Call me crazy, but if a “whitening” beauty product crosses my path and it’s not for teeth, I have a visceral reaction. As a woman of colour, not only do I find the idea of wanting to be “whiter” offensive, I’m also confused: What about all the self-tanners and bronzers on the shelves promising perfection via darker skin?

Political correctness aside, the reality is that whitening — or more aptly, “brightening” — products can be very effective in fighting skin discoloration. They’re also great for creating a smoother, more even-toned complexion for women of all skin colours.

And that may be more relevant than you think. Wrinkles aren’t the only cue we use to determine age. A study in Evolution and Human Behavior showed that skin with yellowing, sun spots and dullness played a significant role in the way a woman’s age and health were perceived by others.

So how do brighteners work? I sat down with Paula Begoun, author of The Original Beauty Bible, to find out. She explained that some ingredients in brighteners halt or slow the production of enzymes that trigger melanin. But you’re not going to turn into Casper’s BFF. “You won’t see your skin get lighter so much as you’ll notice the brown patches becoming reduced,” she says. That’s because brighteners target areas of “hyperactive” rather than “normal” melanin production.

Although hormones can play a part, UV light ex-posure is the major cause of discoloration. It damages skin, which kick-starts excess mel-anin. Lighter skin develops a patchy appearance while darker skin becomes ashy or grey.

It is possible to get good results from an over-the-counter cream, but depending on your skin’s condition, you may need to see a dermatologist for more intensive treatments. Some hormonal hyperpigmentation can be hard to combat, so buyer beware. And if you use a brightener, always pair it with a sunscreen.

Here are some products you might like:

Shu Uemura White Recovery EX Brightening Cleansing Oil ($89) uses prune extract as a natural anti-inflammatory.

Try this alternative to a toner to smooth skin’s surface: Shiseido White Lucent Brightening Balancing Softener Enriched ($64).

Kiehl’s Ultimate White Intensive Whitening Essence ($64) is a lightweight fluid that promises to reduce overproduction of melanin.

EmerginC Lighten-up Under-eye Circle Fighter ($70) uses vitamins A, E and K to help fight dark circles.

Estée Lauder CyberWhite EX Extra Brightening Moisture Lotion ($75) aids in making skin look more uniform.

The licorice and encapsulated vitamin C in Dermaglow Radiance Rx Whitening Treatment ($60) help to even skin tone. 

This brightener has a built-in SPF: Clinique Even Better Skin Tone Correcting Moisturizer SPF 20 ($52).