Written by Hayley Wood, @therapeuticskincoach for Apoterra Skincare
There are plenty of unrealistic requests you receive from clients when you’re an esthetician, such as “erase my pores,” and even, “make me look 20 years younger.” But the one that surprised me in its frequency over the last 15 years of my career is the desire to brighten one's skin.
My initial response to this request was one of ignorance because I am a white woman with extremely pale skin who started her esthetician career at age 18. My personal skin history at that point only consisted of skin conditions such as acne and chronic inflammation, so the desire to naturally brighten my skin was never at the forefront of my mind while building the base of my skin health education. I’ve done a lot of studying while treating a diverse group of people over the years, and I want to share some nuggets of wisdom I’ve acquired about how to naturally “brighten skin” along the way.
What is Brightening?
Brightening the skin is a huge part of the beauty and skincare industry because it’s a phrase often used to describe healthy, glowing skin. It’s ingrained in our culture that we should desire and aspire to achieve a brightness in our skin regardless of the other conditions we face. What’s the opposite of bright? Dull - which is not the best term to describe healthy skin. But unfortunately what also comes along with this thought process is that brightness also equals a singular tone, meaning absolutely no pigment changes due to sun damage, scarring, or inherent freckling. Which is often thought to only be achievable through skin lightening agents such as aggressive peels, lasers, and active homecare ingredients. This can lead to consumer confusion and even dangerous outcomes for the skin.
From the perspective of a holistic esthetician like myself, brightening the skin is often just illuminating the skin’s natural glow. It’s part hydration, part nutrient delivery, and definitely a result of a healthy lifestyle and mindset. Confidence and self-acceptance can be just as crucial to the brightness of one’s complexion as having a whole-plant-based skincare regimen.
Skin Lightening History
When discussing skin brightening, it is important to differentiate between brightening and lightening (or bleaching). The rise of skin brightening promises only amplifies with the loose interpretation of what skin brightening includes and truly means. The unfortunate truth is that there is a saddening history when it comes to skin lightening and bleaching in many cultures, but especially for the BIPOC communities. In my professional experience, I have had to create a safe space in my treatment room to help many people of color unlearn the conditioning that their skin is less valuable due to its natural enhanced melanin activity.
Education is a vital part of this solution because most esthetician and dermatology schools have yet to expand their curriculum to understand how to treat BIPOC differently since their skin reacts and responds slightly differently than caucasian people.
Along with a broader education on understanding how to treat all skin complexions, skincare brands need to formulate accordingly and not just for lighter complexions. Especially with the use of active ingredients such as exfoliators. This lack of inclusion can create permanent damage to the melanin activity in all skin, but especially for those in the BIPOC communities. An example includes having a person of African and Mexican descent come in to see me from a botched peel to brighten their skin by a popular local spa. The practitioner had administered a peel and suggested products that caused a burn to the skin of this client because they were not educated on how darker skin tones tolerate certain acids differently. I could see the heartbreak in this client's face when I broke down the science of what happened. It’s unfortunately something that happens all too often.
Skin health education often starts with the beauty industry. Which means that certain marginalized groups of people are subconsciously learning that achieving a lighter skin tone is the goal through reckless skin brightening propaganda. Before you read any more of this article, I hope you know that all skin tones are beautiful and can be healthy no matter where they land on the spectrum of light to dark.
Which brings up the point that holistic plant-based skincare is not new, as it’s been formulated among the BIPOC communities to treat their skin from a variety of ailments for centuries. In many ways, the wave of green beauty can be seen as a version of colonization, but for many, it’s people coming back to their roots by learning to heal holistically again.
The key to understanding how to naturally brighten skin or treat hyperpigmentation (darker pigment of the skin due to a form of damage) is to understand melanin activity. Melanin is responsible for the pigment in our skin and our melanocytes are what produce the level of melanin we have in our epidermis, eyes, inner ears, and even our bones and heart. How active your melanocytes are indicates how dark your complexion can be. Chances are, if your ancestors were born close to the equator, you naturally have more melanin activity. This can mean you have a higher tolerance for sun and UV rays than those whose ancestors were further from the equator. It is important to note that however active your melanin is doesn’t exclude you from having to take safety precautions against UV rays as skin cancer can affect all different skin shades.
However, in our modern day, there are so many additional factors that can cause unwanted pigmentation issues such as hormone disruption, stress, environmental factors, and the misuse of products and procedures (like the example I mentioned above of the botched peel).
Common Skin Brightening Questions and Natural Solutions
With that being said, the desire to naturally brighten the skin is also not completely wasted on us as well. There are some important factors to consider when trying to keep our skin safe that helps us maintain a healthy skin tone naturally.
What I want to discuss in this article includes what’s ideal for optimal skin health while balancing the desire for a natural brightness in any skin tone. I’m going to explore these thoughts by discussing the most common questions I get on how to naturally brighten the skin:
Question #1 - “How can I make my dark spots go away?”
This is the most common question any esthetician will get in their practice when it comes to navigating pigmentation. Unfortunately, not all dark spots are created equal as there are different causes and different solutions for different ethnicities. The biggest takeaway I want you to learn is that there is not one solution to navigating all pigmentation issues. In fact, there are so many factors to consider including: ethnicity, length of time skin pigment has been damaged, what caused the discoloration, and other internal health factors. Don’t get too discouraged yet as there are suggestions that will help you no matter what your particular set of circumstances are.
Back to the question of HOW to get rid of darker spots; the most important thing to do and biggest mistake I see time and time again is not reducing inflammation in the skin first. Reducing inflammation could mean letting a sunburn heal or letting your acne inflammation calm down prior to introducing ingredients to fade pigmentation. Inflammation is a key trigger to melanin so in order to prevent and help heal existing pigmentation, you have to have an anti-inflammatory practice in place. Keep the skin cool, protected from environmental triggers, and avoid excess active products with AHAs, BHAs, and retinoids. Replace the active product with a soothing formula like the Apoterra Rose Nourishing Facial Oil rich in omegas and calming nutrients like calendula and chamomile.
Once the inflammation is addressed, that’s when you can start to implement a plan to naturally brighten skin. Start with one product to help assist in naturally brightening the skin such as a vitamin C-rich balm like the Apoterra Vitamin C Regenerative Balm or gentle exfoliator like the Hibiscus Exfoliating Mud.
Your pigment may also be stagnant in your skin due tension in the muscles of your skin. Try implementing a gentle, nervous system soothing facial massage at least 2x a week to help release tensions and get your glow back.
Question #2 - “How do I manage my melasma?”
Melasma is a condition in which dark pigmentation can occur as a result of hormonal changes such as pregnancy or use of birth control. It can also be a hereditary condition triggered by heat and sun. Managing melasma while pregnant is often tricky as hormones are changing so quickly to adapt to the growing baby. Hormone fluctuations in pregnancy or with birth control can definitely impact your internal body temperature making it much easier to produce a lot of heat in the skin. Staying cool is key here so make sure to take a cool shower whenever you feel flushed and avoid heat-based exercise classes.
I also often suggest keeping skincare very simple and plant-based here since changes are happening rapidly. The Apoterra Pumpkin and Wild Carrot Seed complexion soap is one of my favorites for melasma because of the antioxidant and gentle exfoliating components of the pumpkin pulp and wild carrot seed oil. Also, remember to wear a mineral-based sunscreen every day regardless of the season as well as protective clothing such as hats and long sleeves.
Another great option for melasma would include the Vitamin C Regenerative Balm. The formula is lovely for all skin types but especially considers those with inflammation in the skin due to the turmeric extract. The prickly pear seed oil also has vitamin K which helps naturally brighten the skin as well.
Just like the previous question, keeping cool and reducing inflammation is key but you can also consider your internal inflammation as a way to support your skin. Adding in antioxidant rich foods such as berries, citrus fruits, and leafy greens can reduce inflammation internally while keeping you hydrated and cool.
Questions #3 - “Why do some brightening agents work better than others on my skin?”
The beauty of each of us is that we are all uniquely different. It’s unrealistic to expect our skin to respond to certain products the same way as someone else’s does. This is especially true when it comes to brightening agents in conventional skincare for different skin tones. This question is often asked when clients have tried just about everything and they have reached their wits end with their skin. Instead of insisting we try another procedure or product right away, I take a moment to acknowledge how heavy it must feel to be desiring a result that just isn’t showing up. Once we take a moment to recognize the heaviness, it’s an opportunity to open up why that desire is placed on us to begin with. Skin doesn’t have to be perfect nor will it ever stop evolving with you. Oftentimes when my clients and I go a little deeper into the psychology of why they feel the need to alter their skin, we realize it has nothing to do with their skin at all.
Feeling uncomfortable in your complexion is a very human thing but it’s important to realize that skin is never working against you. It’s a valuable organ with a lot of responsibilities to keep you safe from potentially harmful external factors. Let’s just say you can’t live a full life without damaging your skin along the way. You’ll get scraped, cut, burned, and stressed just by existing even if you’re doing everything “right.” Instead of comparing your skin to others' complexion, use this as an opportunity to recognize the beauty that is your unique skin. Once that mindset is shifted, my clients usually start making more intuitive decisions in how to care for themselves as a whole instead of just trying to fix some discoloration. This can lead to uncovering what other areas of your health may need support that will in turn get you that natural brightness that you are looking for.
Pigment is not something that you want to ignore so make sure to check in with a dermatologist if you are experiencing a dark spot that has changed in color, shape, size, and sensation. They will be able to help you navigate any potential abnormalities and keep you and your skin safe.
Just remember that your skin is working really hard for you. The best thing you can do for it is learn to treat it with kindness and love regardless of what brightness goals you have. I hope you learned some new skin brightening practices to enhance your skin’s health and your mindset towards a naturally glowing complexion.