Type of Ingredient: Brightener
Main Uses and Benefits: Lightens dark spots, reduces the appearance of acne scars, helps even out skin tone
Find It In: Creams and treatments for hyperpigmentation, redness, dryness, dehydration, sun damage, and dark spots
How Often Can You Use It: Arbutin is safe for all skin types and can be used as often as twice a day
Works Well With: Vitamin C and AHAs
What Is Arbutin and How Does It Work?
Arbutin is a natural skin lightening or whitening agent. When applied onto the skin, it gets converted into hydroquinone via a process called hydrolysis. Hydroquinone obstructs tyrosinase production, which reduces the skin’s melanin (pigmentation) production, lightening the skin in the process.
Most skincare products contain plant extracts that contain arbutin rather than pure arbutin. It is used in a variety of cosmetics, particularly ones aimed at lightening the skin such as lotions, creams, serums, cleansers, and dark spots treatments.
Alpha Arbutin vs Beta Arbutin: What’s the Difference?
In cosmetics, arbutin appears in two different forms: alpha arbutin and beta arbutin. While both are shown to be effective at inhibiting melanin production, it is claimed that alpha arbutin has a stronger inhibitory action than beta arbutin.
Arbutin Skin-Lightening Benefits: A Milder Alternative to Hydroquinone
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.
But what makes arbutin so special compared to other skin lighteners out there? It’s gentler than other skin-brightening ingredients, like hydroquinone. “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.
Arbutin is a good alternative to hydroquinone, especially 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.
Other benefits of arbutin include:
- Sun protection: Arbutin can reduce the degree of skin darkening after sun exposure by blocking the production of tyrosinase.
- Good for sensitive 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 acne 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
Is Arbutin Safe for Skin? The latest opinion of the European
Commission's Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS) on alpha arbutin states that it is safe for use. It is safe for the consumers in cosmetics products in a concentration of 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, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in NYC. “Use of these products regularly in your routine will improve your complexion.” Another thing he notes is that arbutin can also 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.
How Long Does It Take for Arbutin to Work?
The process it takes for arbutin to convert into hydroquinone, arbutin tends allows it to be released slowly into the skin, making it more gentle on the skin because of the slow release. But it’s also because of this that In turn, arbutin requires more time to show visible results in reducing pigmentation.
- 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