Alpha Arbutin For Skin: Benefits, How To Use, And Side Effects

Written by Arshiya Syeda

If there was an ingredient that could work as an effective skin-brightener, it is alpha arbutin. It is one of the most popular skin-brightening agents in the world currently (1). In fact, it performs better than even the most popular skin care ingredients such as vitamin C, kojic acid, and licorice at brightening the skin (1), (2).

While many skin care products promise to brighten the skin tone, they can be extremely drying on the skin, especially for those who have sensitive skin. This is why arbutin has emerged as the perfect alternative for tackling a host of skin care issues. In this guide, we will demystify this wildly popular ingredient so that you can understand how to use it properly for its multipurpose skin care benefits.

​ ​What Is Arbutin?

Arbutin is a naturally occurring skin-brightening agent that is found in various plant species such as marjoram, cranberry, blueberry, and several pear species.
Alpha arbutin is simply the chemically synthesized version that is actively used in multiple skin care products. Alpha arbutin inhibits the production of melanin (the pigment responsible for your skin color), making it an excellent skin brightener (1).

There are two forms for arbutin – alpha arbutin (biosynthesized by microorganisms) and beta arbutin (extracted from the leaves of various plants and fruit peels). According to research, alpha arbutin is 10x more efficient in inhibiting tyrosinase activity than natural arbutin (1).

Next, let us look at how alphas arbutin works its wonders on the skin.

How Does Alpha Arbutin Work On The Skin?

Arbutin is often compared to other gentler brighteners like kojic acid (derived from mushrooms) and licorice root (derived from the licorice plant), but it is much more effective than these ingredients (1). It is a derivative of hydroquinone, which is considered to be one of the most powerful skin-lightening and spot-fading ingredients out there. Here is how alpha-arbutin works on the skin:

Step 1: Brown spots emerge from pigments that are produced in cells called melanocytes. These cells contain an enzyme called tyrosinase.
Step 2: These spots can get activated as soon as the skin comes in contact with UV light. This is why people get freckles and sunspots if they are exposed to the sun for too long.
Step 3: Alpha arbutin slowly releases hydroquinone over time, thus inhibiting tyrosinase – the enzyme that is responsible for the production of melanin in the skin.

It is interesting to note that the skin is not exposed to excessive amounts of hydroquinone at a time. This ensures that there are no side effects of hydroquinone, the common ones being discoloration of the skin tissue as well as irritation. Also, the product effectively stops the extra production of melanin as well as blocks the production of tyrosinase. As you can imagine, this ultimately reduces the degree of skin darkening and keeps the dark spots at bay without any harmful side effects.

Moving on, it is time to look at the benefits of using arbutin for skin care.

What Are The Skin Benefits Of Alpha Arbutin?

1. Lightens Dark Spots

Alpha arbutin lightens the skin tone and makes it look healthy and radiant by fading discoloration caused by inflammation and environmental stress. This includes sunspots, age spots, acne scars, and melasma (3). It acts as a natural blending foundation for the skin.

2. Reduces The Appearance Of Acne Scars

Alpha arbutin is said to work well when it comes to fading the red-purple acne scars caused by acne. However, there is no scientific evidence to prove the same.

3. Helps Even Out The Skin Tone

Alpha arbutin helps improve an uneven complexion by inhibiting the production of pyranose. This, in turn, faded hyperpigmentation. This eventually leads to a more even skin tone (2). It also addresses sugar-induced skin sallowness (yellowness) and loss of elasticity (1)

4. Prevents Hyperpigmentation And Discoloration

Alpha arbutin can successfully inhibit melanin synthesis, making it effective and safe for treating hyperpigmentation disorders. It protects the skin from sun-induced pigmentation and free radicals without increasing the skin’s sensitivity to sun exposure (1). In fact, it may prevent future freckles and hyperpigmentation from developing, after sunburn, by stopping extra production of melanin. In other words, less melanin equals less pigment. This leads to reduced dark spots and an even complexion. However, further research is required to understand this mechanism.

If you are wondering about who should use alpha arbutin, keep reading.

Who Should Consider Using Alpha Arbutin?

Generally, arbutin is considered safe for all skin types. It is particularly good for darker skin, which is more prone to hyperpigmentation as it has higher amounts of melanin. Additionally, if you are looking to treat hyperpigmentation caused by sun exposure, acne scarring, or melasma, or want to even out blotchy skin tone, this should be your go-to product.

It is also safe for sensitive skin as the active component in arbutin is released slowly. Furthermore, as compared to other more aggressive ingredients, such as acids and peels (which can cause irritation and dryness), alpha arbutin is considered a safer alternative. It causes less irritation than hydroquinone – an ingredient that is banned in Japan and Europe – making it safe to use (1), (4). In fact, the FDA has branded hydroquinone as carcinogenic when taken orally (5).

This ingredient can only work effectively when used correctly. Read on to understand the correct dosage and application of alpha arbutin.

How Should You Use Alpha Arbutin?

Alpha arbutin is found as the main ingredient in a wide range of skin-lightening products such as creams, serums, face washes, gels, and lotions. It is one of the most widely used ingredients in overnight masks and water creams. Here are a few best things to consider when using alpha arbutin:

  • Considering that it is safe to use even for sensitive skin, it can be used twice a day – once in the morning and once at night. However, make sure to do a patch test prior to trying it to avoid the risk of unknown allergies/irritation.
  • You can apply it on clean, dry skin after cleansing and toning but before you use any heavy moisturizers and sunscreens. Make sure to wait for the arbutin product to fully dry prior to applying moisturizer. Otherwise, the product will not effectively sink into your skin.
  • Depending on your skin concern, you can use it directly on the hyperpigmented areas on the face as a spot treatment or on your entire face (avoiding the eyes, lips, and mouth).
  • Remember that you can use it in combination with other skin-lightening ingredients, such as chemical peels and retinol, as well as with other creams and serums that contain vitamin C and AHAs to maximize its efficacy.
  • It can be used in the summers as it does not make the skin more sensitive to the sun – which is a concern with most skin-lightening products.
  • In terms of dosage, alpha arbutin is safe for topical use in concentrations of up to 2%. On the other hand, beta arbutin is safe for topical use in concentrations of up to 7% in skin care products (6). Make sure to not use these ingredients for more than 90 days at a stretch. Consult a dermatologist to understand the ideal dosage and frequency based on your skin type, underlying issues, skin sensitivity, etc.

In the next section, we will look at the side effects and precautionary measures to keep in mind when using arbutin.

Possible Side Effects To Keep In Mind

While there are no known negative interactions with other skin care ingredients, heat can degrade the effectiveness of arbutin (7). So keep it away from sunlight and hot areas, and make sure to store it in a cool and dry place at all times (like in your bedside drawer).

If you are allergic to alpha arbutin, you may experience the following side effects:

  • Skin irritation
  • Mild acne
  • Sun-sensitivity or sunburn
  • Redness or irritation

In the final section, we will outline the top safety tips you should follow while using arbutin in any form.

​Top 6 Safety Tips For Alpha Arbutin

  • Always follow up with a moisturizer and sunscreen after using arbutin. But, make sure to wait till the arbutin product seeps into the skin before applying other products.
  • Speak to your dermatologist before you buy any skin care product containing arbutin to understand the right arbutin concentration for you.
  • You might be allergic to arbutin, so make sure to do a patch test on a small area on your forearm. If you experience redness or irritation, stop using the product immediately. If there is no irritation within 24 hours, you can use the product on your face.
  • Do not use the product for more than 3 months at a time as you risk damaging your skin.
  • Do not use arbutin in any form on damaged or broken skin.
  • Do not use arbutin if you are pregnant or lactating as there is not enough research supporting its safety while using during pregnancy.

While there are multiple skin-brightening agents making the rounds in the skin care domain, most have adverse side effects or are harmful to sensitive skin when used incorrectly. This is where alpha arbutin comes in. This skin-brightening agent is well-tolerated among all skin types and is effective in reducing the production of melanin and making your skin glow. This is why it is hailed as an effective skin-lightening agent with little to no side effects.

Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions

Does alpha arbutin tend to darken the skin?

No, it does not darken the skin. On the contrary, it helps to lighten the skin by preventing excess melanin production.

What concentration should alpha arbutin be used in?

You can use alpha-arbutin for topical use in concentrations of up to 2% and beta arbutin in concentrations of up to 7%.

What is arbutin used for in skin care?

Arbutin is primarily used to treat three skin concerns – hyperpigmentation (dark spots), evening out the overall complexion, and brightening the skin.

What skin types is arbutin good for?

Unless you are allergic to arbutin, it is safe for all skin types.

Is arbutin safe for dark skin?

Yes, arbutin can be used on dark skin. Note that arbutin cannot change the natural color of your skin – it can only lighten the pigmentation spots caused by freckles, age spots, sun spots, acne scars, or melasma.

What are the common side effects of applying arbutin topically?

If you are allergic to arbutin, you may experience redness, irritation, sunburn, or mild acne. This is why doing a patch test is a must.

How long does arbutin take to work topically?

You will need to apply arbutin consistently for 1-2 months to see improvement in your skin. Do not exceed continuous usage for more than three months.

Is arbutin safe to use every day?

Yes, you can use arbutin twice a day, every day.

Can I use arbutin with alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)?

Yes, you can use arbutin with alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic or lactic acid for quicker results.

Sources

Articles on StyleCraze are backed by verified information from peer-reviewed and academic research papers, reputed organizations, research institutions, and medical associations to ensure accuracy and relevance. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  1. Alpha Arbutin as a Skin Lightening Agent: A Review
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/350621514_Alpha_Arbutin_as_a_Skin_Lightening_Agent_A_Review
  2. Cosmeceuticals for hyperpigmentation: What is available?
    https://www.jcasonline.com/article.asp?issn=0974-2077;year=2013;volume=6;issue=1;spage=4;epage=11;aulast=Sarkar
  3. Cosmeceuticals for Hyperpigmentation: What is Available?
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3663177/
  4. Hydroquinone
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539693/
  5. Position on Topical Hydroquinone
    https://www.asds.net/Portals/0/PDF/asdsa/asdsa-position-statement-hydroquinone.pdf
  6. Opinion On α-arbutin
    https://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_176.pdf
  7. Arbutin
    https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Arbutin

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Arshiya Syeda is an editor and certified counselor. Ever the lover of the written word, she served on the editorial boards of her school and college newsletters. Writing articles on hairstyles, hair care, and nutrition helped her combine her love for reading, writing, and research. As an editor, she helps her team members deliver polished and meticulously researched content. Arshiya is fluent in English, Urdu, and Hindi and aims to become a multilinguist by learning German and teaching herself American Sign Language (ASL).