Touted as a ‘safe and less toxic’ alternative to hydroquinone, arbutin is currently one of the most commonly found and widely used skin lightening ingredients. In contrast to hydroquinone, an ingredient fraught with controversy, arbutin remains in relatively good standing among consumers and dermatologists despite there being concerns over its safety and efficacy. So what is it about arbutin that makes it safer and less ‘toxic’ than hydroquinone? What are the differences between the two? In this post, I will shed light on these commonly asked questions and hopefully clarify some of the concerns over arbutin and its connection to hydroquinone.
What is arbutin?
Arbutin is a glucoside of hydroquinone, or in other words, hydroquinone with a sugar molecule attached. It is naturally occurring and derived from various plant species such as bearberry, blueberry, and cranberry. In skincare, it’s primary use is as a skin lightening ingredient however it holds potent antioxidant properties as well.
How does it work?
When applied to the skin, arbutin lightens skin in two ways: one it inhibits the pigment producing enzyme tyrosinase competitively. And two, it inhibits melaonsome maturation, which interrupts the key step of transferring melanocytes to keratinocytes.
There are two synthetic forms of arbutin known as alpha arbutin and deoxyarbutin which have been shown in studies to be more effective than arbutin at inhibiting tyrosinase. Both of these forms induce a reversible skin lightening effect similar to arbutin.
Does arbutin carry the same risks as hydroquinone?
Although arbutin consists of hydroquinone connected to glucoside, it does not carry the same risks as hydroquinone does. The reason is because the concentrations used in skincare products (typically 1% to 7%) do not allow for these negative effects to take place, even when used long-term. Arbutin works by gradually releasing hydroquinone through hydrolysis, which appears to produce significantly fewer side effects (i.e. mottled, uneven pigmentation due to cytotoxicity of melanocytes, development of ochronosis) than hydroquinone at concentrations of 1% to 4%. Furthermore hydroquinone is a phenolic compound that is known to irritate the skin whereas arbutin is considered a non-phenolic compound that is more tolerable to sensitive skin types.
The downside to using arbutin at concentrations typically found in skincare products is that is less efficacious than hydroquinone at lightening the skin. Still, the use of arbutin remains advantageous since it can be used long-term while hydroquinonone cannot.
Despite the similarities between arbutin and hydroquinone, arbutin poses a less problematic alternative for skin lightening due to its slower release and concentration used within skincare products, which mitigates many of the issues found with low strength hydroquinone such as cytotoxicity and irritation.