If you deal with blemishes and other skin discoloration, you might have heard of, or even tried, arbutin. This powerful yet gentle melanin blocker is a recent addition to many facial products. It can tone your skin, reduce the appearance of spots and patches, and impart a healthy glow.

Unlike other skin brighteners, arbutin does not bleach or change the color of your skin. Instead, it can slowly blend your complexion. Should you try it?

How Does Arbutin Work?

Arbutin is a derivative of hydroquinone, which was long considered the gold standard topical skin lightener. Hydroquinone kills cells that produce pigmentation, but arbutin acts a bit differently: it interferes with the production of tyrosine, an enzyme that converts to the skin pigment melanin.

By curbing melanin production, arbutin can help alleviate hyperpigmentation issues. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties also help protect skin cells from UV exposure and oxidative damage.

smiling woman in bathroom checking her skin


Where Does Arbutin Come From?

Natural or beta arbutin is extracted from many plants and fruits, including bearberries, cranberries, and pears. Alpha arbutin is its synthetic counterpart. According to a 2021 review, alpha arbutin is more stable and 10 times more effective than beta arbutin. This is the type you’ll see most often on the market.

Deoxyarbutin, another form of beta arbutin, also shows high depigmentation potential and safety. However, its availability is restricted because it can cause heat or light sensitivity.

illustration of the molecular form of alpha-arbutin


What Can Arbutin Treat?

Arbutin has a lightening effect on the skin, which can help treat age spots, sun spots, freckles, and other skin discolorations. Regular use of the compound may also help reduce the appearance of melasma, a hormone-driven condition that causes gray-brown patches on the face.

A 2020 research article reported that arbutin can enhance wound healing, reduce scarring, and protect cells from irradiation.

close up of age spots on a woman's cheek


Is Arbutin Better than Hydroquinone?

Chemically speaking, the only difference between arbutin and hydroquinone is one sugar molecule. As of 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned hydroquinone products except for one prescription drug. Arbutin carries similar potency with a lower risk of adverse effects.

Exposure to skin microorganisms may cause arbutin to break down into hydroquinone. However, evidence suggests that arbutin has other unique properties that inhibit melanin production.

molecular drawing of hydroquinone


Is Arbutin Better than Ascorbic Acid?

Both arbutin and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) block the action of the tyrosine enzyme, but in different ways. Ascorbic acid doesn’t absorb into the skin as easily, though, and arbutin is also more stable in water and sunlight.

Studies indicate that some derivatives of ascorbic acid are more stable and penetrate the skin better. However, research is undergoing to determine their effectiveness.

ascorbic acid or vitamin C


Is Arbutin Better than Kojic Acid?

Kojic acid comes from Aspergillus, Acetobacter, and Penicillium bacteria. Its antimicrobial and antifungal properties can help with bacterial acne. Kojic acid also limits tyrosine production for a lightening effect on the skin.

Excessive use of kojic acid could cause redness, itching, and swelling and make your skin more vulnerable to sun damage. A 2021 study reported that arbutin’s “inhibitory effect” against melanin production was significantly stronger than that of kojic acid.

molecule drawing of kojic acid for skincare


How Often Should I Use Arbutin?

How frequently you use arbutin depends on the formulation and concentration. Most studies suggest that alpha-arbutin may be most effective in concentrations of 2.5% to 3%. Experts recommend putting arbutin on cleansed skin first before any sunscreen or heavy moisturizers.

Arbutin is usually considered safe to use morning and night. Many users report that it takes two or three months to notice improvements. As with any chemical product, read and follow the label directions carefully.

woman applying a face mask in the bathroom mirror


Can You Combine Arbutin with Other Products?

Arbutin pairs quite well with other common skin brighteners and toners. There are products that combine it with vitamin C, azelaic acid, hyaluronic acid, licorice extract, and more. Together, they may help reduce hyperpigmentation, inflammation, and signs of aging.

Some people find that they get the most benefit from products that combine arbutin with exfoliating ingredients such as salicylic or glycolic acid. These can help arbutin penetrate the skin to the layer where melanin is produced. Combining with retinol could add benefits like improved absorption and enhanced skin cell turnover.

Whatever combination you try, always be sure to test it out on a small area of skin first and watch for any adverse reaction.

smiling woman in a robe applying a face serum


What Color Should Arbutin Be?

You may notice differences or changes in the color of your arbutin product. In powder form, arbutin may be colorless to faint yellow in appearance.

Serums may turn from yellow to brown over time, but this does not indicate a loss of quality or effectiveness. What you see is likely a reaction to oxygen and not cause for concern.

arbutin powder among flowers


Does Arbutin Have Any Side Effects?

Arbutin is considered safe for all skin types. Its active constituents release slowly, making it less irritating than other brighteners. Acne, mild irritation, and sun sensitivity could develop with use, but these effects are typically less severe than with other products.

Start with a patch test. If you have a skin condition that may be affected by arbutin, talk with a healthcare provider or dermatologist first. Discontinue use and seek medical attention immediately if your condition worsens.

smiling woman in a sun hat for sun protection


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