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Meet Arbutin: The Secret Skin-Brightener You’ve Never Heard Of

Dermatologists say it's the secret to ultra-bright skin.

arbutin serum

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While many assume wrinkles are the biggest skin concern when it comes to aging, a lot of people are more concerned about something else—uneven skin tone. Age spots and ruddy skin texture can actually age you more than fine lines and crow’s feet. While tons of products promise to brighten, tone, and add luminosity, they can be too harsh or drying for those with sensitive skin—which is why we’re so excited about this skin-brightening ingredient that's safe for all skin types.

Allow us to introduce you to arbutin, the secret skin brightener you’ve maybe never even heard of. Vitamin C, kojic acid, and licorice are all great natural skin brighteners, but there are a couple reasons why arbutin kicks them to the curb. We spoke with dermatologists Michael Lin, MD, who has his own practices in LA; Y. Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in NYC; and Ginger King, a cosmetic chemist and the president of Grace Kingdom Beauty; and asked them to give us the 411 on arbutin. Keep scrolling to find out why this ingredient might just change your skin.

The Benefits of Arbutin
Alison Czinkota/BYRDIE

Arbutin

Type of ingredient: Brightener

Main benefits: Lightens dark spots, lessens appearance of acne scars, helps even out skin tone.

Who should use it: Arbutin is generally safe for all skin types.

How often can you use it: Arbutin can be used twice a day. It is safe to apply on clean skin with other creams and serums. It can also be used in the summer since it does not make skin more sensitive to the sun.

Works well with: Vitamin C, AHAs

Don’t use with: While there are no known negative interactions with other skincare ingredients, heat can degrade the effectiveness of arbutin.

What is Arbutin?

“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.

Benefits of Arbutin for Skin

  • Has sun protection properties: Arbutin can reduce the degree of skin darkening after sun exposure by blocking the production of tyrosinase.
  • Gentle on skin: While other skin brightening agents can dry and irritate the skin, arbutin is less irritating. “Since arbutin’s active component is released slowly, it can be less irritating than other skin-lightening agents and better for those with sensitive skin,” Lin says.
  • Improves uneven complexion: Since arbutin inhibits tyrosinase, an enzyme that helps with melanin production, it can prevent dark spots or even help fade them, leading to a more even complexion.
  • Safe to use with other skincare products: There are no known negative interactions between arbutin and other skincare ingredients.
  • Can be used twice daily: For maximum results, arbutin can be used both in the morning and at night.
  • Safer than hydroquinone: For a while, hydroquinone was the “miracle” skin-lightening ingredient—until it was declared a carcinogenic by the FDA (when taken orally, rather than applied topically). While hydroquinone works by killing the cells that produce pigmentation and melanin, arbutin inhibits the enzymes that stimulate pigment-producing cells.
  • Effective at fading scars: Much like its ability to fade dark spots, arbutin is also great at fading those red-purple acne scars that stick around long after a zit is gone.
  • Brightens skin: As explained above, arbutin prohibits the formation of dark spots, offering a brightening effect on the skin.

Side Effects of Arbutin

Before you go and buy every arbutin skin product out there, you should know this: There have been some people who get nervous about arbutin, because of the similar brightening benefits it has with hydroquinone. However, studies on arbutin have all firmly stated that it’s a “safe and effective ingredient for skin lightening."

“Arbutin is available in some skincare products designed to improve pigmentation,” Lin says. “Use of these products on a regular basis in your routine will improve your complexion.” One thing he notes is that arbutin can be a great way to lighten acne scars—he recommends using acne treatments with natural ingredients and arbutin, like his eponymous line’s 2-Step Acne Clarifying System ($46), to lighten dark spots that can linger after acne fades.

How to Use It

"Arbutin can be used twice daily," Chang says. "Because arbutin tends to be gentle, it can be used in combination with other skin lightening ingredients, like chemical peels and retinols." She recommends using arbutin twice daily after cleansing, but before any heavy moisturizers.

"You will be surprised to find arbutin is in many of your existing skincare products, especially skin brightening products," Chang continues. While arbutin is mainly in skincare serums, it's also a superstar ingredient in overnight masks and water creams.

King says it's best to mix arbutin with other ingredients that offer similar brightening effects, such as vitamin C and AHA, but exercise caution when trying any new product. "When at a high pH, [arbutin] will release hydroquinone, but fortunately most of the personal care products have a neutral pH," cautions King. In other words, "arbutin is generally safe but some people can have sensitivity to it," she adds.

The Best Products With Arbutin

iS Clinical Super Serum
iS Clinical Super Serum Advance+ $155
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"I recommend iS Clinical Super Serum Advance+ to give a boost of antioxidant and anti-aging activity," Chang says. "iS Clinical Super Serum Advance+ contains key ingredients including arbutin, vitamin C, copper tripeptide growth factors, and centella asiatica to brighten the skin, improve skin tone, and reduce fine lines."

Paula's Choice Radiance Renewal Mask
Paula's Choice Radiance Renewal Mask $36
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This overnight mask with arbutin works to fade dark spots overnight. It also uses skin-restoring ingredients like niacinamide and hyaluronic acid to help keep skin soft and moisturized.

Arcona brightening drops
Arcona Brightening Drops $44
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Not only does this serum with arbutin work to even out overall skin tone, but it also helps smooth skin. Kojic acid works to resurface the skin's texture, while vitamin C acts as a brightening booster. Since this serum is packed with both brightening and resurfacing ingredients, it's best saved last, for use as a spot treatment on any stubborn dark areas.

Niacinamide Discoloration Treatment
Peter Thomas Roth PRO Strength Niacinamide Discoloration Treatment $88
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This treatment works to quickly fade the dark spots left behind after a breakout. It's safe for all skin types, and it even works to prevent acne. Kojic acid helps enhance the brightening effects.

white waterful toner
Be The Skin Purifying White Waterful Toner $29
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This gentle toner works to brighten and fade any scars or dark spots you may have. Not only that, but it's got green tea to help revitalize dull skin and rebalance your skin's natural pH balance.

Obagi arbutin serum
Obagi Clinical Vitamin C+ Arbutin Brightening Serum $90
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Vitamin C and arbutin work in conjunction, to brighten dull skin and fade dark spots over time. Photo-aging, fine lines, and wrinkles are also targeted with continued use.

Sunday Riley Tidal Cream
Sunday Riley Tidal Brightening Enzyme Water Cream $65
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With hyaluronic acid for the ultimate moisture boost, this cream works to hydrate and brighten at the same time. Its light formulation makes it easy to apply as a base before makeup or a refreshing moisturizer before bed. Papaya extract works with the hyaluronic acid and arbutin to gently resurface the skin, revealing a glowy, soft complexion after regular use.

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