POSTED: 7 Aug 2023

What Does Arbutin Do & Should You Add It To Your Skincare?

Arbutin, specifically alpha arbutin, has become a highly sought after ingredient in the skincare world. But what does arbutin do for your skin, and why has it gained such popularity? In this post, we’ll discuss the what is arbutin, how it works, the benefits of alpha arbutin and how to add it to your skincare routine.

What is Arbutin?

Arbutin is a naturally occurring compound found in many plants, such as bearberries, blueberries, and cranberries. It’s a type of glycoside that is derived from hydroquinone, a substance known for its skin-lightening properties.

How Does Arbutin Work?

When used on the skin, arbutin is absorbed into the cells. This is where it takes on the role of a melanin inhibitor. Arbutin effectively block the enzyme responsible for converting tyrosine into melanin, known as tyrosinase. This is significant because melanin is the pigment that gives skin its colour. Overproduction of melanin can lead to dark spots and hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, and other pigment-related issues.

Arbutin doesn’t stop at merely inhibiting tyrosinase. It competes with the enzyme, binding to certain sites and preventing tyrosinase from fulfilling its role in melanin production. This reduces melanin production and hence fades hyperpigmentation. It also prevents new dark spots from forming. Over time, arbutin helps the complexion to become more even and radiant.

What Are The Different Types of Arbutin in Skincare?

In general, arbutin is widely praised for being a gentle skin brightening agent. It’s suitable for most skin types and is often available in various skincare products like serums, lotions, and creams. There are three primary forms of arbutin available in skincare:

  • Alpha Arbutin: this is the most common and effective form of arbutin. Alpha arbutin is a glycoside. This means it is a glucose molecule attached to a hydroquinone. This allows for a controlled, slow release of the active compound and thus provides a gentle brightening effect. It’s suitable for all skin types.
  • Beta Arbutin: this form is less stable than its alpha counterpart. It’s similar in action but may not provide the same level of effectiveness. As such, beta arbutin is considered a milder option.
  • Deoxyarbutin: this is a synthetic derivative of arbutin. It is designed to provide more potent skin-lightening effects. It’s more stable than both alpha and beta arbutin but requires careful formulation and usage. This is because higher concentrations may lead to skin irritation or sensitivity.

Alpha Arbutin Benefits

Alpha arbutin is a popular skincare ingredient to target hyperpigmentation due to its powerful but gentle skin-lightening properties. Here’s a detailed look at the benefits of alpha arbutin.

Skin Brightening

Alpha arbutin inhibits the enzyme tyrosinase, responsible for melanin production. This helps in reducing hyperpigmentation including melasma and age spots. It leaves the skin looking brighter and more even toned.

Gentle on the Skin

Unlike some other skin-lightening agents, alpha arbutin is known for its gentle action on the skin. Its slow release into the skin reduces the risk of irritation. This makes it better for more sensitive skin.

Works Well With Other Skincare Products

You can use alpha arbutin alongside other active skincare ingredients like Vitamin C, exfoliating acids and retinoids. This flexibility allows it to be part of a comprehensive skincare routine to target multiple skin concerns.

Safe for Regular Use

Since alpha arbutin is less aggressive compared to many other brightening agents, it is typically safe to use in the long-term. That being said, you must use it according to instructions on the packaging or following a professional skincare practitioner’s recommendation.

Effective for Different Skin Tones

Alpha arbutin doesn’t bleach the skin but instead works to reduce excess pigmentation. As a result, it can be beneficial for people of various skin tones seeking to address specific areas of discolouration.

What is the Difference Between Arbutin & Hydroquinone?

Arbutin and hydroquinone both have skin-lightening properties. As such they are both important and often used for fading hyperpigmentation. However, they are not identical in their structure, function, or use in skincare.

As previously discussed, arbutin is a naturally occurring compound that consists of a hydroquinone molecule linked to a sugar molecule (usually glucose). It works by inhibiting the enzyme tyrosinase thereby suppressing the production of melanin. As it is bound to a sugar molecule, arbutin is released slowly into the skin. This provides a controlled and gradual lightening effect on the skin. For this reason, it provides a gentler alternative to hydroquinone. Side effects are rare but may include minor irritation. Hence, it is suitable for prolonged use.

Hydroquinone is the active component within arbutin. It can also be synthetically produced. It also inhibits tyrosinase but does so more directly and intensely. Its immediate action can provide quicker results. Although effective, hydroquinone can cause skin irritation, redness, and even a condition called ochronosis with prolonged or improper use. In some countries, hydroquinone is available only by prescription due to its potency and potential risks.

Potential Side Effects & Who Shouldn’t Use It

Arbutin is generally considered to be a safe and gentle ingredient in skincare, particularly in its alpha form. However, like all active ingredients, there may be potential side effects and certain individuals who should exercise caution.

In rare cases, arbutin may cause skin irritation, redness, or itching, particularly if used in high strengths or in combination with other strong ingredients. Some users may experience dryness or a feeling of tightness in the skin. You can usually easily manage this with a good moisturiser. Whilst not as potent as other skin-lightening agents like hydroquinone, it may increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV rays. That’s why you should use sunscreen when adding arbutin into any skincare routine.

Pregnant or breast feeding women should avoid using arbutin. This is due to a lack of complete studies regarding its safety during these times. You should also exercise caution if you have extremely sensitive skin or specific skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis or Rosacea.

Furthermore, using arbutin with other strong skin lightening agents or exfoliating acids without professional advice may increase the likelihood of irritation. Regardless of your skin type or concerns, always perform a patch test before using any new skin products. This will help determine if you have an allergy or adverse reaction and prevent damage to your skin.

How to Use Alpha Arbutin in Your Skincare Routine

If you are considering adding alpha arbutin into your skincare routine, there are a few things to consider. Firstly how severe your hyperpigmenattion is and your skin tone. This is because it is a mild pigment suppressor and hence may not be effective in advanced or expensive hyperpigmentation. It is also less effective in skin of colour and in particular hyperpigmentation in darker skin tones. For this reason, you may need to consider pairing it with a retinoid or even using hydroquinone instead. For these cases, its best to seek the advice of a dermatologist or aesthetic doctor who can advise on the best skincare products and protocols for you.

In terms of skincare products containing arbutin, consider using it in a separate serum or lotion as this will allow you to adjust the frequency to how your skin responds. The best time to use it is after cleansing your skin and applying acid exfoliants if you use any in the morning. In the evening, use it after cleansing and applying a retinoid (if you use one) but before your moisturiser. Look for products that contain 1-2% alpha arbutin as these are both gentle and effective.

Lastly, do not forget sun protection. Since the main benefit of alpha arbutin is it targets pigment production, it’s essential to protect your skin from harmful UV rays. Look for a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30.

Arbutin is an important skincare ingredient that offers a gentle and effective solution to brightening and evening out the skin. However, it is not a silver bullet and what works for one person may not work for another. The benefits of alpha arbutin depend on the cause and extent of your hyperpigmentation as well as your skin tone. If you are dealing with severe hyperpigmentation or multiple skin concerns, its best to see a dermatologist or aesthetic doctor. They will advise on the safest and most effective treatment for you.

At City Skin Clinic, we are passionate about personalised skincare. Our doctor led online skin clinic provides safe and effective prescription-strength skincare products like Hydroquinone and Tretinoin to treat acnehyperpigmentationmelasma and skin ageing all personalised to your needs. Book an online appointment today to take your first step towards great skin.


Authored by:

Dr Amel Ibrahim
Aesthetic Doctor & Medical Director
Founder City Skin Clinic
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
Associate Member of British Association of Body Sculpting GMC Registered - 7049611

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