Serious About Brightening? Empty Your Wallet on These Worth-It Products

The best glow for your dough.

You guys know I'm all about skincare above all when it comes to putting stuff on my face. Well, if you didn't, yes, it is true.

Now that I'm in the twilight of my twenties, in terms of a/s/l, my skin is, for the most part, settled into a normal-combination variety; it gets kind of oily in my T-zone throughout the day but isn't severely acne-prone or dry. It does, however, have issues with hyperpigmentation at the slightest trauma from zit-picking or sun exposure. I used to have pretty gnarly eczema as a tween, so all those past dry spots show up like ghosts when I get tan now, simply refusing to darken evenly with the rest of my skin. It is nostalgia in a very annoying incarnation.

My skincare concerns generally have to do with brightening and nixing pigmentation. I've tried almost everything, from the not-so-kosher stuff to the natural route to the expensive route, and most things shy of skin bleach (because ugh). There is always some newfangled innovation claiming that this new ingredient is THE star player for zapping your skin cells into being bright and shiny again, but overall, I keep revisiting similar ingredients based on what's worked for me in the past.

Basically, if you want to get brightening, a good place to start is with products containing licorice root extract, vitamin C, niacinamide, arbutin, and a slew of AHAs and/or BHA (glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid). Most of these work by inhibiting melanin production (so you don't get any more pigmented than you already are). Using a chemical exfoliant beforehand sloughs off dead skin cells and ones affected by pigmentation to reveal new "blank" skin cells.

This is the loose structure that's been working for me; my skin is way more even than it was a few years ago when I was riddled with brown spots that looked like gluttonous freckles. But since chemical exfoliants are a subject worthy of their own diatribe, let's talk "brighteners."

The Essence

One of my absolute favorite buy-in-bulk skin products is this essence from Missha. I've talked about it before and I'll probably find a way to talk about again... like right now.

For those of you familiar with this cult K-beauty product, the new "Intensive" moniker came about from the fact that so many Korean beauty products become counterfeit-fodder once they reach a certain level of popularity, so the brand changes packaging and sometimes formula a number of times to keep those counterfeiters guessing. The difference with the "Intensive" as opposed to the last generation of this essence (the "Zyosys") is that the formula swapped the licorice root extract for more of its key ingredient, saccharomyces ferment filtrate (aka yeasty goodness). If you're into fermented skincare, this essence just became a must-have for you.

Personally, it's done a 360 on my skin in totally unexpected ways when I started using it about a year and a half ago. After only two weeks, my skin became noticeably less dull, smoother, softer and it legit glowed. At $49 for a huge bottle that will probably take you several months to go through, it's a worthwhile splurge.

The Vitamins, C

Vitamin C is amazing in that it's generally available in varying concentrations, so it appeals to all skin types.

Generally, there are two types of vitamin C in skin care: unstabilized (l-ascorbic acid) or stabilized (ascorbyl methylsilanol pectinate or ascorbyl palmitate). Unstabilized vitamin C serums will come in dark or opaque bottles and generally have a shelf life of about six months max, due to oxidization from the air or sunlight. Stabilized vitamin C serum may come in a clear bottle and have a shelf life of about two years. Concentrations will range from 1% to now 20%+, but the higher you go, the more likely it will be that it can irritate sensitive skin.

The Paula's Choice Vitamin C Spot Treatment is a whopping 25%, but you're only supposed to use the teeniest bit on targeted areas, like an acne scar. I've used it on spots nightly only to see them fade significantly in about two weeks, which is really quick considering it takes your skin cells 28 days to turn over fully. It's a bit steep, but if you have stubborn pigmented spots you want to nix without lasers (which are way more expensive) this highly concentrated spot treatment really works.

Klairs Vitamin C Serum has only 5% vitamin C, making it gentle enough for sensitive skin types, not likely to irritate you if used over your entire face. It feels like a super-lightweight viscous oil and has a slight warmth when massaged over my skin.

I noticed that this one also helped with hydration and smoothing texture, but was a bit slower at doing anything to dark spots. Then again, I probably have the skin of a boot at this point from subjecting it to so many products. When my skin likes something, I know it immediately, and if it hates something it's also quick to holler. This serum was a slow burn, but as a brightening maintenance product, it's lit.

The Serum I'm Really Mad Works Really Well

I was first introduced to Shiseido White Lucent Brightening Serum in my own medicine cabinet. A roommate who moved out (and had a bit of a spending compulsion) had left it behind a long while ago, and I decided to put it to task because obviously. And man, I was legit lit-from-within in less than a month. My own mother complimented my skin (which, if you know Korean moms, is a big deal).

Once I ran out, I was gutted to discover that this serum was pretty pricey. I caved and bought a refill in my Golem-like fervor of imagining a complexion any less glowy. At only one ounce, it was tough to justify. But then I discovered Missha's First Treatment Essence, and, well... that was over. But you know what? At least it put my money where its beautifully formulated mouth was.

The Best Natural Beauty Product For Brightening (No Seriously)

I think many of us have sung the praises of rose hip oil here. It's seriously great, no matter what your skin type. It doesn't even feel all that greasy since it absorbs so quickly. It's amazing at fading pigmentation, calming irritation (including acne flare-ups), doing anti-aging stuff (plumping fine lines! Killing free radicals that want your skin to be ugly! Hooray antioxidants!), and hydrating.

I use this as a pre-moisturizer or in place of one when my skin is being cranky and it tends to settle the F down, right quick. It's great to consistently use to prevent those breakouts from becoming pigmented in the first place, but also to handle existing ones. I've gone the high-low road, using one I found in a Whole Foods, and this fancier one from Trilogy. Honestly, they both work just as well, I think.

The Hyped-up Duo

Sunday Riley's skincare has all the raves in the book. Kara actually turned me on to them with nothing but praise. For the longest time, I was all, "I see you, Sunday Riley, over there in the skincare trophy case." And then I was randomly sent this deluxe sample pairing (they're both half-sizes of the normal counterparts), and goddammit, it's true. The stories are all true!

With lactic acid, licorice extract, arnica, and yeast, the Good Genes serum sounds like my kind of cocktail. It's got a hardworking exfoliating and brightening agenda in a creamy-feeling serum that smells freshly citrusy. The Luna Oil has a retinoid complex, which is usually the heavy-hitter for anti-aging stuff like plumping fine lines and wrinkles and making your skin all sproingy with elasticity again. But this one also has blue tansy, an oil containing azulene for an anti-inflammatory effect. Avocado seed oil, chia seed oil, and chamomile round up this oil to be powerful yet soothing.

Together, they're a winning combination, but at full retail price are also a steep investment. If you think about all the makeup you won't be wearing to flaunt your perfectly glowing, even skin, though, it's not a totally bad trade.

Science in a Bottle (and Jar)

These are two relatively new products from Eve Lom: an Advanced Brightening Serum, and Brightening Cream. I love their cleanser and complexion makeup so my antennae stood up when I heard they were introducing a brightening line. I've finished a jar of the Brightening Cream in the past couple months so far, but have started using the serum recently.

Both feature an ingredient called DermaPep, which has a little TM next to the name, making me think that it's a relatively new innovation in the ingredient scheme. What it does is block the overproduction of melanin and is apparently 20 times more effective at lightening pigmentation than arbutin, kojic acid, and hydroquinone (without the shady reputation of some of those ingredients). Basically, it prevents your skin from tanning itself. Niacinamide, vitamin C, micro algae extract, betaine, allatoin, hyaluronic acid, and rose otto oil round up the list of hardworking brighteners, soothers and hydrators.

It's a winning cocktail for sure, and like Sunday Riley's counterparts, an "investment" skincare option.

Overall, the products look, feel, and smell luxurious and soothing. Used together, they're super-soothing, softening and hydrating. I haven't seen a gob-smacking brightening effect from the serum yet (I've been using it for less than a month), but my skin is noticeably smoother, softer and even-toned with the cream. I'm actually hoping that using the serum in conjunction will speed all that jazz up, since it's more actives being layered.

Skincare takes a lot of research, slapping stuff on your face, crossing your fingers, and mostly a ton of patience.

What's your "I'll wait for you!" skincare issue? I mean, if this were a romantic drama where someone goes off to war and other one is waiting back home. Skincare can be romantic, right?