This Brightening Ingredient Is About to Be Everywhere — and for Good Reason
If you've been dealing with discoloration, you're likely familiar with the big-name brightening ingredients out there: hydroquinone, licorice extract, vitamin C. But mark my words, there's an unsung spot-fading hero waiting in the wings, poised to become the latest and greatest skincare superstar. Known as alpha arbutin, this ingredient effectively targets hyperpigmentation without any of the potential problematic side effects of its brightening counterparts have. Ahead, dermatologists weigh in on everything you need to know about alpha arbutin, including how to use it to achieve the glowing, even complexion of your dreams. (Related: How to Deal with Hyperpigmentation In Your Skin)
What is Alpha Arbutin?
Arbutin is a naturally-occurring compound found in many plant sources such as bearberry, mulberry, and pomegranate, explains Ife Rodney, M.D., a dermatologist and founding director of Eternal Dermatology in Fulton, Maryland. "Arbutin" and "alpha arbutin" are often used synonymously or interchangeably; alpha arbutin is simply the chemically synthesized version most often found in skin-care products. There's also another variant, beta arbutin, but don't bother seeking this one out; some studies have shown that alpha arbutin is over ten times more effective than beta arbutin, notes Y. Claire Chang, M.D., a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City.
How Does Alpha Arbutin Work in the Skin?
Alpha arbutin is a choice brightening ingredient because it's a derivative of hydroquinone, one of the most effective skin-lightening and spot-fading actives out there. While it's a champ at gradually fading dark spots, it has a safety profile that's a little, well, questionable. Here's the sitch: hydroquinone can be toxic to living cells and has the potential for side effects such as ochornosis (a bluish-black discoloration of the skin tissue) as well as irritation, according to Dr. Chang. It's why you can only use the ingredient for a few months at a time, and also why it's been banned entirely in the E.U. and Japan. (More on what this means for alpha arbutin in a sec.)
But back to alpha arbutin: "It works by slowly releasing hydroquinone over time, inhibiting tyrosinase, the key enzyme responsible for the production of melanin, or pigment, in the skin," explains Dr. Chang. In other words, less tyrosinase means less pigment, which means less discoloration and fewer unwanted dark spots. And, along with its excellent brightening abilities, alpha arbutin is also known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, she adds.
Now, I know what you're thinking: If alpha arbutin releases hydroquinone, doesn't it have the same type of side effects? The short answer is no. "Because the hydroquinone is being released slowly, the skin isn't exposed to too much of it at any one time, mitigating the likelihood of those side effects," says Dr. Rodney. So, in general, arbutin doesn't have the same type of toxicity as hydroquinone does, adds Dr. Chang. That's why you can use it consistently without having to take break. Still, Dr. Rodney says there's not yet enough data showing that it's safe to use in pregnancy (because it does release some amount of hydroquinone), so skip it if you're pregnant. Which brings us to...
Who Should Consider Using Alpha Arbutin?
Pretty much anyone who's not pregnant and looking to fade any kind of skin discoloration, be it caused by sun exposure, acne scarring, or melasma, says Dr. Rodney. (She also notes that it's a great option for those with darker skin, which is more prone to hyperpigmentation in general, due to having higher amounts of melanin in the first place.) It can also be used to even out a generally blotchy skin tone, versus targeting specific spots.
If you have sensitive skin, there's more good news: Arbutin is also relatively well-tolerated, compared to other powerful ingredients such as acids and peels, which may cause irritation and dryness, points out Dr. Chang. It also doesn't make the skin more sensitive to the sun, meaning you can safely use it year-round, she adds. That being said, trying any new skincare ingredient always comes with the risk of irritation or an allergic reaction; to play it safe, especially if you have sensitive skin, test it out on a small spot on your forearm before applying it to your entire face, she advises. (Related: The Best Skin Care Routine for Sensitive Skin.)
How Should You Use Alpha Arbutin?
The other big pro here is that alpha arbutin has not (!!) been shown to negatively interact with any other ingredients, so you can easily work it into your existing routine, notes Dr. Rodney. It does, however, work especially well when combined with other spot-fading ingredients — i.e. vitamin C, azelaic acid, kojic acid, niacinamide — so consider seeking out products that contain more than just alpha arbutin to get the most brightening bang for your buck. Dealing with hyperpigmentation is complicated, and can take some trial and error. Many of these actives work in different ways; by combining them, you're coming at the issue from every angle.
Follow the directions of the particular product you pick, but, generally speaking, you'll want to apply it twice daily on clean, dry skin for maximum results, advises Dr. Chang. Oh, and while alpha arbutin is very stable, heat can make it less effective, so be sure to store your product in a cool, dry place, says Dr. Rodney. (Ideally, not the bathroom, especially if it's particularly bright or gets super steamy. A drawer in your bedroom is a good bet.)
The Best Products with Alpha Arbutin
SkinCeuticals Phyto Plus (Buy It, $87, skinstore.com): Both derms suggest this effective yet gentle serum, lauding it for its combination of arbutin and kojic acid, another great skin-brightening ingredient. Together, these two work wonders for undoing sun damage, according to Dr. Chang. What's more, the product also has hyaluronic acid for added hydration, which is another reason Dr. Rodney is a fan. (Related: The Best Dark Spot Treatments, According to Dermatologists)
Peter Thomas Roth PRO Strength Niacinamide Discoloration Treatment (Buy It, $88, sephora.com): Dealing with super stubborn dark spots? Reach for this lightweight cream. "This treatment packs a punch, thanks to a combination of lightening agents, including alpha arbutin, kojic acid, niacinamide, and tranexamic acid," says Dr. Chang.
Obagi Clinical Vitamin C Arbutin Brightening Serum (Buy It, $90, sephora.com): This serum is no stranger to double duty, as it battles hyperpigmentation while giving skin an overall youth boost. It pairs alpha arbutin with vitamin C, a brightening ingredient that's also a powerful antioxidant known to protect the skin and stimulate collagen. All together, the formula helps rejuvenate dull, lackluster skin, explains Dr. Rodney.
Paula's Choice Radiance Renewal Mask (Buy It, $36, paulaschoice.com): Swap your standard night cream for this overnight mask once per week. "Not only does it restore your skin's natural glow, but it also helps with fine lines and wrinkles," says Dr. Rodney. Credit a mix of arbutin, vitamin C, and skin-plumping hyaluronic acid. Also nice: It's notably more affordable than the other products on this list.
iS Clinical Super Serum Advance (Buy It, $155, skinstore.com): Another option recommended by both dermatologists, this serum features the expert-favorite pairing of vitamin C and arbutin. Not only does it combat hyperpigmentation but it also touts soothing and healing ingredients — i.e. centella asiatica and zinc sulfate — so you can use it to address issues such as acne and stretch marks as well.
The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin 2% HA (Buy It, $9, sephora.com): Generally speaking, products with alpha arbutin are pretty darn pricey, which is what makes this wallet-friendly pick even more notable. Still, The Ordinary's alpha arbutin product gets the job done just as well as its more expensive counterparts. "It helps reduce the appearance of dark spots with arbutin and lactic acid, while also keeping the skin hydrated with hyaluronic acid," says Dr. Chang.