Whitening vs. Brightening: What They Mean on Your Beauty Products

Whitening vs. Brightening: What They Mean on Your Beauty Products

Seeing the word “whitening” on a skin care product that isn’t toothpaste is pretty cringey to me, and it probably is to you, too.

Because the term “whitening” is usually associated with skin bleaching, which is still pretty controversial in the beauty world (rightfully so!), I know that most people tend to skip over anything that even remotely sounds like it might be a whitening product.

While I understand that sentiment, I’m going to say something that sounds like a hot take but really isn’t: Most of my favorite skin care is whitening products.

See, despite the not-awesome naming convention, most whitening beauty products actually have nothing to do with bleaching your skin or even changing its color at all. The best “whitening” products should really be labeled “brightening,” because they just enhance your natural skin tone.

Stellar, right? Who doesn’t want a natural, lit-from-within glow?

Most “whitening” products have nothing to do with bleaching your skin. They should be labeled “brightening,” because they just enhance your natural skin tone. 

So, let’s set aside the unfortunate phrasing for a second and talk about the nuances of whitening in skin care.


Know Your Lingo: Whitening, Tone Up, Brightening, and Bleaching

In my experience, “whitening” products tend to fall into three categories:

  1. Bleaching
  2. “Tone-up”
  3. Brightening

Bleaching products are exactly what they sound like. These guys are the ones that actively reduce the amount of pigment in your skin. They’re often marketed as “whiteners” or “fading creams.” They have a bad reputation, but they can be really helpful for people who deal with melasma, stubborn age spots, or hormonal skin conditions.



“Tone-up” products are a category that I mainly see in Asian beauty brands, but there are a few Western ones now as well. These creams usually have ingredients like titanium dioxide (yes, like you see in some sunscreens!) and mica to superficially make your skin look lighter or brighter. Unless you are naturally very fair already, these can give you a chalky, ashy, or sickly appearance, and they look very unnatural in any kind of flash photography (major white cast and flashback, yikes!), so I don’t generally recommend them.

Brightening beauty products are my favorite. They’re often labeled as whitening or lightening, but that’s misleading. These products contain ingredients like arbutin, niacinamide, licorice, centella, or tranexamic acid, all of which reduce redness, inflammation, and irritation. Reducing redness or discoloration from hyperpigmentation allows your natural, brighter skin tone to shine through without changing it!


Decode That IL: How to Know What You’re Looking At

Ingredient lists (aka ILs or INCIs) will always tell you what you need to know if the product label is confusing. It’s common for beauty brands to use terms like brightening, lightening, fading, and whitening interchangeably, so it’s almost impossible to just look at the name of a product and know which category it falls into.



1. Bleaching

There are some OTC bleaching products available, but most won’t outright say that they’re bleaching because of the controversial nature of the phrasing. Instead, look at the ingredient list for hydroquinone or corticosteroids such as fluocinonide or clobetasol propionate.

Listen, I am not here to judge or tell you that you should never bleach your skin. But! I am here as your friendly neighborhood Mom Friend who cares about your safety.

If you feel that you need a topical bleaching agent, I strongly suggest talking to a doctor, dermatologist, or pharmacist first. If used correctly, bleaching creams can help with specific types of discoloration, but it’s easy to unknowingly buy something unsafe.

For example, you should never, ever use a product with mercury in it. However, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you could accidentally buy one! Mercury can also be listed as calomel, mercuric, mercurio, or mercurous, and there are (unfortunately!) still unethical manufacturers who sell these kinds of products.



You should also know that, while hydroquinone can be used safely as a targeted treatment, it should never be more than 2% strength. If the label doesn’t clearly state a percentage, don’t buy it!

Also, please remember that you can often get better, safer, and longer-lasting results with cosmetic procedures like chemical peels or lasers.


2. Tone-up

Most tone-up products are pretty clear about what they are. However, some do still have confusing naming conventions (like Milky Dress The White Cream or Secret Key’s Snow White Milky Pack), so it’s useful to know what to look for.

The hallmark of most tone-up products is the inclusion of titanium dioxide. Phrases like “instant brightening effect!” or “glowing finish upon application!” are also good indicators that you’re looking at a tone-up product. Most will have a white or light pink tone, and you’ll be able to see an immediate difference in skin color after application.


whitening beauty products


If you have pretty fair skin already, a tone-up cream can give you a subtle glow in place of (or in addition to) makeup. However, if you have a medium or dark skin tone, these products won’t do you any favors. You’ll end up looking ghostly, chalky, or grey. Even with my own skin being pretty fair, there are plenty of tone-up creams that make me look like a zombie too, hence why I don’t recommend them usually.


3. Brightening

While I swear by brightening products for all kinds of skin troubles, I’ll be the first to admit that they don’t really do a good job of naming them. Many have “whitening” in the name, some say “lightening,” and some don’t indicate at all that they’re brightening! Seriously brands, get it together.

The magic of brightening products like these comes from the superstar ingredients they usually include. Most will have niacinamide (which is my ride-or-die, desert island, number one favorite skin care ingredient), but they’ll also usually contain ingredients like arbutin, centella, galactomyces or saccharomyces ferment, licorice, Job’s tears, or tranexamic acid.



All of these ingredients are well-known for calming, soothing, and giving your natural skin tone a nice glow-up. Because they’re so good at soothing angry skin, I recommend brightening products and sheet masks to anyone struggling with inflammation or breakouts as well as anyone looking for a healthy glow.


Beauty Branding Could Use a Glow-up Too

Some of the awkward product names and descriptions happen as a result of poor translation, but there is also some residual belief in certain cultures that achieving a particular skin tone is better or more beautiful.

And, to address the elephant in the room, we all know that beauty brands have historically not been the most inclusive when it comes to shade ranges and naming conventions. Fortunately though, we’re seeing a shift in that regard with companies committing to expanding their shade ranges and removing words like “whitening” and “light/lightening” from their branding. (L’Oreal is the most recent example of this!)

My personal philosophy is to embrace your skin exactly how it is (color, texture, troubles and all), and to do what you can to make it as clear, healthy, and radiant as possible. To this end, most of my skin care routine is made up of products that fall under the “brightening” category of whitening, and the results are amazing.

Do you have any brightening or whitening beauty products that you love? Let’s chat about them!



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