Arbutin: This Natural Alternative Helps Target Dark Spots + Derm Advice
Of the list of concerns people have about their skin, dark spots tend to come up frequently. And the thing is, dark spots or pigmentation issues come in many forms: post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from scars and acne, sun spots, age spots, and melasma. When these happen, most reach for a "brightening" product, such as a serum, mask, or cream. Within these brightening products, you'll find several common ingredients, such as vitamin C, lactic acid, and so on. Each of these actives has a unique way of targeting uneven pigment, from exfoliation to neutralizing inflammation.
One natural ingredient you might see is arbutin. Arbutin is, essentially, a natural variant of the controversial hydroquinone. The latter is controversial for several reasons, like severe sensitivity, irritation, and contamination issues. But most notably: It's been used and marketed as a "skin lighter" for many, many years. Now, it's one thing to formulate a product to help people fade unwanted dark spots (a valid concern many women have of all skin tones), but it crosses the line when you imply skin tones need to be lightened in general.
Because of this, and for several reasons more we'll get to later, many have made the switch to arbutin, the safer, natural, nonirritating, and gentle version for when you need to treat dark spots.
What is arbutin?
"Arbutin is a naturally occurring compound in the leaves of a variety of different plants, including pear trees and the bearberry plant, that prevents the formation of melanin," says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D., noting that the overproduction of melanin in certain areas is what makes up dark spots and melasma patches. "It functions as a tyrosinase inhibitor to provide skin brightening effects. This happens because when your skin and these cells come in contact with UV light, the tyrosinase enzyme is activated. Arbutin blocks this."
Essentially, it works by stopping dark spots from forming—unlike exfoliators, which slough off surface-level pigment, or other antioxidants, which fight free radical damage resulting in a brighter appearance overall. Arbutin isn't the only other additive to do this, however; similar ingredients include licorice root and kojic acid.
What is it used for in skin care?
Arbutin is a widely used skin care ingredient, although it's often paired with other ingredients (like the aforementioned vitamin C and kojic acid) to improve the overall product's efficacy, as by itself it's a fairly mild brightener.
So when you see it on your ingredient list or on the label, you can know that these are its primary functions:
Fade and inhibit sun and age spots.
No matter the name—age spots, sun spots, dark spots—they're all a byproduct of too much UV damage, be that immediate or cumulative. They can affect people of all skin tones, too. "By blocking the production of tyrosinase, it can reduce the degree of skin darkening after sun exposure and help even out one's complexion and offer a brightening effect," notes Barr.
Tend to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Another common cause of dark spots is the residual effects of acne and other inflammation. These can leave behind annoying pink, red, and brown spots that take months and years to fade—long after the original blemish is gone. "Because of its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, in addition to benefits of dealing with pigmentation, arbutin has been shown to be effective for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation," says Barr. Because of this, many derms recommend that their acne-prone patients use it preventively: "It is also used as a preventive to stop the skin from darkening. For example, applying it to a pimple or injury shortly after the inflammation is noticed will help reduce the chances of leaving behind a dark spot," says Fenton.
Helps with acne.
How to use it:
"It should be used in the areas of pigment where one is trying to lighten the skin or prevent darkening," says board-certified dermatologist Jeremy Fenton, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. So you can use it as a spot corrector (like in the case of acne), in areas where you are prone to sun spots, or it's even gentle enough to use all over.
It's also gentle enough to use every day, twice daily. However, fold it into your skin care routine as best you see fit.
Why is it considered an alternative to hydroquinone?
We've touched on hydroquinone briefly in the intro, but let's further explain the ingredient and why it’s so problematic (it's even banned in the E.U. and South Africa), and why arbutin is the safer alternative.
"Arbutin is similar to hydroquinone, as it is a glycosylated form, but it carries fewer risks of side effects as compared to traditional hydroquinone," says Fenton. "It may not be as effective as hydroquinone but may be a better choice for some."
- Skin sensitivities. "A common concern of hydroquinone is that it can be irritating for those with sensitive skin," says Fenton. "It can also trigger an allergic reaction in some people. Arbutin is more gentle and less likely to trigger these types of reactions. Therefore, it may be a better choice for those with sensitive skin or a prior allergy to hydroquinone."
- It has a reverse effect for some with dark skin. "Hydroquinone in some people with darker skin carries a rare risk of a paradoxical darkening of the skin," says Fenton. "This is called exogenous ochronosis. Arbutin is going to carry a lower risk of this."
- Toxicity problems. "Because hydroquinone has been associated with significant adverse effects including cytotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, and genotoxicity, it was banned in Europe in 2000 and is strictly regulated in Asia, which may make finding an alternative desirable," says Barr. Fenton notes similarly; however, he also says it's a contested claim currently: "Some studies suggest that it may be carcinogenic. This is highly debated, and many believe it is only relevant when consumed and not relevant when used topically. However, if one wants to be extra cautious, arbutin is a good alternative. Arbutin is not known to carry any risk of carcinogenesis."
What should you know before trying it?
It's generally tolerated by most people, given how gentle it is. However, it's always recommended you patch-test first, and then monitor your skin throughout use—and stop if you notice any issues.
"It has a good safety profile as there are no known negative interactions with other skin care ingredients. It's also known to be less irritating and more gentle on the skin than other skin-lightening agents, so it can be a good choice for those with sensitive skin," says Barr. "That being said, although a safer alternative to hydroquinone, it's not as effective, so to get the best results, it needs to be used twice daily and is best used in conjunction with other skin brightening ingredients like vitamin C, alpha-hydroxy acids and topical retinol."
If you want to fade dark spots, consider arbutin. The natural ingredient is a safer alternative to hydroquinone, fairly tolerable for most, and plays well with other ingredients.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.