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Bearberry and skin lightening Alpha Arbutin

May 29, 2013 Reviewed by Marta 10 Comments

Bearberry extract turns up more and more often in skincare. This edible red berry (which is a favorite food of bears – hence the name) has long been used in herbal medicine. It contains something called arbutin, which is a natural skin brightener.

Arbutin, alpha arbutin or bearberry extract are in Dermalogica's Chromawhite and Meladerm, Arcona Instant Magic Reversal Serum ($105) and La Vie Celeste Restorative Rose Hydrosol Eye Cream ($60 in the shop). So what is bearberry extract and its arbutin component and how effective is it?

First a skin pigmentation 101. Skin color is the result of a number of different things. Haemoglobin is responsible for red and bluish tones, carotenoids for the basic yellow tinge of us Caucasians,  while brown comes from a couple of pigments that are produced in special cells called melanocytes. Lurking around in melanocytes are enzymes called tyrosinase. They get activated by UV light ultimately form melanins - we are talking freckles and age spots. This is where arbutin comes in - it works by blocking tyrosinase.

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Alpha arbutin is a glucoside and potion makers like it because it is water soluble and stable. But more importantly, it seems to work. A one-month study on 80 Chinese women, using a 1% alpha arbutin concentration, resulted in a "skin lightening effect". It was faster and more effective than kojic acid (another commonly used skin lightener) and it left hydroquinone in the shade. This is particularly good news because hydroquinone, once the most popular lightener/brightener around, is carcinogenic. It is banned from over the counter sale in the US, Europe and Japan.

Alpha arbutin, on the other hand, doesn't appear to have any nasty side effects. However, it is still a form of hydroquinone and questions about its long term safety hang in the air. Anecdotally, it is much less irritating to the skin than hydroquinone at similar or even greater doses.

As well as bearberry, a few other plants harbor arbutin. One is dockweed (a plant that most kids know as an emergency cure for nettle rash). Bearberry is especially interesting because it has sun protection properties and may reduce the degree of skin tanning after sun exposure.

See our Five Best for Glowing Skin and our Five Best for Dark Spots

Ingredients in Restore: Reverse osmosis water, ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate (vitamin c), alpha arbutin, ppg5 ceteth-20, vitamin B5, dimethyl isosorbide, niacin, spin trap (phenyl butyl nitrone), vitamin e, c10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, sodium hyaluronate, polysorbate-20, Lipochroman-6 (dimethylmethoxy chromanol), triethanolamine, paraben du

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  • August 17, 2016

    by cheryl

    Bearberry (arbutin) is a glycosylated hydroquinone. So yes, it is still hydroquinone. You cannot mix vitamin c with Niacinamide because they cancel out the effects of each other. It has nothing to do with the solubilities of the products..

  • October 2, 2015

    by Supriya

    Is there any cream which really effective for fairness....??

  • July 1, 2009

    by JulieK

    If the new formulation works better than the old- it will be a wonderful product! I have used almost an entire sample size Restore (in my nighttime routine) and it has become the cornerstone. I adore it.

  • June 30, 2009

    by marta

    I'm not sure about before/afters. I never believe them when I see them. But I know what you mean and we should think about doing them for products tested over many months.

  • June 30, 2009

    by Cristina

    Thank you, Marta and you are right, the YBF people ARE very nice!

    I think I long as both are not water soluble, they can be in the same mix. Very interesting...

    Thanks for all the work you do-your site rocks.

  • June 30, 2009

    by marta

    Hi Cristina
    Here's what the nice people at YBF have to say:

    There may be some negative play between niacin and traditional vitamin C (ascorbic acid) both being water soluble. It's like two alpha kids in the same sandbox not getting along. In our line, the vitamin C we use is oil soluble, so when partnered with niacin there is synergy between the two. Niacin actually helps to speed the brightening process by reducing inflammation, partnering with the other water soluble ingredients such as B5 and Alpha Arbutin. It also helps regulate the skin from becoming too oily or breakout prone.

    I hope that clears it up.

  • June 29, 2009

    by Cristina

    Hi Marta,

    My question is about combining vitamin C and Niacin.
    I read somewhere (maybe skingeek?) that the vit c makes the niacin inactive.
    (I was hoping to add niacinamide to the vit c serum I'm concocting with the free pot you offered but can't find out if it would work or not).
    I love the YBF eye cream and have to assume by how well it works that they know what they are doing....would love to hear your insight.


  • June 29, 2009

    by Arandjel

    Also, the first paragraph, where provitamin B5 is initially mentioned, needs to be corrected.

    Will you be reviewing the reformulated product? Would love to read your experiences with it.

    Speaking of which, I think it would be greatly appreciated to have before and after shots accompany the reviews here. It would make them less subjective, letting the readers judge the results by themselves.

  • June 29, 2009

    by marta

    My mistake. I put up the old ingredients list. The new one is now up.

  • June 29, 2009

    by Arandjel

    Dear Marta,

    Perhaps I am being nitpicky here, since it must be a typo, but provitamin B5 is pantothenic acid - not niacin (which, as you know, is vitamin B3). Judging by the ingredients list, its seems to be, at least on paper, a promising product. Not quite sure what justifies the hefty price tag, though...


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