Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist - Written by Arpita Singh (Beauty Expert) on 14th Sep 2020
Dark Spots Or Brown Patches On The Face? Arbutin Might Help You Deal With Them
Is melanin showing up at all the wrong places on your skin? Forming a wicked gang of dark spots you abhor? To add more to the menace, are the spots enlarging and slowly spreading to the regions close-by?
If so, you need some introduction to the term hyperpigmentation — the dreaded skin condition that doesn’t go away quickly - well, in most cases.
But what causes it?
It could be the long day-outs under the bright sun, weighing your skin down. You may not have equipped yourself with proper sun protectants, and are still spending hours outside.
If that’s what you do, then, my friend, your skin is getting more damaged than what you’d think.
Melanocytes, the cells present in the lower layers of your epidermis and hair follicles, are triggered by ultraviolet radiation. This often leads to an increase in the production of melanin (the pigment that imparts your skin its characteristic complexion).
There are many other factors, as well. You may have got it from someone in your family tree (genetics), or hormonal imbalances. The side effects of medication, or the process of aging, or even stress can end up giving you the black pops on your skin.
Dr. Aanchal Panth, a dermatologist and hair transplant surgeon based in Surat, Gujarat quotes:
They initially occur as point-black dots, or little brown patches in the areas of the upper nose, cheeks or forehead. Over time, these irregularities deepen and spread more. They may result in discolored blotches on the skin.
Some of the best-known ingredients which can treat the signs of hyperpigmentation include hydroquinone, Vitamin C, Kojic acid, licorice, etc.
However, in recent years, the cosmetic industry has come up with another ingredient that effectively works to remove the extra melanin accumulating at specific points in your skin.
Hello, Alpha Arbutin!
You can call Arbutin a cousin of hydroquinone. But the best part about including it in your skincare regime is that you don't need a doctor's prescription to befriend it.
Arbutin, a naturally occurring derivative of hydroquinone, is extracted from several plant species, including bearberries, cranberries, wheat, blueberries, and a few pear varieties.
Good to Know
Thanks to their antimicrobial activity, bearberries have long been used to treat urinary tract infections!
Arbutin dominates the Asian market as one of the safest skin-lightening ingredients. Having a green origin (botanically resourced), it hugely appeals to the world of skincare treatment. Adding a bright luminosity to the face and toning the skin texture; it helps you fight the tough spots.
Synthetic forms of arbutin can also be created through the medium of enzyme-catalyzed chemical reactions, using hydroquinone. A-Arbutin and Deoxyarbutin are two of the positively impacting synthetic forms.
A 2018 clinical study published in Cosmetic Facial Surgery reveals that arbutin can effectively reduce melanin content to approximately 39 percent.
Well, that’s pretty impressive.
Arbutin also has antioxidant properties, which can protect your skin from sun damage. It is also used in loads of anti-aging products - be it for the age spots, fine lines, or the crow's feet etched on the eyes’ corners.
Arbutin’s Two Forms - Alpha & Beta
Alpha arbutin, the purest form of arbutin available in the market, is naturally obtained from the bearberry bushes. The suggested concentrations of alpha-arbutin in skincare products may range from 0.2% to 2%.
And most dermatologists recommend the alpha form of arbutin over its beta form.
But why Alpha Arbutin?
- Alpha-arbutin is more effective and stable than its beta counterpart.
- It is soluble in water and easily incorporates into the water phase of cosmetic formulations.
- It absorbs faster into the skin, thanks to its water-soluble nature.
The only con you may find associated with the alpha form is, it has high manufacturing costs. As a result, the combinations that make use of alpha-arbutin as an active ingredient are expensive.
It might hurt your pocket a bit, but you get a high-quality product in exchange. And we think that’s well worth it.
Ginger King, a cosmetic chemist and the president of Grace Kingdom Beauty, says beta-arbutin has an inferior quality than its alpha equivalent. It has cheaper rates.
If you find just ‘arbutin’ mentioned on the ingredients list of a skincare product, the chances are high that it has the beta form of arbutin.
Arbutin Inhibits The Production Of Melanin In The Skin
How exactly does it help you?
Arbutin causes a reversible blockage in the pathway of melanin formation.
A molecule of arbutin is composed of two groups: hydroquinone and sugar. The hydroquinone group facilitates the inhibition of tyrosinase - a key enzyme involved in melanin production. This group bears a structural similarity to tyrosine, a natural substrate for the key enzyme.
Because of its active component hydroquinone’s inhibitory action, arbutin develops a strong affinity towards the active conjugator sites of tyrosinase. These sites are the specific points where the natural substrates attach themselves to the key enzyme. As a result, it slows down the melanocytes’ function, cutting down the melanin’s excess build-up.
Arbutin also acts as a reservoir of hydroquinone. Once it is absorbed into the skin, it doesn't instantly release the active component (i.e., hydroquinone). Instead, it waits for the enzymes present within the body to leave off the sugar group from its molecule, thereby allowing hydroquinone release.
This entire mechanism acts as a built-in safety valve, preventing the skin from being exposed to too much hydroquinone at a time.
Benefits Of Using Arbutin
1) Reduces dark patches or spots
Hyperpigmentation can occur due to many factors, including sunburns, melasma, liver spots, inflammation, etc. What’s the reason behind it, you may ask? Well, it is because the hyperactive melanocytes, which give off the pigment in excess, accumulate at various points.
So, the topical application of arbutin reduces the degree of skin darkening by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase.
- Melasma, commonly manifested among pregnant women, is a skin condition showing brown patches on the face. Often termed as the "pregnancy mask," it occurs due to sweeping shifts in the hormones. Using arbutin regularly could potentially decrease the pigment density of these patches.
- Lentigines are characterized by flat, tan black, or brown spots on the skin’s surface. Also known as the liver spots or age spots, they are indicative of your age. Arbutin degrades the melanin content that has piled up over time in the shape of these spots.
- Freckles are bunches of concentrated melanin, mostly found in the fair-skinned individuals. Exposure to UV radiations affects their occurrence pattern and color intensity. Arbutin holds back melanogenesis (the process that produces the pigment melanin), decreasing freckles and fine lines.
2) Smoothens the skin tone
Arbutin works on the skin texture, calming the uneven complexion down. It brightens the skin and provides a radiant glow to it.
It also fades out the acne scars (notably, the red and purple ones), which hang around for long after those severe zits are gone.
3) Moisturises the skin to a satisfactory extent
If you have a dry and scaly skin, you can significantly benefit from arbutin’s topical use. It protects and nourishes the skin, giving you a smoother, youthful look.
4) Protects the skin against the free radical damage, induced by UV rays
Arbutin has antioxidant properties, enabling it to maintain the balance of free radicals in the body. It tends to neutralize the free radicals and helps fight the early signs of aging, such as wrinkles and full lines.
Good to Know
The free radicals can damage the DNA of the skin cells, and result in accelerated skin aging!
5) Less irritating on the skin
Arbutin releases its active component (hydroquinone) slowly into the skin, making it less irritating than the other skin-lightening ingredients.
How To Include Arbutin In Your Daily Skincare Routine?
Arbutin (mostly, alpha-arbutin) forms an active ingredient in many anti-aging and skin-lightening products. It is suitable for all the skin types, be it oily, dry, normal, combination, or even sensitive skin.
Good to know.
Facial cleansing is the first step in a good skincare routine. Before you apply any product (be it the serum, cream or moisturizer), you should clean your face to get rid of all the dirt and impurities resting on your skin’s surface.
Follow the tip mentioned above, and give your skin a proper cleanse before beginning your skincare regime.
Then, use the following products daily (except the overnight masks) in the morning and night (before applying any heavy oil). Make sure you apply sunscreen (with a moderate SPF) during the daytime, before stepping out.
1) Face creams, lotions, and toners
● In 2016, the SCCS (Europe) concluded that alpha-arbutin was safe for consumers, only if cosmetic products had it within a specific concentration. They laid out the parameters as well: 2% in face creams and 0.5% in body lotions.
● Toners are used to balance the skin’s pH level to give you a hydrated and radiant glow.
Steps to using a toner:
- Take a dime-size amount of the toner
- Put it on the palm of your hands, and gently pat onto the face
- Alternatively, you can put the toner on a cotton pad/ball and swipe it over the skin
2) Serums (water-based)
Steps to using a serum:
- Apply 3-7 drops into the palms of your hands
- Using the fingertips, pat them onto the face
- Smoothen the serum drops evenly over the entire face and neck
- Massage it gently
Some serums contain high arbutin concentrations and can also be used as spot treatments for countering the stubborn dark areas.
3) Overnight masks
A fantastic way to rejuvenate your skin and turn it soft and plump, overnight masks are a hit amongst skincare enthusiasts.
Steps to using an overnight mask:
- Dispense a generous amount, and smoothen over the entire face, including around the eyes
- Don't rinse
- Apply the mask at least once a week and as a part of the evening skincare routine
- Pamper your face with an enriching mask before hitting the bed for significant results
4) Alpha-arbutin powder (pure)
Pure arbutin comes in a powdered form. It must not be applied directly into the skin, as it is highly potent and may cause a sharp burning sensation.
Although it is safe to mix alpha-arbutin into other creams and lotions, it should never be mixed directly.
Dissolve it in water first, and make a uniform mixture. Then, you can easily use this diluted mixture with any other skincare product.
Why is it necessary for the alpha-arbutin powder to be dissolved into the water first? Because if you use the powder directly with the skincare products, it will merely sit in the product as flaky chunks of powder and will not spread evenly on your skin.
Make sure the composition of lotion/ cream you apply doesn't have more than 2% arbutin.
Always purchase pure alpha-arbutin powder from a credible source. That’s because if you get a counterfeit product, the chances are high that it would be synthetic alpha-arbutin. Take note, the synthetic forms of alpha-arbutin are dangerous, and could be carcinogenic.
Ingredients That Can Be Used In Combination With Arbutin
1) Vitamin C
It is an effective antioxidant that helps brighten the skin tone, reduce signs of aging, and fight free radical damage. Using vitamin C with arbutin can give your skin a subtle glow while evening out the skin tone. And, you can easily mix alpha arbutin with vitamin C serums. The cherry on the cake, right?
2) Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)
Niacinamide is another powerful antioxidant. Apart from improving skin elasticity, it also hydrates the skin. If used alongside alpha-arbutin, it reduces the pore size, lightens the skin, and fights blemishes.
If your primary concern is to deal with hyperpigmentation, apply the alpha-arbutin first. Then wait for a few minutes to let it absorb into your skin properly. Now, layer on niacinamide and allow it to dry.
However, if you have oily skin, start with niacinamide. Then, put arbutin. Use both the ingredients in the morning and at night.
3) Kojic Acid
Try out the Minimalist's anti-pigmentation formula, Kojic Acid 2% + Alpha arbutin 1%
It contains the most stable form of Kojic acid, Kojic Dipalmitate, and a healthy-high dose of alpha-arbutin.
It is an aloe-based product with an ultra-light texture, which enables its quick and easy absorption into the skin. It prevents the formation of melanin as well.
Side Effects Of Arbutin
Arbutin doesn't interact negatively with any of the skincare ingredients. And it is safe for all skin types as well.
Still, there may come a few odd situations wherein it may cause some adverse effects on your skin. Remember, arbutin is a natural yet derivative of hydroquinone. Under alkaline conditions, it can get hydrolyzed to form hydroquinone.
However, the skin's surface usually is acidic. So, the probability of such occurrences is relatively low.
If you have overly sensitive skin, you may suffer from redness, irritation, and occasional burning sensations. Nevertheless, such conditions are rare.
A particular strength and composition may work for some. But it may not be that good for you. To be on the safe side, always start from a lower concentration. Also, have a good look at the ingredients list.
How Long Does Arbutin Take To Show Results?
Arbutin may take an average of 1- 2 months to show the first signs of improvement. That said, your skin type plays a significant role in showing up the results. It decides the amount of time your skin might take to reduce/fade the dark spots.
Consistency is the key here.
Stick to your skincare routine every day. And you might see some good results sooner than you’d expect.
The Bottom Line
Arbutin is a miraculous ingredient that has taken over the Asian skincare market by storm, and rightly so.
It not just lightens the skin’s complexion but also fades away the dark spots and acne flares.
No sooner do you discontinue using the arbutin products than your skin reverts to its former condition. The beneficial effects of arbutin are temporary. As it merely inhibits the activity of the key enzyme, tyrosinase, and decreases melanin production. No permanent change or reaction is caused.
The excellent work that arbutin may have done to your skin might last for a few weeks. But it will gradually wear off and disappear.
Don't forget that arbutin is the safest of its kind, only because it doesn't incur significant alterations in your skin.
Now, a quick science punch at the end: Melanin is an important pigment that also protects you from the harmful UV rays. An increase in the melanin content can often be unhealthy for you as it may block various bodily (cutaneous) processes. So, you need to bring back the right balance. And not eliminate the pigment wholly.
Keep in mind not to overuse or overdose your applications, though. Doing so may lead to more troubles. And that’s something nobody’s skin wants to undergo. Isn’t it?