18 Best Brightening Serums in 2020, According to Dermatologists

18 Best Brightening Serums in 2020, According to Dermatologists

Ever since day-to-day life went from being an incessant stream of stress to a full-on tidal wave, you may have noticed that, despite your best efforts (eating healthy, hydrating frequently, moisturizing regularly), your skin continues to look blah with a side of meh.

When it comes to what triggers drab-looking skin, stress is just the tip of the iceberg. “Dull skin is typically the result of having excess layers of dead skin sticking to the skin’s surface,” says Carolyn Chang, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Rhode Island Dermatology Institute. “This happens because the skin becomes more inefficient at removing dead skin cells (known as cell turnover) as we age.” Other causes of dull skin include dryness and brown spots from sun damage, she says.

Along with regular exfoliating and moisturizing, adding a brightening serum to your skincare routine can give your complexion an added boost in the vibrance department. “The goal with brightening serums isn’t to lighten the overall skin tone, but rather, create an even skin tone by reducing overactive areas,” says Dan Belkin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York.

Overactive areas typically strike due to inflammation, hormones, excessive sun exposure, and aging, but lifestyle factors can play a role too (think: eating lots of processed foods, not drinking enough water, not getting enough sleep), so make sure to take note of lifestyle changes you can make in tandem with using a brightening serum for max results.

How to choose (and use) the best brightening serum

Check for key ingredients: Look for active ingredients that are known for their brightening abilities, says Dr. Chang. These include vitamin C (protects against UV light damage and blocks critical steps in pathway to making brown spots on skin), alpha hydroxy acids (helps to dissolve dead skin cells and reveal brighter new skin), and hyaluronic acid (a super-hydrator that gives your skin a dewy glow).

Another star brightening ingredient? “Retinol, or retinoids, can brighten the skin by reducing the synthesis of melanin, the pigments that make up dark spots,” says Dr. Belkin.

The main ingredient to be careful with is hydroquinone—a powerful topical that does the job by reducing the synthesis of melanin. But one of its side effects is permanent darkening of the skin, especially in unregulated over-the-counter products. “Skin-lightening products from abroad may not be transparent about their ingredients,” says Dr. Belkin. “These should be used with caution.”

Go slowly: Brightening serums have the capacity to be irritating, so Dr. Belkin recommends starting slow—say, using your chosen serum a few times per week, then working your way up to daily use as tolerated. “It should go after cleansing and toning, and before moisturizing, since you’ll want maximum absorption of the active ingredients,” he says.

Apply before bed: To maximize efficacy, it’s best to slather on your brightening serum at night, since your skin checks off all of its restorative tasks while you snooze. “This will give your skin all the nutrients it needs to withstand the free radical damage it endures during the daytime,” says Michele Green, M.D., a New York-based board-certified cosmetic dermatologist. If you prefer applying it in the a.m., don’t forget your SPF, as brightening serums can leave your skin extra-sensitive to the sun’s UV rays.

Ready to boost your radiance? Here are the best dermatologist-approved brightening serums you can buy.

1

BEST OVERALL

Discoloration Defense

SkinCeuticals
dermstore.com

$98.00

This brightening serum by SkinCeuticals reduces the appearance of dark spots and discoloration through its blend of kojic acid, tranexamic acid, and niacinamide. It also contains 5% HEPES, a synthetically-derived acid that acts as goo-gone for the skin, unsticking dead skin cells for even exfoliation.

2

BEST VALUE

Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%

The Ordinary
sephora.com

$7.90

The azelaic acid this serum contains offers antioxidant support to your skin by helping to brighten skin tone, improve uneven skin texture, and reduce signs of congestion. Oh, and it literally costs less than your lunch.

3

RAVE REVIEWS

Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum

Neutrogena
amazon.com

$17.24

“This serum by Neutrogena is a gentle form of retinol that helps with wrinkles and collagen production, but will also help gently resurface the skin by encouraging cell turnover,” says New York-based board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, M.D. 

4

Regenerist MAX Tone Serum

This fragrance-free serum from Olay is formulated with protective antioxidants, such as niacinamide and vitamin C, that brighten and even out complexion. Best of all, the formula absorbs super-fast while leaving the skin smooth, hydrated, and effortlessly dewy.

5

Banana Bright Vitamin C Serum

OLEHENRIKSEN
sephora.com

$65.00

Formulated with vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and gentle poly-hydroxy acids, this silky serum helps to brighten, smooth, and deliver all-day hydration. It’s suitable for all skin types and feels ultra-lightweight.

6

Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum

Non-comedogenic and gentle, this lightweight brightening serum from CeraVe is formulated with 10% l-ascorbic acid (the purest form of vitamin C), ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin B5 to help improve skin tone, texture, and hydration, all while protecting against free radical damage.

7

Pigment Expert Brightening and Correcting Ampoules

Pigment Expert by ISDINCEUTICS acts as a targeted serum that brightens and evens skin tone. “The formula is gentle but effective and contains skin-smoothing and pigment-correcting ingredients, such as glycolic acid, that help to decrease the appearance of dark spots,” says Jeannette Graf, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Great Neck, New York.

8

Age-Defying Vitamin C&E Serum

Glytone
dermstore.com

$130.00

Suitable for all skin types, this brightening serum by Glytone disrupts the conversion of melanin into dark spots, says Dr. Nazarian. Its time-released formula of vitamins C and E safeguards skin cells from free radical damage, protecting against premature skin aging.

9

Violet-C Brightening Serum 20% Vitamin C + 10% AHA

Tatcha
sephora.com

$88.00

This serum offers up a one-two punch of vitamin C to fight free radicals and support cell turnover and alpha hydroxy acids to remove dead skin cells for smooth, radiant skin. “It’s a gentle formulation that’s great for sensitive skin types,” says Dr. Chang.

10

LUXE Brightening Gel

LovelySkin
lovelyskin.com

$99.00

Another pick that’s suitable for all skin types, this gel contains vitamin C and asafetida extract, an ancient Asian powerhouse that’s highly effective at improving dull skin and hyperpigmentation. “Plus, it can be used anywhere else on the body, making it a great ‘bang for your buck’ multipurpose product,” says Omaha-based board-certified dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, M.D., founder of the brand.

11

Professional-C Serum 20%

Obagi
dermstore.com

$127.00

If your skin has now adjusted to a lower concentration of vitamin C and you’re looking to kick things up a notch, Obagi’s Professional-C Serum 20% is “an expertly formulated vitamin C serum that provides professional-looking brightening benefits,” says Dr. Schlessinger.

12

Squalane + 10% Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum

Biossance
sephora.com

$62.00

“If you have drier or sensitive skin, look for gentler exfoliating ingredients, like lactic acid,” says Dr. Schlessinger. This serum contains vegan lactic acid and hydrating squalane to offer gentle exfoliation with an extra shot of moisture.

13

LiftActiv Vitamin C Brightening Skin Corrector

This brightening serum by Vichy contains dermatologist-grade 15% pure vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin E to help give skin a glow, hydrate, and plump, all while offering protection against harmful free radicals. 

14

Hydro Boost Multivitamin Booster

Neutrogena
amazon.com

$14.70

Not only does this serum quench super-dry skin with hyaluronic acid, it contains niacinamide and vitamin E, both of which are powerful antioxidants that help to improve the skin’s natural moisture barrier and even out the complexion. It’s also non-comedogenic, so you won’t have to worry about clogged pores.

15

Even Better Clinical Radical Dark Spot Corrector + Interrupter

Great for oily skin types, Clinique’s Even Better Clinical’s “botanical blend of lightening ingredients, along with vitamin C and salicylic acid, make for a great brightening serum,” says Dr. Chang.

16

Pure Shots Light Up Brightening Serum

Yves Saint Laurent
sephora.com

$88.00

Suitable for combination skin, this lightweight serum contains vitamin C to brighten skin and fade dark spots, as well as marshmallow flower, a hydrating antioxidant that helps soothe irritation and redness. The fact that it comes in refillable packaging is just an added bonus.

17

Essential Antioxidant Infusion

MG Skin Labs
michelegreenmd.com

$150.00

This serum is uniquely formulated to stimulate collagen production while you sleep. “It delivers a pure concentration of vitamins A, C, E, and other nutrients to exfoliate, renew, and replenish skin overnight,” says Dr. Green, who created the brand.

18

Molecular Anti-Inflammaging Serum

Heraux
herauxskin.com

$250.00

This serum contains a molecule called HX-1, which “protects stem cells from aging effects and enhances cell turnover,” says Dr. Belkin. It also contains vitamins C and E, and red maple bark extract, antioxidants that promote a brighter, more even skin tone.

Krissy is a regular contributor to Prevention, and she also writes for Cosmopolitan, Weight Watchers, Women’s Health, FitnessMagazine.com, Self.com, and Shape.com. 

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