7 Skin-Illuminating Ingredients That Might Replace Your Vitamin C

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 outdated.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.
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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.
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.
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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.
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Yes, this new dermatologist-approved serum does tap vitamin C to help boost its brightening cocktail (fans of C E Ferulic will recognize the bacon-y scent this one packs, too). But in its quest to bottle the effects of an in-office IPL treatment, the brand also incorporates kojic acid and arbutin, making it quite the C-alternative powerhouse.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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In nascent research, growth factor serums show an ability to quell a laundry list of skin woes (including stimulating stem cells in the skin, tightening skin, and reducing the appearance of eye bags, according to Dr. Moy), which is pretty cool. What's not cool are the price tags attached to skin care with such heavy R&D. This serum, though expensive, is so potent, you only need a couple drops — which means this teeny-tiny bottle actually goes the distance.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Peptides, collagen amino acids, microalgae oil beads, and niacinamide help form this treatment, geared to smooth and add life to dull, lackluster skin.
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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.
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The Brightener: Retinol

"Most people think about retinol as the ingredient you use to treat wrinkles, but it should be used in every skin-brightening regimen," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "Besides stimulating collagen, it enhances cell turnover to help the skin shed pigmented cells on the surface of the skin for improved radiance." This liquid formula taps both niacinamide and a low-dose retinol to brighten sensitive skin.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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