“Arbutin is a molecule extracted from the bearberry plant that prevents the formation of melanin,” Lin explains. He compares arbutin to two other gentle brighteners: kojic acid (derived from mushrooms) and licorice root (derived from the licorice plant). “[They] are derived from different natural ingredients, but they all function as tyrosinase inhibitors to provide skin lightening and brightening effects,” he says. Basically, brown spots come from pigments that are produced in cells called melanocytes, which contain enzymes called tyrosinase.
They can activate anytime they come in contact with UV light, which is why you’ll notice freckles and sun spots starting to develop if you spend too much time in the sun. That’s when arbutin comes in—it blocks tyrosinase and keeps dark spots at bay.
It's important, however, to learn how to distinguish between alpha-arbutin (the good stuff) and other, similar-sounding ingredients, notes King. "There's beta-arbutin, which is a cheap version and not stable, thus it is important to distinguish the forms of arbutin," she notes.
Arbutin is a widely used skin lightening agent derived from hydroquinone. It is all-natural and can be extracted from bearberry, cranberry, blueberry, and pears. However, synthetical production is also possible through the action of acetobromoglucose on hydroquinone.
Arbutin’s power in reducing hyperpigmentation has been proven and confirmed by various studies over the years. A 2018 study published in Cosmetic Facial Surgery found that arbutin effectively reduced melanin content to approximately 39 percent.
Aside from skin lightening, arbutin also has antioxidant properties that improve skin texture. It’s also used in anti-aging products because of this characteristic.
Where does Arbutin come from?
Arbutin, also known as Alpha-Arbutin occurs naturally in several different plant species. Plants with the highest known concentrations are bearberry and mulberry. It is also found in blueberry, cranberry, wheat, and pear varieties. Bearberry has been used for centuries in Europe and North America as a traditional medicine. Before the discovery of modern antibiotics, bearberry was one of the few known naturally-occurring anti-microbial medicines. The antimicrobial activity is due in part to the presence of Arbutin. Bearberry is traditionally used to treat urinary tract infections. Synthetic forms of Arbutin can be created by chemical synthesis or by an enzyme-catalyzed process. In vitro studies of 7% Arbutin appear to have a stronger inhibitory effect on melanin production.
How Does it Work?
Arbutin is composed of hydroquinone with a sugar group attached. The hydroquinone group allows Arbutin to act as an inhibitor of tyrosinase, a key enzyme involved in melanin (pigment) production. This inhibitory activity is due to the structural similarity of the hydroquinone group to tyrosine, which is the natural substrate for tyrosinase. In addition to its innate inhibitory effect, Arbutin may also act as a reservoir that slowly releases hydroquinone. Once absorbed into the skin, enzymes within the body can cleave off the sugar group from Arbutin, releasing hydroquinone. This acts like a built-in safety valve, preventing the skin from being exposed to too much hydroquinone at once.
Natural Alpha Arbutin is a great substitute to hydroquinone as a safe and natural alternative for skin lightening. Arbutin is ‘non-phenol’ which means, unlike some chemical ingredients it does not cause damage to the skin through bleaching or chemical burn.
Blocking of melanin synthesis will result in lighter skin.
Effective in reversing problems like freckles, patches from prolonged sun exposure, age spots, and liver spots.
Alpha Arbutin successfully blocks skin’s tyrosinase activity resulting to the prevention of melanin formation. This natural ingredient can be very beneficial in treating melasma characterized by a dark or tan skin discoloration.
Even skin tone. When deeper penetration into skin layers is needed, Alpha Arbutin is then mixed with other active agents to help in skin repair. This will correct many hyperpigmented conditions to have a more even skin quality. Some examples of this condition is vitiligo and linea nigra caused by pregnancy.