Dermatologists have long touted vitamin C as the be-all, end-all of antioxidants in skin care — and for good reason. Decades of research show that, used topically, ascorbic acid and its derivatives can lighten hyperpigmentation, encourage collagen production, and brighten the complexion overall, which are three things we’ll never say no to.
But when it comes to stamping out dullness, C isn’t the only game in town. In fact, if you ask some derms, the idea of relying only on vitamin C as a one-and-done solution for brightening may even be… outdated. To start, the ingredient is notoriously difficult to stabilize, which means we may not be getting the illuminating power we think we are. Variables such as light, pH level, temperature, and simply the quality of the formulation can affect how well your C does its job.
Los Angeles-based dermatologist, cosmetic surgeon, and researcher Ronald Moy, MD, has thrown his weight behind epidermal growth factors (or EGF, enzymes that repair damaged DNA) as a brightener that may outperform the classic antioxidant. He’s created a line called DNAEGF Renewal with the ingredient at the center, and conducted research that indicates a multitude of skin benefits. “Considering the Nobel Prize [in Chemistry] was just awarded for the concept of DNA repair in 2015, it’s a really new concept,” Dr. Moy says.
But growth factors aren’t the only promising ingredients giving C a run for its money: Those well-suited for skin during pregnancy and breastfeeding, those deemed more effective for deeper skin tones, and a handful of plant-derived molecules round out other derm favorites. Ahead, 7 illuminators Dr. Moy and Miami-based dermatologist S. Manjula Jegasothy, MD, are eyeing as the glow-makers of the future — that happen to be available today.
The Brightener: Kojic Acid
Botanically-based kojic acid — found in this serum, which calms, hydrates, and brightens — is Dr. Jegasothy’s pick for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and for whom vitamin C may not be well-tolerated. The grass-green gel also includes arbutin (another brightener on our list) to break up hyperpigmentation, while cucumber and thyme work their anti-inflammatory and antiseptic magic to calm redness and irritation; a hyaluronic-acid base delivers hydration, to boot.
SkinCeuticals Phyto Plus, $86, available at DermStore
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade IPL Dark Spot Correcting Serum, $92, available at Sephora
This serum, created by a holistic esthetician and cosmetic chemist, proves that purists can get in on the skin-brightening benefits of kojic acid, too. The streamlined formula (designed to be used as a spot treatment or all-around face serum) is made with just eight ingredients, pairing kojic acid with salicylic acid to reduce the appearance of dark spots and exfoliate. Not included? Synthetic chemicals, parabens, artificial dyes, gluten, dairy, and soy.
Elina Organics Pigment Spot Treatment, $23, available at Elina Organics
The Brightener: Arbutin
For those who want to cop their glow from nature, Dr. Jegasothy suggests arbutin, a natural derivative of hydroquinone found in herbs like the bearberry plant, which research has indicated can help hinder the development of melasma. This smooth, non-sticky formula pairs it with moisture-retaining molecules like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, as well as milk thistle, honey, and spin trap to ward off free radicals and bacterial buildup.
Arcona Instant Magic Reversal Serum, $105, available at Nordstrom
When looking to swap out our heavy moisturizer for a creamy serum in summer, San Antonio-based dermatologist Vivian Bucay, MD, pointed us in the direction of this arbutin-fueled serum, which she says is one of the best on the market for reducing hyperpigmentation.
Skinbetter Even Tone Correcting Serum, $140, available at Skinbetter
The Brightener: Epidermal Growth Factors
“Scientific studies have shown that human Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF) bio-engineered from a plant improves facial pigmentation … [and] improves acne scars,” Dr. Moy says. This serum, created by the derm, uses DNA-repairing growth factors to boost glow.
DNA Renewal DNA Regeneration Serum, $145, available at DNA Renewal
Bioeffect EGF Serum, $160, available at Sephora
The Brightener: Azelaic Acid
Dr. Jegasothy, who specializes in treating skin with darker tones, says that this ingredient seems to be most effective for her deeper-skinned clients. At 10%, this formulation wields one of the highest over-the-counter concentrations of azelaic acid on the market — it’s just half the prescription-strength potency of what was used in double-blind studies, which showed the ingredient to decrease melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation in skin of color.
Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster , $36, available at DermStore
Azalaic acid and niacinamide (another ingredient on our list) join proven acne fighters like salicylic acid in this gel serum, designed to do away with dull tone and tackle blemishes without irritating the skin.
Skin Design London Acne Serum, $125, available at Neiman Marcus
The Brightener: Niacinamide
Dr. Moy likes niacinamide (also known as vitamin B3) for its ability to increase DNA repair when taken orally and reduce the appearance of dark spots. Formulators like the ingredient used topically for its multi-tasking abilities, as it can address uneven texture in addition to dullness. Niacinamide stars as the main ingredient in this ampoule, which also features five types of hyaluronic acid to quench dry skin.
Leegeehaam Grow Hyal B5 Ampoule, $33, available at Glow Recipe
Peptides, collagen amino acids, microalgae oil beads, and niacinamide help form this treatment, geared to smooth and add life to dull, lackluster skin.
Algenist Genius Liquid Collagen, $115, available at Sephora
Niacinamide, licorice, and white willow bark root — a natural alternative to retinol — may play second fiddle to skin-nourishing sake in this product named for the fermented rice drink, but fans love the liquid’s ability to illuminate skin.
100% Pure Fermented Rice Water Serum, $55, available at 100% Pure
The Brightener: Retinol
Osmosis Pur Medical Skincare Calm Level 2 Vitamin A Serum, $78, available at DermStore
This serum is a solid bet for those who are working to simultaneously banish a dull complexion and zits: Retinol and niacinamide join forces to brighten, while salicylic acid helps sweep away dead skin cells and address acne.
Cosmedix Clarity Skin-Clarifying Serum, $42, available at Cosmedix
The Brightener: Turmeric
“Turmeric is a potent antioxidant that can help calm skin inflammation and interfere with production of abnormal pigmentation,” Dr. Zeichner says. Catch a trifecta of brightening power with this blend, which combines turmeric root with micro-encapsulated retinol and a dose of vitamin C.
Marie Veronique Treatment Retinol Serum, $110, available at Marie Veronique
This vitamin C serum goes for optimum brightening power, thanks to three additional clarifiers that make our derms’ most-wanted list: turmeric extract, retinol, and niacinamide.
Avya Skincare Anti-Aging Power Serum with Vitamin C, $165, available at Avya Skincare
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