5 Essential Oils That Can Brighten Your Skin Tone

Essential oils that actually lighten your skin!
Shutterstock / Alex Vog

Essential oils have long been praised for their restorative, soothing, and protective benefits. These age-old plant extracts have been rooted in skincare routines since ancient times, and despite the amalgam of modern and fancy treatments we’ve got today, their popularity doesn’t seem to be dipping any time soon. In fact, there’s a countless, never-ending list of options in terms of good-for-skin essential oils, some of which even possess strong brightening effects. And since I know your target is an uneven tone, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation, I scoured the internet and found the best essential oils that can actually brighten your skin.

Remember that you’re dealing with highly concentrated and powerful ingredients. Hence, essential oils must be diluted before applying to the skin with a carrier oil such as coconut oil.

Before we move on, it’s good to know that to get the best results you have to use more powerful products, like these serums for hyperpigmentation or alpha-arbutin products.

Essential oils that may lighten the skin

Read on for the best essential oils for skin whitening that’ll get you closer to a brighter complexion.

Lemon essential oil

First on the list is the essential oil from lemon, probably best known for its skin-lightening effects. Contrary to popular belief, lemon oil does not contain vitamin C (since the extraction process doesn’t transfer the vitamins and nutrients into the oil). Still, it contains other components that are very effective in brightening the skin. More precisely, lemon oil is rich in limonenepinene, and citral, which have been found to reduce the melanin content (skin-darkening pigment) in skin cells by inhibiting tyrosinase activity — the enzyme responsible for pigment production.[1][2] The lemon essential oil is also a potent antioxidant that fights free radicals and helps prevent the apparition of dark patches caused by sun damage.[3]

Because lemon oil targets the root causes of hyperpigmentation, it’s one of the most effective essential oils for skin lightening but also the most aggressive one. If you have decided to use lemon essential oil to brighten your skin, proceed with extra caution as the oil can be very irritating — definitely not a good choice for problematic skin. As a note, the International Fragrance Association warns that lemon oil should not exceed 2% concentration in skincare preparations.[1]

The lemon essential oil contains photosensitizing compounds, so you should avoid exposing the skin to sunlight after applying products containing it at all costs.

Mulberry essential oil

Mulberry is another essential oil great for skin brightening as its active compounds can inhibit tyrosinase activity, regulate pigment formation in skin cells as well as scavenge free radicals.[3] As such, mulberry oil is often used to diminish blemishes and improve the appearance of uneven skin tone. During one study, 75% mulberry extract oil significantly improved melasma — a condition caused by an excess of melanin that manifests as dark patches on the skin.[4]

Even though mulberry oil is well tolerated and generally considered safe for most skin types, it still should be diluted with a carrier oil.

Eucalyptus essential oil

Apart from its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, research shows that eucalyptus essential oil could be a promising skin-lightening agent. During multiple clinical trials, applying the essential oil from eucalyptus drastically inhibited tyrosinase activity and decreased melanin synthesis, resulting in more radiance and even skin tone.[5]

Besides, eucalyptus oil is well known for its antioxidant power, helping protect the skin against environmental aggressors and prevent the excess pigment production triggered by UV damage. This suggests eucalyptus essential oil may be helpful for treating various discoloration conditions (such as hyperpigmentation) and enhancing the overall texture of the skin.

Sandalwood oil

According to research, sandalwood oil has multiple benefits for the skin, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, wound healing, and skin whitening.[6] Its main active constituent, alpha-santalol, has been found to inhibit tyrosinase and regulate melanin content in skin cells, making it particularly effective for improving pigmentation associated with aging and exposure to UV light.[6][7]

Since sandalwood oil is slightly softer and more tolerable than other essential oils, it’s a great alternative for people whose skin is on the sensitive side. However, it still should be diluted with a carrier oil.

Lavender essential oil

The lavender essential oil can lighten everything from freckles, sun spots, and acne scars to post-inflammatory marks not only by relieving inflammation but also by suppressing tyrosinase activity. One study found that the daily topical application of lavender oil effectively blocked the tyrosinase enzyme in mushrooms and decreased melanin levels after two months, proposing it as a potent skin bleaching treatment.[8]

Cinnamon oil

Cinnamon is another essential oil possessing skin whitening benefits that, coupled with its antioxidant properties, helps maintain an even tone and a brighter complexion. In two clinical studies, cinnamon essential oil exhibited potent anti-tyrosinase activities through its active compound, cinnamaldehyde.[9][10] Based on the results, cinnamon oil reduced tyrosinase activity by up to 60% when used in concentrations above 6%.

Other oils that may lighten the skin

Safflower seed oil

Safflower seed oil’s potential to fade the look of discoloration and uneven skin tone is thought to come from its ability to suppress melanin production and increase the skin’s antioxidant defense system.[11][12]

The research found that safflower seed oil has promising skin-protecting, -moisturizing, and -whitening effects due to its high content of fatty acids (linoleic acid and oleic acid) and tocopherol, a powerful antioxidant.[13] Linoleic and oleic acids not only enhance hydration and consolidate the skin barrier, but they are natural skin brighteners that work to lighten sun-induced hyperpigmentation by inhibiting tyrosinase activity.[14]

Although safflower seed oil is more accurately classified as a carrier oil instead of essential oil, its skin-lightening benefits shouldn’t be overlooked. When used with other essential oils for skin brightening, it can intensify the effects, delivering even more noticeable results. 

Evening primrose oil

Evening primrose oil is extremely high in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid necessary for maintaining skin integrity. In a clinical study, topical application of this oil led to the lightening of skin discolorations induced by UV exposure through decreasing the total melanin production.[15]

  1. Klimek-Szczykutowicz M, Szopa A, Ekiert H. Citrus limon (Lemon) Phenomenon-A Review of the Chemistry, Pharmacological Properties, Applications in the Modern Pharmaceutical, Food, and Cosmetics Industries, and Biotechnological Studies. Plants (Basel). 2020;9(1):119. Published 2020 Jan 17. doi:10.3390/plants9010119
  2. Hu, J.-J & Li, X. & Liu, X.-H & Zhang, W.-P. (2015). Inhibitory effect of lemon essential oil on mushroom tyrosinase activity in vitro. Modern Food Science and Technology. 31. 97-105. 10.13982/j.mfst.1673-9078.2015.6.016.
  3. Hollinger JC, Angra K, Halder RM. Are Natural Ingredients Effective in the Management of Hyperpigmentation? A Systematic Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2018;11(2):28-37.
  4. Alvin G, Catambay N, Vergara A, Jamora MJ. A comparative study of the safety and efficacy of 75% mulberry (Morus alba) extract oil versus placebo as a topical treatment for melasma: a randomized, single-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Drugs Dermatol. 2011 Sep;10(9):1025-31. PMID: 22052272.
  5. Huang HC, Ho YC, Lim JM, Chang TY, Ho CL, Chang TM. Investigation of the Anti-Melanogenic and Antioxidant Characteristics of Eucalyptus camaldulensis Flower Essential Oil and Determination of Its Chemical Composition. Int J Mol Sci. 2015;16(5):10470-10490. Published 2015 May 7. doi:10.3390/ijms160510470
  6. Moy RL, Levenson C. Sandalwood Album Oil as a Botanical Therapeutic in Dermatology. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(10):34-39.
  7. Misra BB, Dey S. TLC-bioautographic evaluation of in vitro anti-tyrosinase and anti-cholinesterase potentials of sandalwood oil. Nat Prod Commun. 2013 Feb;8(2):253-6. PMID: 23513742.
  8. Andrei, Felicia & Alexa, Ersilia & Tulcan, Camelia & Dragomirescu, Anca. (2018). Chemical Composition and the Potential of Lavandula angustifolia L. Oil as a Skin Depigmentant. Records of Natural Products. 12. 340-349. 10.25135/rnp.
  9. Chou ST, Chang WL, Chang CT, Hsu SL, Lin YC, Shih Y. Cinnamomum cassia essential oil inhibits α-MSH-induced melanin production and oxidative stress in murine B16 melanoma cells. Int J Mol Sci. 2013;14(9):19186-19201. Published 2013 Sep 18. doi:10.3390/ijms140919186
  10. Chang CT, Chang WL, Hsu JC, Shih Y, Chou ST. Chemical composition and tyrosinase inhibitory activity of Cinnamomum cassia essential oil. Bot Stud. 2013;54(1):10. doi:10.1186/1999-3110-54-10
  11. J. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 2020; 30(10): 1567-1573, Published October 28, 2020 https://doi.org/10.4014/jmb.2003.03064
  12. Roh JS, Han JY, Kim JH, Hwang JK. Inhibitory effects of active compounds isolated from safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) seeds for melanogenesis. Biol Pharm Bull. 2004 Dec;27(12):1976-8. doi: 10.1248/bpb.27.1976. PMID: 15577216.
  13. Matthaus B, Özcan MM, Al Juhaimi FY. Fatty acid composition and tocopherol profiles of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L.) seed oils. Nat Prod Res. 2015;29(2):193-6. doi: 10.1080/14786419.2014.971316. Epub 2014 Oct 20. PMID: 25329876.
  14. Ando, H., Ryu, A., Hashimoto, A. et al. Linoleic acid and α-linolenic acid lightens ultraviolet-induced hyperpigmentation of the skin. Arch Dermatol Res 290375–381 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1007/s004030050320
  15. Koo JH, Lee I, Yun SK, Kim HU, Park BH, Park JW. Saponified evening primrose oil reduces melanogenesis in B16 melanoma cells and reduces UV-induced skin pigmentation in humans. Lipids. 2010 May;45(5):401-7. doi: 10.1007/s11745-010-3405-4. Epub 2010 Mar 30. PMID: 20352496.
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