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What does Alpha Arbutin do to skin and is it safe?

If you’ve seen Alpha Arbutin listed on skincare products, there’s a good chance that the first few questions that popped up was “What is Alpha Arbutin?” or “What does Alpha Arbutin do to the skin and is it safe to use for skincare?“.

Well simply, Alpha Arbutin is a skincare ingredient that helps lighten dark spots and hyperpigmentation. In fact, Alpha Arbutin:

… is one of the most widely prescribed skin-lightening and de-pigmenting agent worldwide.

Sarkar, Arora, Gang, 2013
The Ordinary Skincare Products Using Alpha Arbutin 2%
Alpha Arbutin 2% used in The Ordinary skincare products.

Although this skincare ingredient is very popular, there are a few things to be aware of before adding skincare products containing Alpha Arbutin to your skincare routine!

What is Alpha Arbutin and how exactly does it lighten skin and help with hyperpigmentation?

Despite being a popular skincare ingredient, Alpha Arbutin isn’t as common as Vitamin-C or Retinol.

However, there’s a good chance that you’re receiving small amounts of Alpha Arbutin through your food.

Yes, really!

These foods naturally contain Alpha Arbutin in very low concentrations[1]:

  • Wheat
  • Pear skins
  • Blueberries
  • Apples
  • Cranberries
berries in a bowl

Some skincare products even use extracts from the bearberry fruit because it has such a high concentration of Alpha Arbutin!

Even though Alpha Arbutin can be sourced naturally, this skincare ingredient is actually effective when it comes to lightening skin pigmentation because Alpha Arbutin interrupts the formation of melanin, which is the dark pigments in skin![1]

Without new melanin replacing the old, dark spots eventually become lighter over time.

In fact, scientists found when using Alpha Arbutin, “melanin synthesis was reduced to 40%…[2].

Hyperpigmentation Dark Spot on facial skin Before Using Caudalie Vinoperfect Radiance Serum
Dark spots and hyperpigmentation is commonly caused by sun exposure and pregnancy.

However, it’s important to recognize that this method of de-pigmentation is almost identical to Hydroquinone, another skincare ingredient that:

…is considered the gold standard for the treatment of hyperpigmentation.

Sarkar, Arora, Gang, 2013

This similarity isn’t a coincidence.

woman applying cream on hand

Simply put, Alpha Arbutin is just another form of Hydroquinone!
A glycosylated hydroquinone.

Too bad Hydroquinone is currently banned in EU, Japan and Australia and was almost banned in the U.S. in 2006.[6]


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Is Alpha Arbutin safe to use on the skin?

This is a seriously common question when talking about Alpha Arbutin.

And for a good reason!

The main issue with Alpha Arbutin is that it eventually breaks down to become Hydroquinone.

Currently, scientists are conducting long-term studies to answer this very question. However, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety:

…considers the use of α-Arbutin safe for consumers in cosmetic products in a concentration up to 2% in face creams and up to 0.5% in body lotions.

SCCS & Degen, 2016

Also, scientific research found that Alpha Arbutin is actually “less cytotoxic to melanocytes than hydroquinone.”[1]

Woman holding pregnant belly

Regardless, a few safety precautions should be taken when using Alpha Arbutin:

  • Pregnant women might want to avoid using Alpha Arbutin to prevent possible Hydroquinone being transferred to the baby.
  • Be mindful in sunlight!
    Remember, Alpha Arbutin interrupts the skins Melanin production so it could leave the skin more sensitive to the sun and UV damage!


The Ordinary Ascorbic Acid 8% + Alpha Arbutin 2% Bottle

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The future of Alpha Arbutin in skincare.

In summary, although Alpha Arbutin isn’t as popular as other skincare ingredients like Vitamin-C, Niacinamide or Retinol, this might soon change!

There is already progress in creating a new form of Alpha Arbutin, one that is much more effective in skin lightening.[1][5]

The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin 2% Bottles

Combine this with new and improved micelle delivery technology[4], don’t be surprised to see more skincare products include Alpha Arbutin as its key skincare ingredient!


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  1. Sarkar, R., Arora, P., Gang, K. (2013). Cosmeceuticals for Hyperpigmentation: What is Available?
  2. Sugimoto, K., Nishimura, T., Nomura, K., Sugimoto, K., Kuriki, T. (2004). Inhibitory effects of alpha-arbutin on melanin synthesis in cultured human melanoma cells and a three-dimensional human skin model.
  3. SCCS. Degen, G. (2016). Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Consumer safety (SCCS) — Opinion on the safety of the use of α-arbutin in cosmetic products.
  4. Liang, K., Xu, K., Bessarab, D., Obaje, J., Xu, C. (2016). Arbutin encapsulated micelles improved transdermal delivery and suppression of cellular melanin production.
  5. Bandyopadhyay, D. (2009). Topical treatment of Melasma.
  6. Schwartz, C., Jan, A., Zito, P. (2020). Hydroquinone