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Allow us to introduce you to arbutin, the secret skin brightener you’ve never heard of. Vitamin C, kojic acid, licorice are all great natural brighteners, but there are a couple reasons why arbutin kicks them to the curb. We spoke with dermatologist Dr. Michael Lin and asked him to give us the 411. Keep scrolling to find out why this ingredient might just change your skin!
What Is It?
“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.
But let’s back up—what’s tyrosinase? 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’re frolicking in the sun too long. That’s when arbutin comes in—it blocks tyrosinase and keeps dark spots at bay.
Why It’s Special
Why arbutin is so special? It’s gentler than other skin-brightening ingredients. “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. Plus, the bearberry plant actually has sun protection properties and can reduce the degree of skin darkening after sun exposure.
If you’re suddenly thinking of another skin-brightening ingredient that was all the rage, hydroquinone, we don’t blame you. For a while, hydroquinone was the “miracle” skin-lightening ingredient—until it was declared a carcinogenic by the FDA. Yikes. But rest assured: While hydroquinone works by killing the cells that produce pigmentation and melanin, arbutin inhibits the enzymes that stimulate pigment-producing cells.
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,” Dr. 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 ($22), to lighten dark spots that can linger after acne fades.
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