Facts on Alpha-Arbutin

Updated February 21, 2017

Hydroquinone and d-kojic acid are two medications doctors prescribe for patients desiring a brighter, lighter skin colour or to remove brown age spots; however the over-the-counter product Alpha-Arbutin, marketed as an alternative to prescribed medications, is a less expensive choice. Alpha-Arbutin acts quickly in lightening the skin and reduces the tanning that occurs after the exposure to ultraviolet rays. Alpha-Arbutin works by inhibiting the body's production of tyrosinase, an enzyme that produces the melanin that causes suntan.


Alpha-Arbutin is a synthetic compound derived from natural plant sources. It is a water-soluble, white powder that remains stable in a pH range between 3.5 to 6.5. According to Lotion Crafters, a company offering skin care products, a 1 per cent solution in clinical tests resulted in faster and better skin lightening after testing against other products for one month. Epidermal melanin biosynthesis, the effects of melanin on the skin, is blocked by Alpha-Arbutin; it reportedly works best when used for a period of two to three months.


One of the prime sources for Alpha-Arbutin is a small evergreen bush called the Bearberry. Bearberry grows over most or the Northern hemisphere and is most often found in mountainous areas. Bearberry is found in the continental United States as far south as Wisconsin and New Jersey. The substance also comes from a common Canadian weed called dockweed.


Many commercial products that contain Alpha-Arbutin are sold to reduce brown age spots, lighten the skin, and reduce erythema, a reddening of the skin. Alpha-Arbutin is sold in creams, lotions and serums and is marketed as a whitening cream, a body lotion that fights age spots, fade away cream, an illuminating and brightening cream, and a body bleaching lotion. At least one company sells a make-up foundation containing Alpha-Arbutin and markets it as an ageless skin foundation.


Although there is no compatibility problem using other skin-lightening products with Alpha-Arbutin, there is really no scientific reason to mix other products with Alpha-Arbutin. Hydroquinone works so similarly to Alpha-Arbutin that using both products at the same time may result in an interaction or a problem with absorption.


Some people who have used the skin-lightening medication hydroquinone have experienced increased pigmentation of the skin. As a result, in South Africa hydroquinone's sales have been banned and some European countries have also stopped its sales. However, Alpha Albutin, which suppresses unwanted pigmentation rather than killing pigment-producing cells, is currently sold as an alternative.

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About the Author

Peggy Epstein is a freelance writer specializing in education and parenting. She has authored two books, "Great Ideas for Grandkids" and "Family Writes," and published more than 100 articles for various print and online publications. Epstein is also a former public school teacher with 25 years' experience. She received a Master of Arts in curriculum and instruction from the University of Missouri.