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10 Natural & Gentle Ways to Brighten Skin + Ingredients To Look For

Dorian Smith-Garcia
Author: Expert reviewer:
May 13, 2022
Dorian Smith-Garcia
By Dorian Smith-Garcia
mbg Contributor
Dorian Smith-Garcia is a diverse writer across beauty, fashion, travel, parenting, consumer goods, and tech. She has written for Inverse, Healthline Parenthood, The Confused Millennial, XONecole, Glowsly, and The Drive along with a variety of other publications.
Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN
Expert review by
Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN
Former mbg Vice President of Scientific Affairs
Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN is Vice President of Scientific Affairs at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's degree in Biological Basis of Behavior from the University of Pennsylvania and Ph.D. in Foods and Nutrition from the University of Georgia.

Show us a person who doesn't want a healthy, glowing complexion and we'll be shocked! Glowing skin can give the appearance that you're "lit from within." And in many cases, a glowing complexion means that you can skip the foundation step in your makeup routine.

But bright, healthy skin doesn't just happen by simply wishing it into existence. 

Skin brightening shouldn't be confused with whitening or lightening your skin—which can expose you to harsh chemicals and can also do a number on self-esteem by giving the impression that only fair skin is acceptable or beautiful.

In contrast, everyone can benefit from working to achieve a glowing complexion—regardless of your skin tone, age, or gender.

Skin brightening focuses on banishing dullness, reducing hyperpigmentation, and removing dry, flaky skin, which can make you look tired, with uneven tone. Thankfully, brightening your skin doesn't have to involve questionable ingredients or practices. 

What you need to know about skin brightening

As we mentioned in the introduction, skin brightening is a beneficial practice that doesn't have to be complex or rely on harsh chemical ingredients that could increase skin sensitivities.

Depending on your overall goals, you can focus on brightening through a range of options. Plus, these techniques can be used all over your body—not just on your face.

Skin brightening relies on four key steps: cleansing, exfoliating, cell turnover, and moisturizing. While cleansing and exfoliating are always the first two steps, depending on your specific skin care concerns, you can tweak the other two steps to suit your needs.

Also note, you might not need to exfoliate every day, and in many cases shouldn't if you have sensitive skin.


Your first step is going to be cleansing your skin because no matter how effective a brightening or cellular turnover product is, it's not going to be as effective if you apply it to dirty skin. Cleansing your skin also ensures that any additional products you apply can penetrate the layers. 


Similar to cleansing, the exfoliation step ensures that flaky, dry skin—which can lead to dullness and increased texture—is removed. You can exfoliate either through manual or chemical methods. Everyone's exfoliation routines will vary depending on your skin type, but one to three times a week is the standard.

Cell turnover

One key to brightening your complexion is to boost cellular turnover. In most cases, you're going to either need to embrace an antioxidant-rich serum or take a look at your dietary habits. 

Typically, cellular turnover is achieved with topical serums like retinol, which are designed to penetrate your skin's layers. But this is also why serums usually shouldn't be applied until after you've cleansed and exfoliated your skin, for maximum efficacy. 


After you've finished cleansing, exfoliating, and applying your preferred serums, it's time to moisturize. At this point, you're focusing on locking in hydration. Depending on your skin concerns, you might prefer a thicker moisturizer such as a ceramide-based option for dry skin, or want something lighter to avoid clogging pores if you have normal or oily skin.  

10 ways to naturally brighten your skin:


Mind your sun exposure

We love the sun, but if ever there was a poster child for the adage "too much of a good thing can be bad," it's the sun. Adequate exposure to direct sunlight is important for supporting essential vitamin D synthesis in the body. But excessive time in the sun can be problematic.

While you can't entirely avoid the sun, Audrey Kunin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the chief product officer of NovaBay Pharmaceuticals, and the founder of DERMAdoctor, encourages her patients to wear a 30 SPF broad-spectrum sunscreen every day. "The sun works against your glowing skin wishes: It ages skin, leading to a thickening of the epidermis, which creates a dull complexion."  

Also note that if you've recently exfoliated, begun using retinol or alpha-hydroxy acids, you'll want to be sure to wear sunscreen when you head outside as these all cause increased photosensitivity.


Incorporate a vitamin C serum into your routine

Vitamin C is a naturally occurring ingredient that is excellent for boosting collagen production, brightening the appearance, and fighting free radicals when used topically.

According to Jacob Steiger, M.D., a double board-certified facial plastic surgeon, "Vitamin C is all-natural and delivers skin-enhancing benefits to aid in rejuvenating the skin...[it] promotes collagen production, which is essential for generating healthy new skin."

To be clear, although we're listing quite a few natural ingredients that can boost your skin's brightness, that's not a green light to slather everything on your face all at once. Not all ingredients will play well together, so it's important to do your research when creating a brightening regimen. 


Have "skin snacks"

While most skin care routines focus on topical techniques, dermatological nurse and celebrity aesthetician Natalie Aguilar encourages her clients to check their daily diet. "I always ask my clients to have three skin snacks a day, preferably berries. Berries contain antioxidants that can protect your skin from the sun as well as vitamin C that can brighten your skin."


Look at your overall diet

Continuing with the dietary method of boosting your skin's appearance, think about adding a collagen supplement.*

According to Michael Somenek, M.D., a board-certified facial plastic surgeon from Washington, D.C., "Supplements like collagen contain amino acids, which stimulate your cells' fibroblasts and promote a healthy, firm complexion."* 

Additionally, you can naturally increase collagen intake by adding citrus fruits, egg whites, and nuts.

Likewise, Somenek urges people to drink plenty of water to boost skin hydration. "Proper hydration is directly related to cell regeneration, and therefore drinking around eight to 10 cups per day of water or unsweetened drinks can help skin glow," he says. You should also drink in moderation, as alcohol can be very dehydrating on the skin.


Be sure to get plenty of sleep

In news that should surprise no one, getting enough rest can do more than leave you feeling physically refreshed the next day. Lead aesthetician at SkinSpirit Karen Fernandez notes that "...a good night's sleep can revive skin like nothing else.

Your skin gets more of the attention at night when you're organs are resting—that's when skin gets the most nutrients and revitalization."


Don't skimp on a nighttime routine

Considering that your skin gets its best regeneration at night, this means that you should help it along by incorporating a nighttime skin care routine that boosts hydration and other skin-loving ingredients.

Unlike in the daytime, when busy schedules mean you have limited time to focus on a multistep skin care process, at night you can allow yourself to spend a bit more time on yourself.

This is when you can indulge in a bit of self-care while also giving your skin the TLC it needs. Consider incorporating multiple serum layers, a hydrating face mask, or even using a face roller.

However, mind your order of operations as you'll always want to remember that you cleanse and exfoliate first. Serums and moisturizers should occur after exfoliation and toning for maximum skin absorption. 


Swap retinol for bakuchiol

If you have sensitive skin, you may well have a love-hate relationship with retinol. Often touted for its skin-renewal properties, it can also be incredibly irritating for many people.

According to Jen Graybeal, a director at the skin care brand Beekman 1802, "Retinol can cause redness, peeling, and irritate the skin, which is why plant-based actives like bakuchiol are great alternatives. In fact, bakuchiol is four times safer and more gentle on the skin." 

Also note, if you're pregnant you'll want to steer clear of retinol and opt for bakuchiol, which—according to current research—is safe when used by pregnant women. 


Make a DIY mask to address hyperpigmentation

If the idea of heading to your favorite beauty store and spending a pretty penny on serums and cleansers sounds intimidating, make a pit stop by your kitchen cabinets.

Shrankhla Holecek, the founder of the skin care brand Uma, notes that DIY masks are great for correcting hyperpigmentation, a common concern across all skin tones. 

She especially recommends lemon-juice-based masks, which can aid in cell turnover. One popular (and simple!) recipe is to combine 1 tablespoon of organic honey with juice from half a lemon. Mix and apply over your face and neck, and let sit for 20 minutes before rinsing and moisturizing afterward. 

While lemon-juice-based masks can be easily created in your kitchen, Holecek urges people to only use them in the evening and to be sure to wear sunscreen when stepping outside because it can increase your skin's photosensitivity to the sun. And never use lemon juice alone—always blend it with a buffering ingredient, like honey—as the acids are too strong for skin alone.


Use gentle exfoliation

As we mentioned earlier, exfoliation is a cornerstone for a good skin-brightening routine. The core goal is to remove dull, dead skin and excess texture, to reveal healthy skin underneath.

There are a few ways that you can exfoliate with the two main forms being topical and manual methods. 

Topical or chemical means that you're relying on products to aid in skin removal—such as serums, cleansers, and scrubs. And manual means that you're introducing a tool, like a brush, loofah sponge, or even a textured cloth, to help slough off dead skin cells.

Note that you can use topical and manual methods together. Whichever you choose, an added benefit for makeup wearers is that your products will apply better on smoother skin. 


Dry brushing

Kim Kelder, the lead aesthetician at the award-winning Tucson-based spa Miraval Arizona, recommends dry brushing for glowing skin. She suggests that people "use a soft but firm brush and quickly yet gently brush the skin from the feet to the heart in a circular motion."

She advises not to dry brush more than three to five times a week and to pick a brush with soft bristles to avoid scraping your skin. 


Don't forget to moisturize

Dry skin is a recipe for dullness. Having a good moisturizer on hand is so important to protect your skin and reinforce its natural barrier.

Corey L. Hartman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and a partner for the brand Bio-Oil recommends immediately following any cleansing or exfoliating steps in your skin care routine with a good moisturizer. "When skin is moisturized, it also reflects light, making it instantly appear more glowing."


The key is to find the methods and/or ingredients that are best for your lifestyle and skin needs.

Whichever methods and products you choose, your goal is to find a solution that's convenient for your lifestyle and that you're most likely to maintain—as a bright, glowing complexion requires consistency.

Just remember, that much like any other niche in the beauty world, skin care is personal. With that in mind:  

  • The product(s) or method(s) that works for one individual might not be convenient or ideal for someone else. 
  • Before slathering products all over your face, always start with a patch test to ensure that you're not allergic to any specific ingredients. 
  • You may need to adjust your frequency for using any products or methods as not everyone can incorporate skin-brightening techniques or ingredients for daily use.

Skin-loving ingredients to know

There are a lot of options when it comes to skin care, so if you're feeling a bit overwhelmed, we get it!

The next time you head to your favorite beauty counter, Cassandra Bankson, a skin care expert and medical aesthetician, advises consumers on the following natural topical ingredients (known as tyrosinase inhibitors1) that can control hyperpigmentation and discoloration.

  • Vitamin C: A famous skin care ingredient, vitamin C works to control hyperpigmentation and discoloration. It's also great for collagen production.
  • Alpha Arbutin: Naturally found in blueberries and cranberries, alpha arbutin also helps correct hyperpigmentation and dark spots.
  • Kojic Acid2: Derived from fungus and fermented foods, kojic acid is a gentle exfoliator that reduces hyperpigmentation and discoloration that's often used to address dark spots but shouldn't be used in concentrations exceeding 1%.
  • Licorice: This is a natural plant derivative that reduces the spread of hyperpigmentation and discoloration.
  • Azelaic Acid: naturally found in wheat, barley, and rye, azelaic acid delivers anti-inflammatory benefits for skin health and balance.
  • Resveratrol: an antioxidant naturally found in red wine and grapes, this delivers a buffer against oxidative stress and promotes even pigmentation.

The takeaway

Dull, discolored skin doesn't have to be your story. While you can head to a spa for a facial, the best way to bring out the best in your skin is by taking the time to create a skin care routine that you know you'll stick with.

Look for naturally derived ingredients to minimize the risk of skin irritation, research thoroughly before incorporating new products into your routine, and don't forget to tweak your hydration and eating habits to give your skin a boost!

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