Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Aheli Sen (Fashion & Beauty Expert)  on 19th Dec 2020

Alpha Arbutin – What is it and How Does it Benefit Skin?

What is Alpha Arbutin?

What is Alpha Arbutin? 

Arbutin is hydroquinone glycoside obtained from various plants like a strawberry tree, bearberry, heather, huckleberry, etc. The percentage of arbutin found in each of the mentioned plants differs concerning the species, the time when the component has been collected, and the plants' growing environment. The plant with the highest concentration of arbutin is a small shrub found in Africa called the Myrothamnus flabellifolia. It has a concentration of 27% of the plant's dry weight of arbutin.

However, it is bearberry that is the most used plant and most sourced plant for deriving arbutin in the skincare industry. It is mainly used in products meant to lighten skin. It is often compared to hydroquinone (the main agent from which arbutin is derived) and is, for most parts, found to be safer and less toxic than hydroquinone.

Alpha arbutin is usually a natural plant derivative. However, it can be prepared synthetically. In an alkali, acetobromoglucose and hydroquinone are made to react to form the synthetic form of alpha arbutin. The powdered form of alpha arbutin is the purest.

Arbutin is found in two different formats; alpha arbutin and beta arbutin. It is often confusing to realize what the difference could be given that they both are arbutin. So here is the difference:

1. Alpha Arbutin – more water-soluble and has a higher heat resistance; it has better light-stability properties than beta arbutin.

2. Beta Arbutin – the only thing that this format is better in is the price format as it is cheaper than alpha arbutin. The reasons are quite obvious, but to mainly highlight the same would be that alpha-arbutin is better at performance than beta arbutin. Thus, it is used in the skincare industry more than its counterpart, making beta arbutin lose market importance and price. 

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So how does alpha-arbutin help lighten the skin? 

The color of one's skin depends on the amount of melanin that it contains. It is stimulated by tyrosinase, an enzyme present in the skin cells. Tyrosinase is activated when the UV rays of the sun come in contact with the skin. It is alpha arbutin that blocks the tyrosinase to get active when the skin comes in contact with the UV rays. Alpha arbutin slows down the pigmentation process caused by UV rays, which helps skin keep the tan and dark spots away.

This is how alpha-arbutin works to help in lightening the skin.

While other skin lightening agents are quite harsh on the skin, alpha arbutin is relatively mild and gentle to the skin. It does not irritate the skin to the extent that other skin lightening agents do.

The effect of brightening the skin through alpha-arbutin usage is the strongest when used in its cream formulation. Polyacrylate is used as the base for creams' production, and the process is carried out in cold, controlled temperatures.

When used in concentrations ranging between 2 and 6 percent, alpha-arbutin in creams have a stable format. The color, the consistency, the smell remain quite consistent. However, it is the PH and the viscosity that decreases when stored for long. The minimum storage time of creams with alpha arbutin is 12 months, which is good enough to store your facial creams. Also, creams produced using 6% polyacrylate as the base have better stability physically.

Another important question that comes to mind for using any ingredient that we are just learning about is who could use the same. Many different skin types and conditions of the body do not allow just about any ingredient to be applied topically or consumed orally. 

So, who could use Alpha Arbutin and in what concentration?

The answer to that is anyone and all. It is safe to use alpha-arbutin to treat skin pigmentation by people of any age and skin type. It is safe for topical use up to a percentage of 2 in skincare.

The concentration in which one can use a powdered form of alpha arbutin depends, however. A dermatologist would recommend a percentage above 2% usually; alpha-arbutin being highly soluble in water, it is easily incorporated into skincare in its water phase. In exfoliants, it is always used at a percentage ranging between 1 and 2.

However, as recommended always, a patch test is a must before the usage of alpha-arbutin too. 

So how many times and in what ways can alpha-arbutin be used?

The ingredient can be used twice daily. For better and more effective results, it is recommended to be used with creams, lotions, sunscreen, serums, masks, and facial cleansers. It helps reduce melanin production of melanin and thus, allows the skin to brighten.

It is also suggested to use alpha-arbutin alongside products enriched with vitamin C, AHA (an exfoliating agent that helps peel away dead skin cells; it is considered one of the best chemical peels for the skin). Alpha arbutin should also be scheduled to be applied to the skin before moisturization for better absorption and better results.

Consistency of usage is what will yield you results; always remember this for any form of skincare. It takes a month or more to typically show results. 

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What are the benefits of using Alpha Arbutin on the skin? 

  • Reduction of pigmentation - Alpha arbutin stops tyrosinase from becoming active under the UV rays' influence that helps skin limit melanin production. This means lesser pigmentation and achievement of a better, more even skin tone. It also helps get rid of pigmentation from aging, acne, redness, and preventing the same. It also is found to be beneficial in fighting melasma. 
  • Brightening skin – Through the reduction of melanin production, alpha arbutin helps brighten skin. 
  • Evens out skin tone – By reduction of melanin production, alpha arbutin evens out the appearance of skin tone. It helps diminish sun spots and patchy discoloration. 
  • Substitute of hydroquinone – Alpha arbutin is a safer, less toxic substitute of hydroquinone. Alpha arbutin only stops melanin production, whereas hydroquinone kills the cells responsible for the production of melanin. 
  • Gentle on the skin – Unlike other skin brighteners, alpha arbutin irritates the skin the least. It also does not dry the skin out. Now, why does this happen? Because the active components of alpha arbutin are released slowly and steadily into the skin, unlike other agents. 

What could be the side effects of using alpha-arbutin on the skin? 

Alpha arbutin very rarely causes any skin to stir. It usually suits people with any skin type and of any age. It has also been found to be safe to use when used to the extent of its concentration percentage being 3 to 4.

However, if alpha-arbutin turns into its main agent under alkaline conditions, hydroquinone will exhibit side effects from hydroquinone usage.

The mild side effects of alpha arbutin include mild acne, very light inflammation of the skin from allergies, sensitivity from the sun, and irritation. 

Wrapping Up 

One of the safest skin lightening agents, alpha arbutin is an extremely effective ingredient that works amazingly for all skin types and people of all ages. It is extremely effective in treating not only tanning or pigmentation but also dark spots and age spots. 

It is important to understand that it takes time for the ingredient to show results after continuous usage for 4 to 5 weeks.

And as always, the suggestion is to visit the dermatologist to help understand if the ingredient would work for you or not as the first step.