Type of Ingredient: Brightener
Main Benefits: Lightens dark spots, reduces the appearance of acne scars, helps even out skin tone.
Who Should Use It: Arbutin is safe for all skin types.
Ideal For These Concerns: Hyperpigmentation, redness, dryness, dehydration, sun damage, and dark spots
How Often Can You Use It: Arbutin can be used twice a day
Works well with: When coupled with Vitamin C, and AHAs
What is arbutin?
Arbutin is a natural skin lightening/whitening agent. When arbutin is applied onto the skin, it gets converted into hydroquinone via a process called It hydrolysis. It is hydroquinone that obstructs tyrosinase production which in turn reduces the skin’s melanin (pigmentation) production. Due to the conversion into hydroquinone, arbutin tends to be more gentle on the skin because of the slow release. In turn, arbutin does require more time for to show visible results in reducing pigmentation.
In cosmetics, this ingredient appears in two different forms: apha-arbutin or beta-arbutin. It is claimed that alpha-arbutin has a stronger inhibitory action than beta-arbutin. Due to parenting concerns, most skincare products contain plant extracts that contain arbutin rather than pure arbutin. Used in a variety of cosmetics, particularly ones aimed at lightening the skin such as lotions, creams, serums, cleansers, and dark spots treatments.
The Benefits of arbutin
Because arbutin works by breaking down into hydroquinone, it also has merit for improving the appearance of dark spots. It can be considered an alternative to hydroquinone for those whose skin may be unable to tolerate this lightening ingredient in much the same way that some people’s skin can tolerate cosmetic retinol but not retinoids from the pharmacy.
In addition to its innate inhibitory effect, arbutin may also act as a reservoir that slowly releases hydroquinone. Once absorbed into the skin, enzymes within the body can cleave off the sugar group from arbutin, releasing hydroquinone. This acts like a built-in safety valve, preventing the skin from being exposed to too much hydroquinone at once.
Researchers have been studying arbutin’s ability to inhibit tyrosinase in skin cells since the 1990s. There is promising scientific evidence to suggest arbutin is effective as a skin lightening agent, particularly with regards to the synthetic forms, alpha-arbutin and deoxyarbutin. Please note that most of this evidence is from animal studies or in-vitro studies on cultured human skin cells.
Why arbutin is so special? It’s gentler than other skin-brightening ingredients. “Since arbutin’s active component is released slowly, it can be less irritating than other skin-lightening agents and better for those with sensitive skin,” Dr. Ian Webster says.
Other special properties include:
- Sun protection properties: Arbutin can reduce the degree of skin darkening after sun exposure by blocking the production of tyrosinase.
- Gentle on skin: While other skin brightening agents can dry and irritate the skin, arbutin is less irritating.
- Improves uneven complexion: Since arbutin inhibits tyrosinase, an enzyme that helps with melanin production, it can prevent dark spots or even help fade them, leading to a more even complexion.
- Safe to use with other skincare products: There are no known negative interactions between arbutin and other skincare ingredients.
- It can be used twice daily: For maximum results, arbutin can be used safely both in the morning and at night.
- Safer than hydroquinone: For a while, hydroquinone was the “miracle” skin-lightening ingredient—until it was declared a carcinogenic by the FDA.
- Effective at fading scars: Much like its ability to fade dark spots, arbutin is also great at fading those red-purple acne scars that stick around long after a zit is gone.
- Effective against: freckles, hyperpigmentation, lentigines, melasma and chloasma
The latest opinion of the European Commission's Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS) on the alpha-arbutin states that it is safe for use. Safe for the consumers in cosmetics products in a concentration up to 2% in face creams and up to 0.5% in body lotions.
“Arbutin is available in some skincare products designed to improve pigmentation,” Says Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in NYC. “Use of these products regularly in your routine will improve your complexion.” One thing he notes is that arbutin can be a great way to lighten acne scars—she recommends using acne treatments with natural ingredients and arbutin to lighten dark spots that can linger after acne fades.
Phytochemistry Letters, September 2015, issue 13, pages 35-40
BMC Biochemistry, October 2014, pages 15-23
Dermatologica Sinica, July 2014, pages 205-210
Applied Microbiol Biotechnology, 2012, pages 1417–1425
Archives of Pharmacal Research, March 2009, pages 1308-1309
Experimental Dermatology, August 2005, pages 601-608