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Alpha arbutin or arbutin is touted to be one of the most promising skincare ingredients to target hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, dark spots, and other kinds of skin discolorations. It’s positioned itself next to some sought-after skin brighteners like vitamin C, kojic acid, and tranexamic acid.
And in case you haven’t heard, alpha arbutin is a derivative of hydroquinone (1). But it’s becoming increasingly more popular than the original source. It rivals hydroquinone! So we can say that the student has become the master.
In skincare, we have the originals and the derivatives. Unlike popular opinion, derivatives have been surprisingly pleasant. So this isn’t the first time a derivative outshined the original.
For example, retinol outperforms retinoic acid because it’s gentler on the skin. Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate outperforms ascorbic acid because it’s more stable. Similarly, arbutin outperforms hydroquinone because it’s more tolerable.
So if your current anti-hyperpigmentation routine isn’t working for you, you might want to consider arbutin. And to save you the time and the trouble, I’ve put together everything you need to know. Keep reading to learn about how arbutin works in skincare, its benefits, and how to properly use it.
What is arbutin?
Arbutin is a plant-derived compound used in skincare products to treat hyperpigmentation (2). It’s a modified version -a derivative of hydroquinone.
Arbutin is commonly derived from leaves of berries like cranberry, and bearberry as beta arbutin or simply arbutin. That’s why it’s sometimes referred to as natural hydroquinone.
But more recently, its synthetic form, alpha arbutin, is becoming more popular because it’s more stable and more potent than beta arbutin (3).
Additionally, there’s a derivative of arbutin, namely deoxyarbutin, which seems to offer even more benefits, better skin penetration, and practically no downsides.
In sum, arbutin can show up as arbutin, alpha arbutin, or deoxyarbutin on the ingredient list of your products. But know that the last two tend to be more effective and more stable.
How does arbutin work in skincare?
In topical skincare, arbutin works by the slow and controlled release of hydroquinone into the skin to tackle all kinds of skin discolorations like dark spots, scars, and uneven skin tone (4). Because it is a known tyrosinase inhibitor.
On a side note, tyrosinase is an enzyme that is activated when your skin is exposed to UV rays. When it’s triggered, it starts the process of melanin production, which is what gives you dark spots on your skin.
So by preventing the activity of this enzyme, arbutin prevents hyperpigmentation. Keep in mind that melanin production is not a single-step process.
And arbutin has one more way of interfering in it. And that’s by preventing melanosome maturation, meaning that it also prevents the progression of melanin.
What are the benefits of arbutin for your skin?
The benefit of arbutin for your skin is two-fold: what it does and how it does it.
1. Arbutin treats hyperpigmentation.
The most important benefit of arbutin is its ability to treat and prevent hyperpigmentation. Tyrosinase is the utmost important enzyme responsible for starting the cycle of melanin production.
By reducing its activity, arbutin prevents the formation of dark spots. And as dark spots are the main culprits of an uneven skin tone, arbutin can help you achieve a more even skin tone by fading dark spots.
2. Arbutin is gentler.
Most skincare ingredients that promise to fade dark spots are irritating for the skin. A good example of this is hydroquinone. It can cause dryness, sensitivity, redness, and irritation.
Contrary to hydroquinone, arbutin is gentler on the skin and is safe for most skin types. And because of that, arbutin makes it easy for people with sensitive skin to deal with dark spots.
3. It’s a safer alternative for darker skin tones.
People with darker skin tones are generally more prone to irritation and hyperpigmentation from using active ingredients.
So when you have a darker skin tone and you’re trying to treat skin discolorations, you need to be selective with your choice of ingredients.
As it’s much gentler on the skin, arbutin or alpha-arbutin makes an excellent anti-pigmentation agent for people with darker skin tones.
What are the side effects of arbutin for the skin?
From what I’ve read, which confirmed what I’ve experienced with my own arbutin products, arbutin seems to be generally safe to use.
However, I’ve read that arbutin is more effective in higher concentrations and that higher concentrations can lead to a condition called paradoxical hyperpigmentation (5). It’s when the anti-pigmentation ingredient causes more pigmentation.
Even though this is something to keep in mind, I don’t think you should look for this ingredient in higher concentrations in your products.
Arbutin is touted to be a safer alternative for people who can’t tolerate hydroquinone or the like. So if you’re someone who already has sensitive skin, you should generally avoid products with active ingredients in strong concentrations.
Additionally, a very recent and comprehensive review of arbutin suggests that arbutin can break down and release hydroquinone (6). And the authors suggest that there have been incidents of irritation related to arbutin and that the release of hydroquinone might explain that.
They suggest that this may happen during the extraction of the ingredient or the manufacturing of the product. They also suggest that it can happen because of improper storage of your product or the introduction of bacteria because of poor hygiene.
Obviously, you should stop using your product if irritation occurs. But I think these concerns can be eliminated greatly if you stick with brands you know and trust and follow the instructions for the proper use and storage.
Who should use arbutin?
While anyone can simply go for it, certain people can benefit from arbutin more. For example, people with mature skin types usually deal with sensitivity too.
And this makes it difficult to tackle hyperpigmentation on aging skin. If that’s you, and you can’t seem to make hydroquinone or ascorbic acid work for your skin, you can try arbutin.
Similarly, if you have a darker skin tone and your skin negatively reacts to active ingredients, you can try arbutin to fade scars and spots without causing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
How to use arbutin in skincare?
Arbutin is commonly found in many skincare products like daily creams and serums. So they’re safe to use once or twice daily.
Note that arbutin is sometimes paired with other brighteners like vitamin C, tranexamic acid, and/or azelaic acid. So when layering your products, keep the other ingredients in your mind and avoid layering too many actives that can potentially irritate your skin.
Additionally, it’s one thing when your product contains both vitamin C and arbutin. But it’s another thing when you use an arbutin product followed by a vitamin C product.
Even though arbutin is a safe ingredient, you should always start slow when using a new active ingredient and incorporate it gradually.
Read Next: The Best Alpha Arbutin Serums
- Sarkar, R., Arora, P., & Garg, K. V. (2013). Cosmeceuticals for Hyperpigmentation: What is Available?. Journal of cutaneous and aesthetic surgery, 6(1), 4–11. https://doi.org/10.4103/0974-2077.110089
- Bandyopadhyay D. (2009). Topical treatment of melasma. Indian journal of dermatology, 54(4), 303–309. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5154.57602
- Baran, R., & Maibach, H. I. (2017). Hyperpigmentation [E-book]. In Textbook of Cosmetic Dermatology (p. 153). Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.1201/9781315160504
- Ebanks, J. P., Wickett, R. R., & Boissy, R. E. (2009). Mechanisms regulating skin pigmentation: the rise and fall of complexion coloration. International journal of molecular sciences, 10(9), 4066–4087. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms10094066
- Davis, E. C., & Callender, V. D. (2010). Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation: a review of the epidemiology, clinical features, and treatment options in skin of color. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 3(7), 20–31.
- Boo Y. C. (2021). Arbutin as a Skin Depigmenting Agent with Antimelanogenic and Antioxidant Properties. Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland), 10(7), 1129. https://doi.org/10.3390/antiox10071129