Welcome to our series "Buzzy Beauty Ingredient of the Moment," the premise of which is pretty self-explanatory: In each installment, we'll explore an ingredient that's currently trending in the industry, springing up in a variety of different products lining the beauty aisle. We'll consult experts to find out about the science behind it — and why it's having a major moment right now.
No matter your skin type or your age, there's one complexion annoyance that tends not to discriminate: dark spots. Whether the result of a bit too much time spent in the sun or the unwelcome, lingering reminder of breakouts past, hyperpigmentation can be one of the most difficult skin concerns to correct. It takes time. It takes patience. And it takes the right ingredients. Vitamin C and hydroquinone are most often regarded as the go-to brightening agents in skin-care treatments. But recently, the dermatological world has turned to another dark spot obliterator: Arbutin (also often referred to on ingredient lists as "Alpha-Arbutin"). Allow us to introduce you to the complexion-brightening miracle worker that you're going to want to work it into your skin-care routine ASAP.
"Arbutin is an extract from the bearberry plant that has skin-brightening properties," explains Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. "It interferes with activity of an enzyme called tyrosinase, which is needed to produce melanin or pigment in the skin." For this reason, it's most commonly used in lotions, serums and treatments intended to lighten dark sun spots and brighten the overall complexion.
"Arbutin is commonly paired with other skin brighteners like kojic acid, vitamin C or niacinamide. They all work on the same pathway leading to pigmentation and have a greater effect when paired together," says Dr. Zeichner. He recommends that patients use it both day and night, adding that it can be easily incorporated into your existing skin-care routine, and can even be combined with retinol.
According to the Paula's Choice ingredient directory, arbutin "also has merit for improving the appearance of dark spots due to unprotected sun exposure or bodily changes such as can occur during pregnancy or due to other factors." Dr. Zeichner notes that it's commonly used as an alternative to the skin-bleaching cream hydroquinone, which not only can't be used on dark skin tones, but also has been called into question for safety reasons (it's banned in Europe, Australia and Japan). Paula's Choice explains that arbutin is an ideal ingredient "for those whose skin may be unable to tolerate this lightening ingredient in much the same way that some people's skin can tolerate cosmetic retinol but not retinoids from the pharmacy."
The ingredient isn't totally without its own risks, though. "Arbutin may cause skin irritation. If you develop any redness, burning or stinging, hold off and use it every other day," advises Dr. Zeichner. And sunscreen becomes even more important: Not only is it a "must" if you're attempting to brighten your complexion and fade dark spots, but according to Dr. Zeichner, "UV light stimulates pigment production, and even small exposures can undo the benefits you may have gotten from the brightening cream."
Like any other part of your skin-care routine worth sticking to, it takes a little while for arbutin to do its thing. "Skin brightening does not occur over night," says Dr. Zeichner. "Results take weeks to months to start to kick in, so you must be patient and stick to your regimen."
In the gallery below, we've rounded up 17 must-know skin saviors that feature this potent brightening agent — all of which you can shop right this very moment.