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What is Arbutin – Skin Benefits and Side Effects

What is Arbutin

Hyperpigmentation and an uneven skin tone can do much more than develop a need for heavier makeup. It can affect a person’s overall confidence and result in a reduced quality of one’s social life. Skin lightening can potentially solve this problem.

In this area, not many ingredients come close to the efficiency and security offered by arbutin. This powerful agent contains almost everything you need to safely reduce hyperpigmentation and dryness.

Table of Contents

What Is Arbutin?

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.


The Need to Lighten

Before we even get to the specifics of how arbutin works, we need to answer the question: Why do we need to lighten our skin?


For those with already pale skin who live in countries that revere a healthy tan, this might not make sense at all. However, those older or have aging skin can immediately see the benefits of skin lightening.

As we grow older, we suffer from hyperpigmentation caused by aging. Liver spots, for example, are indicative of old age. If we live long enough, they bite us sooner or later.

Hormonal changes also contribute to uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation. The so-called pregnancy mask or melasma can occur because of a change in hormone production, although too much sun exposure is also another cause.

Anyone can have skin discoloration, but there are certain races who are more prone to them: Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indian. Even those with dark skin can still benefit from Arbutin’s ability to even out skin tone.

Often, these hyperpigmentations are benign. From a medical perspective, we don’t need to worry about them. However, we cannot close our eyes completely to their psychological effects.

An uneven skin tone, dark spots, or acne scars can be a cause of low self-esteem. This is why many ways to lighten skin are continuously being developed to address these problems.

How Arbutin Works

Being a derivative of hydroquinone, arbutin works in a similar manner when it comes to skin lightening. In order to understand how arbutin works, we should first examine what causes hyperpigmentation in the first place.

Our skin color is dependent on the amount of melanin on our skin. The more melanin we have, the darker the skin tone we get.

Melanin is produced by melanocytes. These cells contain an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is primarily responsible for skin darkening. Tyrosinase is activated every time your skin comes in contact with UV light.

While melanin is important to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful rays, too much exposure in certain areas can lead to unevenness. This is what causes hyperpigmentation.

Arbutin works by inhibiting tyrosinase activity, which results in reduced production of melanin. When this happens, the skin becomes lighter and more even.

How to Use Arbutin for Lightening

Because arbutin is well-known for its lightening effects, it has been used in different skin care products. You can find it in serums, creams, lotions, and many other forms. The use of arbutin-containing products depends on the nature of these products.

Serums are concentrated agents that target specific skin problems. They are often applied only to problem areas. 

Arbutin lotions are also common. Lotions are commonly used to even out a larger skin area. Creams work the same way.

You can even mix this ingredient into homemade skin whitening formulas. It’s that powerful!

A toner with Arbutin is also effective for brightening your face. Since you apply it right after cleansing, it’ll be easily absorbed by your skin. 

Arbutin is generally safe enough for 2x daily use. You can add arbutin-containing skin care products to your morning and night routines.

When to Expect Results

On average, you can see the results of arbutin within the first four weeks of use. Of course, your skin type is a factor in determining how fast your skin will lighten.

Continued use of arbutin-containing products will result in more even and lighter skin. However, you have to note that when you stop using these products, your skin is most likely to revert back to its previous condition.

Basically, the whitening effect of arbutin is not permanent. This is because it merely inhibits the tyrosinase activity. The lightening effect may continue for a few weeks after discontinuation, but will ultimately disappear over time. Whitening creams have a longer-lasting effect.

Alpha and Beta Arbutin

Alpha and Beta Arbutin

There are two kinds of arbutin–alpha and beta. Between the two, the former is more expensive to manufacture but is more effective.

Alpha Arbutin

Alpha arbutin (4-hydroxyphenyl α-glucopyranoside) is the purest form of arbutin available. It is also soluble in water, making it easier for the skin to absorb.

Here’s something to note about products that contain alpha arbutin. They are generally expensive because of high manufacturing costs. So if you see a cheap product that claims to contain this ingredient, you may want to think twice.

Products with alpha arbutin are very effective in skin lightening. With the right concentration, the presence of this agent can greatly benefit those who suffer from hyperpigmentation.

Beta Arbutin

The other kind of arbutin is the beta class. This is cheaper to produce compared to its alpha equivalent and is not as effective. It still produces fairly significant effects though.

If the ingredients list of a skin care product does not mention alpha, it’s safe to say it’s beta arbutin. 

Arbutin vs. Hydroquinone

While arbutin is a safer lightening agent, hydroquinone is more popular. 

Both arbutin and hydroquinone work by lessening melanin production by melanocytes, but they differ in that the former inhibits only tyrosinase activity. Hydroquinone, on the other hand, exhibits a fatal reaction to melanocytes.

In a 2013 study by Inoue, et al., hydroquinone was able to downregulate the early stage of differentiation in melanocytes. Arbutin, on the other hand, only suppressed melanogenesis by inhibiting tyrosinase expression.

Hydroquinone received bad rap before due its harmful effects especially for pregnant women. It was found later the damage was because of mercury presence in the product. Even with that report, hydroquinone is still banned in some countries.

While it is an effective whitening agent, hydroquinone exhibits toxicity towards melanocytes, creating an adverse effect on other proteins. There are also fears it is carcinogenic.

In general, hydroquinone is more effective than arbutin when it comes to whitening, but its potency poses more risks. This is why many products containing hydroquinone require a prescription before they are dispensed.

It’s best to stick to the safer arbutin when it comes to choosing between the two. However, when you have very stubborn dark spots and other hyperpigmentation issues, it may be time to look towards the power of hydroquinone. Just make sure you consult a dermatologist in the process.

Arbutin vs. Kojic Acid

Another popular lightening agent in skin care products is kojic acid. This ingredient is common in a variety of Asian whitening products.

Kojic acid is created from mushroom, rice, soy, and other selected grains that are cultured and prepared under humid conditions.

In terms of whitening power, kojic acid is generally more powerful than arbutin. In fact, you only need a low concentration for it to be effective. This concentration allows kojic acid to be available over the counter.

However, it is quite unstable when manufactured into skin care products. Kojic acid easily breaks down and becomes less effective over time.

Also, make sure you go for kojic acid, not kojic acid dipalmitate. The latter is more stable, but is not as powerful. Given that kojic acid loses its effect as time goes by, it’s better to go for the more stable option.

Why Choose Arbutin?

Why Choose

There are many more potent skin lightening agents out there, but arbutin carries qualities that are unique to it.

It does not pose as much risk compared to hydroquinone. Overall, arbutin is safer compared to other whitening ingredients. You can use it safely along with other skin care products.

There are of course some people whose skin doesn’t react well to arbutin, but these cases are rare. In general, arbutin will lighten the skin without any issues. Arbutin can be used for any skin type, so it works well even for those with sensitive skin.

Because it does not make the skin more sensitive to sunlight, it’s safe to use in tropical countries. 


Arbutin Side Effects

While generally safe to use for all skin types, there are still rare cases where arbutin can cause adverse reactions.

This can be better understood if you remember that arbutin is a hydroquinone derivative. Under alkaline conditions, arbutin can be converted to hydroquinone.

However, the skin’s surface is normally acidic, so there’s little chance for this to happen.

Those with overly sensitive skin may suffer from redness and irritation but again, these are rare cases.

The concentration also matters. If you find yourself reacting poorly to arbutin-containing products, consider something less concentrated to allow your skin to adjust.

It’s also good to note that heat can lessen the effectiveness of arbutin. So if you have serums or creams containing this ingredient, keep them away from direct sunlight and hot areas.

Things to Do Before Using Lightening Products

Skin lightening is a process that may be dangerous if not done correctly. Because the process consists of inhibiting enzyme activity, too much can do more harm than good.

It’s important to remember that melanin protects the skin from sun damage. So you don’t want to eliminate it completely.

It’s better to consult a dermatologist first before undergoing an intense whitening process, especially if you have aging skin.

A lot of lightening ingredients bring risks which could be avoided with proper precaution.




Skin lightening can have many benefits apart from fairer complexion. 

Hyperpigmentation and unevenness can affect a person’s self-esteem. These problems can be remedied with skin lightening products, especially those that contain arbutin.

Arbutin is one of the safest lightening agents today. 

It works well for all skin types and does not have many risks compared to other whitening ingredients. This makes it an effective solution for skin problems concerning dark spots and melanin overproduction.


July 15, 2021 – Updated internal links, updated external links, removed affiliate links, removed author box

Paola Diaz
Paola Diaz

Hi, I'm Paola! A skin care enthusiast and nature lover. Creating content that promotes proper skin treatment and keeping a healthy glow is my way of sharing with the world how healthy skin can go a long way. I’m a firm believer of natural beauty that radiates inside all of us. All we need is the right kind of nourishment that inspires our wellness from inside out. So it’s really not about physical beauty alone – it’s the beautiful life we can create for ourselves when we connect with our own nature and see there is beauty that shines from every one of us.