hydrators.
On the former point, we recommend removing strong cleansers from your routine, as they can disrupt your biome and moisture layer. From there, it's just about listening to your skin: Take note of what products leave your skin feeling tight, dry, or angry after. We're often taught that these are signs that the formula is "working" on the skin, but instead, they're indications that they may be disrupting the barrier.
On the latter part, look for lotions and creams that contain lipids, antioxidants, and biotic ingredients. We love lipids like botanical oils (oat, moringa seed, and jojoba come to mind), as they are full of skin-supporting fatty acids. Antioxidants can help buffer the skin against the effects of environmental stressors and free radicals, two things that seriously dull your shine. Finally, biotic ingredients—like pre-, pro-, and postbiotics—work with your natural microflora to improve epidermal framework, overall skin quality, and hydration.
Skin care starts from the inside and works its way out. Of course how you treat your skin externally certainly has significant results—and might have a more immediate payoff (say, a sheet mask that instantly boosts hydration or a peel that fades dark spots ASAP). But supporting skin health from the inside has long-term benefits.
Derms and medical experts recommend eating a nutrient-rich diet full of healthy fats, antioxidants, and proteins. "I've found that when people add skin-supporting superfoods to their diet, they start feeling younger almost immediately, and over time, they often slow the physical signs of aging," naturopathic doctor Kellyann Petrucci, M.S., N.D., writes about the best foods for your skin. "If you want soft, young-looking skin, I recommend making them the core of your beauty ritual."
While a robust diet should always be considered the basis, sometimes we need a little help caring for our skin internally. Beauty supplements can help improve overall skin cell health and function via impressive bioactives working together to support your skin's hydration, elasticity, and rejuvenation.*
Chill out and get some rest.
Lack of sleep and day-to-day stress can majorly dull your complexion. While your skin is the first line of defense, it's the last to get nutrients when you're feeling worn down. Your skin can only look as good as you feel. "Although cause and effect can be challenging to nail down, there is no denying an intimate and intricate brain-skin connection," says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D.
And while a bad night's rest and daily frustrations are just part of normal life, we encourage you to set up mental health and sleep hygiene practices to better set you up for success. Check out our best tips to fall asleep here and how to mellow out an active mind here.
3 extra ideas—in case you want to go all-out.
Looking to go above and beyond? You overachiever, you. Here are some extra tips to supercharge brightness:
- Find your skin care person. As Natalie Aguilar, a dermatological nurse and founder of N4 Skincare says: "[I love] seeing people building relationships with their 'skin people.' I think it's really important for people to find therapists who can take care of you as an individual." This skin care specialist will be able to work with you as your skin changes and find solutions that are right for you. Not everyone has the access or means to visit a skin therapist regularly, but if you can involve a professional—we always recommend it.
- Get a tool that works for your skin type. Just like not all skin types can tolerate all ingredients—not all tools are useful for all skin types. We recommended speaking with a pro before adding any tool to your routine. But need a place to start? Here's our full breakdown on the best skin care tools.
- Play around with skin care/makeup hybrids. No matter how "perfect" you are in your habits and routine, sometimes you just can't reach your maximum shine potential. Thank the universe for makeup, right? Plus nowadays makeup is infused with good-for-skin actives. Meaning: Adding a dewy highlighter just might help keep your complexion as supple as it looks.
The 7 products to try.
While skin brightness takes a holistic approach, a few product recommendations can't hurt, no? Here's what beauty experts can't get enough of.
Best face wash: Indie Lee Brightening Cleanser
Their bestselling face cleanser is a personal favorite of the mbg beauty team. Give it one wash and you'll know why: The lush gel-to-lather leaves your skin feeling supple, fresh, but never dry. That's thanks to the unique formula. Strawberry seed oil, hydrolyzed wheat protein, and tomato extracts very gently exfoliate while feeding your skin antioxidants and fatty acids.
Brightening Cleanser, Indie Lee ($36)
Best toner: Pixi By Petra Glow Tonic
This toner is a crowd favorite, especially for those with oil-prone skin. It's made with 5% glycolic acid that sloughs off buildup and extra sebum to reveal bright skin that's dewy but not oil-slick. The aloe vera hydrates while ginseng adds antioxidant properties. If can be strong for some folks, so we recommend using it in the evening, every other day (or once a day if you're targeting blemishes).
Glow Tonic, Pixi By Petra ($29)
Best serum: Marie Veronique C+E+Ferulic Serum
Vitamins C and E plus ferulic acid is a classic combo because they work together to make the others stronger and more stable. (Don't you love a little teamwork?) The ingredients fight free radicals, as well as help your skin's natural collagen production.
C+E+Ferulic Serum, Marie Veronique ($90)
Best face cream: Eight Saints Cloud Whip C Cream
This texture is about as heavenly as the name suggests: Fluffy, light as air, and a burst of hydration. Jojoba oil, coconut oil, evening primrose oil, and aloe lend the cream moisture—but the potent brightening benefits are all thanks to vitamin C and niacinamide.
Cloud Whip C Cream, Eight Saints ($42)
Best oil: Vintner's Daughter: Vintner's Daughter Active Botanical Serum
This oh-so-luxe face oil is made with 22 nutrient-rich botanicals. To name a few: Grapeseed oil provides phytoceramides, avocado oil provides fatty acids, rose balances oil production, and turmeric is loaded with antioxidants. Combine those all together, and you've got an expert-approved oil that brings serious radiance.
Active Botanical Serum, Vintner's Daughter ($195)
Best body lotion: mindbodygreen postbiotic body lotion
Not only does this support your barrier, but the host of actives bring the glow to the skin below your neck. The hydrating base blends together aloe, shea butter, moringa seed oil, oat oil, and coconut oil to offer a robust variety of conditioning and moisturizing properties. The innovative and highly selective pre- and postbiotic combo nurtures your skin microbiome, which improves epidermal framework and soothes angry skin. Plus, potent antioxidants (in the form of coenzyme Q10 and a fruit complex) fight free radicals. Your skin will look brighter, healthier—and feel better.
postbiotic body lotion, mindbodygreen ($30)
Best supplement: mbg cellular beauty+
This innovative supplement contains potent doses of premium botanicals and phytochemicals clinically shown to support skin hydration, elasticity, smoothness, barrier function, and wrinkle reduction. In the cutting-edge formula, you'll find phytoceramides to support a healthy skin barrier structure; astaxanthin to preserve a healthy collagen layer; ubiquinol CoQ10 to promote skin cell "cleanup" (aka, getting rid of debris) and rejuvenation; and polyphenol-containing pomegranate whole-fruit extract for photoprotection. These high-quality bioactives work together, and the result is nothing short of wow-worthy.*
cellular beauty+, mindbodygreen ($76)
The beauty breakdown.
There's a reason that people so often use "glow" and “healthy” in the same breath—the two naturally go together. But getting the maximum potential out of your skin is entirely dependent on your skin type—so be sure to listen to your skin as you try out brightening ingredients, exfoliation techniques, and tools. If you want more help, check out our all-time favorite habits for glowing skin.
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director at mindbodygreen. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She has worked at many top publications and brands including Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends and updates in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as travel, financial wellness, and parenting. She has reported on the intricacies of product formulations, the diversification of the beauty industry, and and in-depth look on how to treat acne from the inside, out (after a decade-long struggle with the skin condition herself). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.