Alpha arbutin is a natural ingredient found in the leaves of bearberry shrubs and other plants. If you are wondering what alpha arbutin does for the skin, it improves various skin concerns including hyperpigmentation and age spots. The benefits of alpha arbutin for skin are numerous, so, in this article, we will discuss everything alpha arbutin and how it can help improve your skin!
What is Alpha Arbutin?
Alpha arbutin is a naturally occurring molecule derived from the dried leaves of plant species like bearberry blueberry, cranberry, and pear trees. Studies have shown that alpha arbutin brightens skin and is an effective skin-lightening ingredient that can also decrease hyperpigmentation, dark spots, discoloration, and uneven skin tone.
Alpha Arbutin has many benefits when compared to other skin lighteners. It generally works well for all skin types* and does not make your skin sensitive to the sun. (See a complete list of benefits below). It can be even more effective when used in conjunction with other skin brighteners like kojic acid, vitamin C, licorice root, or tranexamic acid.
Note that alpha arbutin is not the same as beta arbutin, also simply called arbutin. There are conflicting studies on the effectiveness of each type of arbutin with different sources claiming that both are stronger than the other. Both can be helpful at brightening the skin, but in this article, we’ll focus only on alpha arbutin’s benefits for the skin.
*Although alpha arbutin is generally well tolerated, it’s always a good idea to patch test a new skincare product before using it for the first time.
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Alpha Arbutin vs Hydroquinone
Hydroquinone is a depigmenting agent that has been the gold standard when it comes to lightening and brightening the skin. Unfortunately, there are safety concerns about hydroquinone since it can be toxic to living cells and may have other side effects.
Alpha Arbutin, often called “natural hydroquinone”, is a safer alternative to hydroquinone as its mechanism of action is to inhibit enzyme activity involved in producing melanin.
How Does Alpha Arbutin Work?
Melanin is the pigment that gives skin color thereby protecting it from UV damage. Excessive melanin production causes hyperpigmentation, dark spots, uneven skin tone, and/or blotchy skin. Hyperpigmentation can be triggered by a number of reasons, including excessive sun exposure (UV rays) and hormonal changes like pregnancy.
There are a series of reactions that take place to create melanin. Tyrosinase is a copper enzyme located in melanocyte cells and is involved in the production of melanin. Tyrosinase converts tyrosine, an amino acid, into dopaquinone. Dopaquinone eventually gets converted into melanin.
Alpha arbutin works as a lightening agent to help improve the look of dark spots, uneven skin tone, freckles, and even melasma. Alpha arbutin inhibits tyrosinase activity of melanocyte cells. Alpha Arbutin has a similar structure to tyrosine and competes with it to fit into a tyrosinase enzyme. It also inhibits the maturation of melanin synthesizing melanosomes, which are organelles produced by melanocytes.
Alpha Arbutin Benefits for Skin
You may be wondering why you should give alpha arbutin a spot in your skincare routine. As previously mentioned, several skincare actives are available over-the-counter to treat hyperpigmentation, discoloration, and uneven skin tone.
Here are some notable benefits of alpha arbutin:
- Lightens and Brightens Skin: By competitively inhibiting tyrosine, melanin production is interrupted, so dark spots, liver spots, and uneven skin tone are minimized and skin appears lighter and brighter.
- Less Irritating: Alpha arbutin generally does not irritate the skin when used in low concentrations. Of course, you should always review the ingredient list of an alpha arbutin product, because it may be combined with other potentially irritating actives in the same product.
- Can Be Combined with Other Actives: Alpha arbutin does not have any contraindications, which makes it easy to incorporate into your skincare routine. You can speed up your results by pairing alpha arbutin with other skin brighteners like vitamin C, azelaic acid, kojic acid, or retinoids.
- Evens Skin Tone: Uneven blotchy skin can benefit from alpha arbutin as it interferes with melanin production, helping to both prevent and reduce the look of uneven skin tone, dark spots, age spots sun spots, and discoloration.
- Improves the Look of Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation: Alpha arbutin goes to work on those pesky post acne scars and marks that leave skin discolored and reddened.
- Safe to Use: Alpha Arbutin is a safer alternative to hydroquinone, and is often called “natural hydroquinone”. Alpha arbutin can be used twice a day.
- Does Not Make Skin Sensitive to the Sun: When using exfoliating acids, retinoids, or vitamin C products to reduce hyperpigmentation and dark spots, you may find your skin more sensitive when exposed to UV rays of the sun. This is not the case for alpha arbutin. Regardless, it is important to always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher on a daily basis.
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Affordable Alpha Arbutin Serums for Hyperpigmentation and Dark Spots
The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA
The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA contains a high 2% concentration of alpha arbutin plus a next-generation form of hyaluronic acid for deep hydration.
The water-based formula contains 2% alpha arbutin to brighten, depigment and lighten the skin helping to reduce the look of dark spots and uneven skin tone. Hydrolyzed sodium hyaluronate has a low molecular weight to moisturize deep into the skin. It helps skin to retain moisture and provides a healthy plumped look.
Since alpha arbutin may degrade in a water-based formula if the pH is not correct, the pH of this serum is approximately 4.9 which The Ordinary notes is most ideal to minimize alpha arbutin degradation.
Naturium Alpha Arbutin Serum 2%
Naturium Alpha Arbutin Serum 2% is formulated with 2% alpha arbutin, plus niacinamide and lemon to reduce the look of dark spots due to inflammation and environmental stressors.
In addition to hyperpigmentation and dark spots from exposure to UV rays, this serum would be ideal for targeting post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation like post-acne scars and red marks due to the inclusion of multiple brightening actives.
Alpha arbutin works alongside brightening niacinamide and Citrus Limon Fruit extract (Lemon Fruit extract), which is a natural gentle exfoliant that helps to sweep away dead skin cells and other impurities.
Ideal for all skin types, this alpha arbutin serum can be applied to the face, neck, and chest.
InstaNatural Skin Brightening Serum
If you are looking for a serum that addresses multiple signs of aging, including hyperpigmentation, InstaNatural Skin Brightening Serum combines alpha arbutin with multiple other actives and plant extracts, including a vitamin C derivative, niacinamide, and licorice extract, to create a brightening cocktail for your skin. The serum also helps to reduce the look of wrinkles and fine lines while hydrating and protecting the skin barrier.
This multi-benefits serum contains sodium ascorbyl phosphate (SAP), a vitamin C derivative that has excellent stability and is absorbed easily. SAP offers similar antioxidant benefits as vitamin C such as photoprotection against damaging UV rays while helping to fade dark spots and stimulate collagen production. It also has antimicrobial properties, which may even help with acne.
Niacinamide offers brightening, barrier repair, and anti-inflammatory benefits. Licorice Root extract is an anti-inflammatory and is a skin-lightening agent. Centella Asiatica extract offers healing properties. Sodium hyaluronate helps skin retain water and Argania Spinosa Kernel (Argan) oil moisturizes. Camellia Sinensis Leaf (green tea ) extract is one of several actives in the serum that offers antioxidant protection.
This serum is fragranced and contains citrus oils, so please take note if you have sensitive skin.
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Alternatives to Alpha Arbutin
If you’ve tried alpha arbutin but didn’t get the results that you wanted or if you want to combine alpha arbutin with other skin lighteners, consider these alternatives:
- Tranexamic Acid: Tranexamic acid slows down melanin production by interrupting the interactions between melanocytes, which produce melanin, and keratinocyte skin cells. This helps to reduce hyperpigmentation and dark spots. It can also help with melasma when taken orally. Tranexamic acid can be combined with other skin brighteners like alpha arbutin, vitamin C, or kojic acid.
- Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid are chemical exfoliators that lift away dead skin cells, sebum, and other debris to reveal brighter, fresher skin. AHAs can improve the look of dark spots, discoloration, and uneven skin tone and texture and help to reduce the look of wrinkles and fine lines. It is important to note that stronger exfoliating acids, like glycolic acid, may be irritating to those with sensitive skin.
- Azelaic Acid: Azelaic acid inhibits tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in melanin production. Melanin is the pigment that gives our skin color, so inhibiting tyrosinase can help reduce blotchy, patchy discoloration, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Derived from rye, wheat, and barley, azelaic acid has anti-inflammatory properties and can also treat acne and rosacea.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid or l-ascorbic acid, is a potent antioxidant that helps reduce hyperpigmentation from UV exposure. Vitamin C is a tyrosinase inhibitor. Vitamin C also offers additional anti-aging benefits for the skin such as protection against environmental stressors like UV rays and pollution and it also stimulates collagen production, helping to reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Licorice Root Extract: Licorice root extract from the licorice plant works in multiple ways to help reduce hyperpigmentation. It disperses and inhibits melanin biosynthesis. It also is an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties.
- Retinoids: Retinoids are the over-the-counter gold standard to reduce the look of wrinkles, fine lines, and dullness and can also help with hyperpigmentation and dark spots. Retinoids like retinol speed up cell turnover to help break up excess pigmentation to reveal a brighter and more radiant complexion.
- Kojic Acid: Yet another tyrosinase inhibitor, kojic acid helps to fade dark spots, sun spots, and other discoloration.
How to Use Alpha Arbutin in Your Skincare Routine
Alpha arbutin is commonly available in facial serums. Serums are applied in the treatment step of your skincare routine. After cleansing and toning, apply your facial serum. Then follow with a moisturizer or cream and plus a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher (in your AM routine).
You can use alpha arbutin as a spot treatment on particular areas of concern or use it on your entire face, neck, and even sun-damaged areas of your décolleté.
Tips on Getting the Best Results from Alpha Arbutin
To get the best results from an alpha arbutin product, use it as part of an integrated skincare regimen and in conjunction with other treatments like vitamin C (ascorbic acid), azelaic acid, or niacinamide or retinol. Incorporating retinol into your evening skincare routine will help brighten the skin by increasing cell turnover, which lifts away dead skin cells to reveal a fresher complexion.
No matter what type of alpha arbutin or skin depigmenting product that you choose, one statement bears repeating. Be sure to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every single day to protect your skin from damaging UV rays which can cause excessive pigmentation in your skin.
It is important to note that skin lightening/brightening can take time. Don’t expect that any of these alpha arbutin products will work miracles overnight. With consistency and patience, you should start seeing results in several weeks or a few months.
Related Post: Can You Use Niacinamide with Retinol?
Final Thoughts on the Benefits of Alpha Arbutin in Skincare
Alpha arbutin has been shown to be an effective skin-lightening ingredient that can be added to your arsenal of skincare actives that combat hyperpigmentation and dark spots.
You may see quicker results if you combine alpha arbutin with other skincare ingredients known to be helpful against hyperpigmentation like vitamin C, retinoids, tranexamic acid, or kojic acid.
The secret is having patience and being consistent. The reward will be brighter skin with an improvement in unwanted hyperpigmentation, sun spots, age spots, and uneven skin tone.
Until next time, here’s to your good skin health!