Skin Lightening vs. Skin Whitening: What’s the Difference?

When you first start looking into the skin bleaching market, you’ll notice that plenty of people throw three terms around relatively interchangeably: Lightening, whitening, and brightening. So, is there any difference between skin lightening vs. skin whitening? And if so, do you have to use different products to achieve lighter skin vs. whiter skin?

Lightening vs. Whitening

Young woman covered on the hips with white clothBoth skin whitening and lightening refer to making the skin tone whiter by blocking the production of melanin. The difference between the two is in how strong and aggressive the process is. Skin lightening is aimed generally at reducing highly pigmented spots and evening out skin tone. Skin whitening is aimed at achieving a lighter skin tone than your natural one. 

Skin whitening has also been called skin bleaching and works to not only block the skin’s production of melanin but also remove any existing melanin from the skin. It’s a much more aggressive procedure, and the results are much more readily apparent than with skin lightening. 

Skin lightening, on the other hand, is a more gentle and gradual procedure. Skin lightening creams will only contain compounds to halt the production of melanin without removing any existing melanin from your skin. This means that you have to use the creams repeatedly to achieve the effect, but you’re less likely to burn or otherwise harm your skin. 

Compounds Used in Skin Lightening

Wife putting cream on his husband's nose in bathroomAll the compounds used in skin lightening creams do exactly the same thing — block melanin production in the skin. The only difference is how well they do their job and how your skin reacts to them. Most of these compounds are fairly gentle on the skin and probably won’t result in irritation or rashes. However, as with all other skin products, it’s essential to do a skin allergy test before using, since different people can react differently to various compounds.

Of the compounds used in skin lightening creams, the most common are arbutin, kojic acid, and hydroquinone. Hydroquinone has received a bad rap recently and has been linked to skin cancer, so avoid it as much as possible. Arbutin and kojic acid are both derived from natural sources. Arbutin comes from berries and is similar in chemical structure to hydroquinone, offering many of the same benefits with few of the risks. Kojic acid is obtained from rice fermentation and offers another fully natural alternative to hydroquinone. 

Compounds Used in Skin Whitening

Young beautiful shape tan skin woman wearing white bikini swimsuit posing at the beach in summer, back viewMany of the same compounds are used in skin lightening and skin whitening, the only difference is the amount used. Since the aim of skin whitening is to whiten your skin by several tones, many skin whitening creams contain a combination of melanin inhibiting compounds that work to completely shut down melanin production. 

Other skin whitening compounds produce a much more dramatic lightening effect in a much shorter timespan. There are skin bleaching agents that will kill melanin-producing cells entirely, such as mequinol. Other compounds, such as monobenzone, work by removing all the existing melanin found in your skin. This results in a skin shade that can be lighter than the one you had when you were born. 

What About Brightening?

smiling-young-woman-with-beautiful-legs-resting-sunny-dayAnother term you’ll come across quite often is “skin brightening.” Unlike the skin lightener vs. bleach debate, skin brightening refers to something completely different to skin tone. Rather, it refers to the natural glow that comes with healthy skin and how to increase that natural glow. Unlike skin whiteners and lighteners, skin brighteners don’t remove melanin from your skin. Instead, they remove dead skin layers to show off the healthier, younger skin underneath. 

So, if you see a product containing compounds such as AHA, BHA, retinol (or variants thereof), or even vitamin C, they’re not going to lighten your skin. Rather, these products all work by exfoliating dead skin and boosting collagen and elastin production in the epidermis.

Some products will even contain both brightening and lightening ingredients since they work quite well together. The brightening compounds will reveal new skin, which the lightening compounds can then access and start inhibiting melanin production.


The language used in beauty products can be confusing, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for when shopping. If you want to even out your skin complexion, go for lightening products that contain skin lighteners such as arbutin or kojic acid. If you’re looking to alter your entire skin tone, whiteners are for you. And if you just want to have that same healthy glow that was so effortless in your teens and early twenties, go for skin brighteners. 

By understanding what the compounds do and how these creams work, you can easily make an informed choice about which product is the best for you.

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