4 Best Brightening Cleansers (A Dermatologist’s Guide)

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4 Best Brightening Cleansers (A Dermatologist’s Guide)

In a hurry? Here are our top picks:

BEST FOR SENSITIVE SKIN

ZELEN Life Cleanser

BEST FOR OILY, ACNE PRONE SKIN

Priori Skincare Gentle Face Cleanser

The quest for flawless glowing skin can be pretty challenging.

Skin that looks even and glowy needs to have a perfect texture and complexion so that it reflects the light evenly from every inch of the skin.

The very first step towards that would be to choose a brightening cleansing product.

Since there are so many products that promise flawless skin in a minuscule amount of time, it is difficult to navigate the choices.

In this post, we will shortlist the best brightening cleansers (and face washes) and assist you with a little about how you can make an informed choice about the best cleanser for your skin. We will be talking about the products, cleansing routine, and the ingredients that make for the best brightening recipe.

Remember, cleansers are the basic building block on which the entire routine for perfect skin is based.

A cleanser is like salt in the food. If it is done right, you may not appreciate the role it plays in skincare. But if done wrong, it can wreck your otherwise perfect routine.

So let us find that perfect cleanser for your skin:

Quick summary

bb2-table__imageZELEN Life Cleanser
  • Handmade with organic botanicals, rich in antioxidants and vitamins
  • Jojoba, sunflower and glycerin brightens and hydrates the skin
  • Natural antibacterial anti-inflammatory properties, helps acne breakouts
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bb2-table__imageElemis Superfood AHA Cleansing Butter
  • Contains AHA that exfoliates dead skin cells
  • Antioxidant-rich, moisturizes and protects skin
  • The inclusion of rice ferment filtrate promotes brighter skin
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bb2-table__imagePriori Skincare Gentle Face Cleanser
  • Lactic acid formula, eliminates dead skin and fights photoaging
  • Licorice content blocks enzymes needed for melanin (pigment) production, leaves clean skin
  • Acne breakouts are controlled thanks to salicylic acid
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bb2-table__imagePerricone MD Vitamin C Ester Citrus Brightening Cleanser
  • Packed with Vitamin C which brightens the skin
  • Deep-cleansing action due to the mixture of surfactants
  • Anti-aging properties
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Before you buy: 5 Things to consider when purchasing a brightening cleanser

1. What brightens the skin

An even, bright skin has an even pigmented complexion, smooth texture, and suppleness. This balance is achieved by gentle exfoliation, moisturization, and pigment regulating agents.

The best way to achieve a mild exfoliation is to use hydroxy acid-based cleansers, especially alpha hydroxy acids. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), in regular leave-on products, can irritate the skin and is unsuitable for sensitive skin.

But in a cleanser, it is well-tolerated, mild but effective.  Enzyme peels are another option for skin types that do not tolerate AHAs.

Anti pigment ingredients, like Vitamin C, azelaic acid, licorice, or mulberry extracts get absorbed gently over the period of washing, and even out the skin tone subtly.

Another essential component of skin brightening is moisturizing. Only hydrated skin can look healthy and bright. Ingredients like plant oils, hyaluronic acid, and glycerine give a moisturizing boost to freshen and brighten the skin.

2. Keep in mind the other ingredients in your routine

If you already have a fully loaded skincare routine, you need to choose the brightening face wash carefully to not over irritate your skin. You also need to take into consideration which ingredient would help you the best.

If you already have glycolic acid products in your skincare routine, you do not need another exfoliating wash, opt for a moisturizing or anti pigment cleanser instead. If you are undergoing skin treatment at your dermatologist, you may just need to add a hydrating/soothing cleanser to brighten up your skin.

3. The pH game

A strong skin barrier plays a very important role in making the skin look even, healthy and bright. The pH of a cleanser plays a very important role in this aspect.

Since the natural pH of skin is slightly acidic, (1) using a product with basic pH affects the skin ecosystem negatively leading to redness, burning sensation, and dry patches. It also affects the skin’s own flora and can result in itchy and irritated skin. The optimal pH for a skin cleansing product is 4-5.5 and anything above pH 6 is damaging your skin every time you are using that product.

4. Surfactants

Some harsh surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate, when present without any moisturizing ingredients, can bind to keratin (protein) on the skin and damage it and can cause loss of water from the skin by hampering natural moisturizing factors present in the skin leading to dryness and irritation. (2)

To reduce the surfactant-induced damage, it is important to look for products with milder surfactants, and/or the presence of moisturizing ingredients in the face cleanser to aim for a brighter and even out skin tone.

5. Needs of the skin

Before you go ahead and buy the cleanser, ask yourself what kind of cleanser you need. Analyze your skin type, keep other products in mind and evaluate your experience with other cleansers in the past.

If you regularly wear makeup, go for an oil-based makeup that will dissolve even the waterproof products. Oily skin type should look for products that control oil production and opt for gel or foaming cleansers. Dry skin type needs hydration or lotion-based cleansers to prevent excessive drying of the skin during washing.

The 4 best brightening cleansers (and face washes)

1. ZELEN Life Cleanser

ZELEN Life Cleanser

Best features:

  • Brightening ingredients without a lot of irritating actives
  • Organic formula for clean skincare enthusiasts
  • Cruelty-free and vegan-friendly

The best brightening cleanser for:

All skin types, and particularly for those who already have a lot of actives in their skincare routine.

Overview:

The ZELEN Life Cleanser is a ‘soap-free cleanser’ without any harsh surfactants and thus it cleanses the skin without any post-wash dryness.

Glycerin is one of my favorite ‘humectants’ which binds water from the environment as well as from deeper layers of the skin to bring it to the surface and moisturize the skin, and as mentioned above, moisturizing is an integral part of obtaining the glow. (3)

Sunflower seed oil is anti-inflammatory and repairs the skin barrier reducing the dry patches and dullness of the skin. (4)

Jojoba oil regulates sebum production, thus making it, in addition to a hydrating face wash, also suitable for oily skin types.

Aloe vera, rose flower oil, and Geranium act as antioxidants that fight the free radicals generated by exposure to the sun which is the topmost cause of skin dullness and aging. Even though this product contains essential oil, it is well established that the risk of contact sensitization from a wash-off product like a cleanser is minimum. (5)

This cleanser could easily slide into most skincare routines. It is compatible with other active ingredients in your skincare routine and would not only hydrate and brighten the skin but also reduce the irritation from other products.

Ingredients:

Aqua, Glycerin, Cetyl Alcohol, Sunflower Seed Oil, Coconut Oil, Sweet Almond Oil, Jojoba Seed Oil, Lemon Peel Oil, Lavender Flower Oil, Geranium Flower Oil, Bay Leaf Oil, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Oil, Rose Flower Oil.

The good:

  • Hydrating, while still suitable for oily skin
  • Antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients
  • Plant oils are a rich source of vitamins that improve the skin tone and texture
  • Sulfate-free
  • Soothing ingredients to calm irritation from other treatments

Things to think about:

  • Contains essential oils which can irritate the already sensitized skin

Bottom line:

An easy pick if you are not sure which brightening cleanser you should go for. It contains plant oils, rich in antioxidants and vitamins, and would perfectly complement your skincare routine, regardless of the skin type.

2. Elemis Superfood AHA Cleansing Butter

ELEMIS Superfood AHA Glow Cleansing Butter

Best features:

  • Interesting ingredient list with effective plant-based exfoliants and vitamin C
  • Luxurious texture

The best brightening cleanser for:

Those with dry skin, or who wear makeup.

Overview:

Elemis superfood is a luxuriously textured skin cleansing butter that turns into a light milky product as soon as it comes in contact with the skin. This sulfate-free cleanser uses moisturizing ingredients like glycerin, mango seed butter, and caprylic triglyceride to hydrate the skin.

Rice ferment filtrate has antioxidant and brightening properties. (6) Vitamin C as ascorbyl palmitate and ascorbic acid works to rejuvenate the dull skin and helps fight pigmentation. The antioxidant property of Vitamin C is well assisted by tocopherol(Vitamin E) and they make a great team to fight sun-induced oxidative stress.

Fermented pumpkin and cherry in this product serve as a source of alpha-hydroxy acid, which exfoliates the dead skin and unveils fresh even skin tone underneath. (7)

This product can even be used as an exfoliating mask.

Ingredients:

Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Glycerin, Water, Mango Seed Butter, Salvia Hispanica Seed Oil, Acerola Cherry Ferment, Pumpkin Fruit Ferment Filtrate, Rice Ferment Filtrate, Camellia Sinensis Seed Oil, Tocopherol, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Rosemary Leaf Extract, Ascorbic Acid

The good:

  • Emollient and hydrating ingredients
  • Plant-based AHAs to exfoliate the dead skin cells
  • Suitable for makeup removal or as a first step of double cleansing
  • Antioxidant-rich

Things to think about:

  • It is difficult to quantify the concentration in plant-derived AHAs
  • Will always require a second cleansing product to remove completely from the skin

Bottom line:

A luxurious cleansing butter with great all-rounder ingredients to exfoliate, hydrate, and brighten the skin. It is perfect for makeup lovers, but always remember to wash off this butter with a water-based cleanser.

3. Priori Skincare Gentle Face Cleanser

PRIORI Barrier Restore Complex fx140

Best features:

  • An out and out ‘brightening’ face wash
  • Lightening and exfoliating ingredients

The best brightening cleanser for:

Those with acne-prone skin, or post-inflammatory pigmentation.

Overview:

This facewash seriously means business when it comes to brightening.  Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that exfoliates and helps in shedding the dead skin cells, makes the skin appear smoother, and also improves skin hydration. Lactic acid also fights against photoaging by increasing the production of growth factors. (8)

Another ingredient here which I find amazing for fighting pigmentation is Glycyrrhetinic acid or licorice extract. Licorice is an antioxidant and also blocks the enzyme needed for melanin (pigment) production and is an excellent brightening agent. (9)

Apart from that salicylic acid, deep cleans the pores to prevent breakouts and the resulting pigmentation.

Ascorbyl palmitate (vitamin C), grapefruit extract, and tocopherol (Vitamin E), all supplement the brightening function of this facewash, while also fighting sun damage and aging. (10)

Ingredients:

Water, Sodium Lactate, Stearyl Alcohol, Lactic Acid, Glycerin, Allantoin Glycyrrhetinic Acid, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Fruit Extract, Portulaca Oleracea Extract, Retinyl Palmitate, Salicylic Acid, Tocopherol

The good:

  • Lactic acid as a main ingredient is exfoliating and hydrating.
  • Salicylic acid for cleansing the pores, reducing the breakouts, and eventually avoid post-inflammatory pigmentation
  • Licorice extract to fight the pigmentation
  • Multiple anti-aging ingredients

Things to think about:

  • A lot of active ingredients may not be suitable for all skin types and all skincare routines

Bottom line:

This facewash pulls all the stops when it comes to ‘brightening’. The exfoliating and lightening ingredients are definitely going to give you a glow and with time a brighter skin. However, if you already use a lot of actives this product may be too aggressive for you.

4. Perricone MD Vitamin C Ester Citrus Brightening Cleanser

Perricone MD Vitamin C Ester Citrus Brightening Cleanser

Best features:

  • Rich in Vitamin C
  • Protects sun-damaged skin

The best brightening cleanser for:

Oily skin types.

Overview:

At first glance, a ‘sulfate’ may just stand out in the ingredient list. But relax, it is not lauryl sulfate but laureth sulfate, a milder relative. Plus it is mixed with another surfactant called Cocamidopropyl betaine to increase its mildness. So that should not bother you much.

The star ingredient is ascorbyl palmitate, a vitamin C ester, which is a less irritating version of the potent ascorbic acid. Vitamin C is a potent anti-pigment agent. It inhibits the action of tyrosinase, the main enzyme responsible for the synthesis of pigment cells in the skin, thus aiding in brightening the skin.

Vitamin C is one of the best researched anti-aging ingredients, owing to its antioxidant and collagen synthesis properties. Vitamin C also protects the skin from sun-induced damage. (11)

The cleanser, however, has preservatives from the isothiazolinone group and fragrance which are notorious for causing allergic contact dermatitis in people with sensitive skin. (12)

Ingredients:

Water, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Decyl Glucoside, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Magnesium Aspartate, Zinc Gluconate, Copper Gluconate, Citric Acid, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Fragrance/Parfum

The good:

  • Vitamin C is a potent brightening, antioxidant and anti-aging ingredient
  • The product has a mix of surfactants that deep cleanses the skin without hampering the skin barrier

Things to think about:

  • A lot of potential allergens and contact sensitizers in the ingredient list–people with allergies and sensitive skin should avoid this

Bottom line:

A vitamin C-based deep cleanser which brightens and protects the skin against aging and sun-induced oxidative stress. Not recommended for sensitive skin though.


How we choose these products

To select the best brightening cleanser, we first researched what goes into the making of a brightening cleanser and which ingredients are most effective to brighten up the skin when included in a cleanser.

We did an extensive search and sorted out the best brightening cleansers according to ingredients, formula, and the brands that we trust for producing products of high quality.

Every skin can benefit from a cleanser that is mild and does not dry out the skin, but still, the needs of different skin types are different when it comes to the intensity of cleansing, sensitivity, and other products in skincare.

We tried to pick out products for all skin types and compatible with various skincare routines. We also kept in mind makeup users with an extensive cleansing requirement, and also people who probably would use just a cleanser as their whole skincare routine.

We also included products from multiple price points so that affordability does not limit the quest for brighter skin.

Keeping all these points in mind, we collected a review of products from multiple reliable portals, informed ourselves about the experiences of multiple users with this product, and finalized our shortlist of the best brightening cleansers (and face washes).

Frequently asked questions

frequently asked questions

Do I need to double cleanse the skin?

Not everyone needs to double cleanse. If your skin feels comfortable with it, and you wear a lot of waterproof makeup and products, double cleansing could be an option for you.

For a proper double cleanse, the first cleanse needs to be done with an oil-based cleanser or micellar water, followed by a wash-off cleanser.

How long does a cleansing product need to be in contact with my skin?

A cleanser needs to be in contact with the skin for at least 1 minute for surfactants to dissolve all the dirt and products on the skin.

How do I recognize if a cleanser is damaging my skin?

A post-wash tightness indicates that your cleanser is drying out your skin. Any stinging sensation, burning, irritation, or redness after washing your face is an indicator that you need to change your cleanser as soon as possible.

How effective is a cleanser to brighten the skin?

A cleanser may not be the answer to all your skin woes.

An effective cleanser could actually brighten the dull skin, but it may take a long time before you see a significant improvement in your stubborn pigmentation.

In a minute or two of contact time, a cleanser can not deposit a lot of active ingredients to show a fast improvement of your skin concerns. It is better to supplement the brightening cleanser with another brightening product like a serum or a night cream, and of course a sunscreen if you need more than just a temporary glow.

Conclusion

Brightening face washes are a must-have in your skincare routine if you suffer from dull and pigmented skin and do not know which product to start with.

They offer instant gratification, as well as aid in adding glow to the skin in the long run.

I hope, with this article, we could help you make an informed choice about the best brightening cleanser for your face, and if you don’t want to rattle your brain, ease your search with our product options.

Do you have a secret for glowing brightening skin that you want to tell us? Let us know in the comments.

Share the article with your friends and ease their way to brighter skin.

Our medical expert team regularly comes up with product choices and information treasures to help you understand your skin and the confusing world of skincare better. Subscribe to our email list for special, just for subscribers, tips delivered right to your inbox!


References

  1. Blaak J, Staib P. The Relation of pH and Skin Cleansing. Curr Probl Dermatol. 2018;54:132-142. doi: 10.1159/000489527. Epub 2018 Aug 21. PMID: 30130782.
  2. Ananthapadmanabhan KP, Moore DJ, Subramanyan K, Misra M, Meyer F. Cleansing without compromise: the impact of cleansers on the skin barrier and the technology of mild cleansing. Dermatol Ther. 2004;17 Suppl 1:16-25.  Doi: 10.1111/j.1396-0296.2004.04s1002.x. PMID: 14728695.
  3. Lodén M, Andersson AC, Anderson C, Bergbrant IM, Frödin T, Ohman H, Sandström MH, Särnhult T, Voog E, Stenberg B, Pawlik E, Preisler-Häggqvist A, Svensson A, Lindberg M. A double-blind study comparing the effect of glycerin and urea on dry, eczematous skin in atopic patients. Acta Derm Venereol. 2002;82(1):45-7. doi: 10.1080/000155502753600885. PMID: 12013198.
  4. Lin TK, Zhong L, Santiago JL. Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;19(1):70. Published 2017 Dec 27. doi:10.3390/ijms19010070
  5. Monnot AD, Towle KM, Warshaw EM, Fung ES, Novick RM, Paustenbach DJ, Drechsel DA. Skin Sensitization Induction Risk Assessment of Common Ingredients in Commercially Available Cleansing Conditioners. Dermatitis. 2019 Mar/Apr;30(2):116-128. doi: 10.1097/DER.0000000000000445. PMID: 30829810.
  6. Hwang JA, Goh MJ, Kim EJ, Lee MR, Park NH, Na YJ, Cho JC, Lee HK. Identification of sake extract as a new anti-melanogenic ingredient by in vitro and clinical trials. Nat Prod Commun. 2013 Nov;8(11):1605-8. PMID: 24427952.
  7. Zhou CL, Mi L, Hu XY, Zhu BH. Evaluation of three pumpkin species: correlation with physicochemical, antioxidant properties and classification using SPME-GC-MS and E-nose methods. J Food Sci Technol. 2017;54(10):3118-3131. doi:10.1007/s13197-017-2748-8
  8. Rendl M, Mayer C, Weninger W, Tschachler E. Topically applied lactic acid increases spontaneous secretion of vascular endothelial growth factor by human reconstructed epidermis. Br J Dermatol. 2001 Jul;145(1):3-9. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2133.2001.04274.x. PMID: 11453900.
  9. Ciganović P, Jakimiuk K, Tomczyk M, Zovko Končić M. Glycerolic Licorice Extracts as Active Cosmeceutical Ingredients: Extraction Optimization, Chemical Characterization, and Biological Activity. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(10):445. Published 2019 Oct 1. doi:10.3390/antiox8100445
  10. Rattanawiwatpong P, Wanitphakdeedecha R, Bumrungpert A, Maiprasert M. Anti-aging and brightening effects of a topical treatment containing vitamin C, vitamin E, and raspberry leaf cell culture extract: A split-face, randomized controlled trial. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2020;19(3):671-676. doi:10.1111/jocd.13305
  11. Al-Niaimi F, Chiang NYZ. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(7):14-17.
  12. Sedó-Mejía G, Soto-Rodríguez A, Pino-García C, Sanabria-Castro A, Monge-Ortega OP. Contact dermatitis: Clinical practice findings from a single tertiary referral hospital, a 4-Year retrospective study. World Allergy Organ J. 2020;13(7):100440. Published 2020 Aug 11. doi:10.1016/j.waojou.2020.100440

About The Author

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Board-Certified Dermatologist

Dermatology (Stanley Medical College, Chennai)

Germany

Dr. Singh studied dermatology from one of the most prestigious medical colleges of India – Stanley Medical College, Chennai. After finishing her post-graduation she went on to work as a consultant dermatologist in one of the largest cosmetology clinic chains in India – Kaya skin clinic. Working alongside expert aesthetic dermatologists of India, she worked extensively with customized skincare as well as lasers and injectables. Alongside, training under famous hair transplant surgeon – Dr. Venkataram Mysore, she learnt the nitty gritties of hair treatments. After doing two traveling fellowships in dermatology in Germany, she decided to settle there. Currently dividing her time between practicing dermatology and aesthetic medicine, she finds immense joy in educating people about the science behind skincare and haircare.

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