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Gentle Doesn’t Mean Weak: Arbutin

Arbutin's gentle character is appropriate for all skin types, even sensitive, and its key benefit isn’t just lack of irritation; it’s its no known negative interactions.

By Thea ∙ May 11, 2020

For many years, and until quite recently, hydroquinone was considered the go-to skin-lightening ingredient. Personally, after I delivered my first baby in 2013 and developed melasma on my forehead, my (totally legitimate, well-known) NYC dermatologist prescription hydroquinone as a spot treatment. I never got a chance to see if the product would work for me, as within 3-4 days of use I developed what can best be described as a swollen ‘welt’ on top of the pigmented area, which was worse than the original problem. I stopped use immediately, and then heard soon thereafter that it had been classified a carcinogenic by the FDA. (Perfect for nursing, I’m sure. Seriously?!) Anyway, hydroquinone was the gold standard for MDs -- and patients with less sensitive skin -- because it worked by killing the cells that produce pigmentation and melanin.

Alpha Arbutin is now the rising star for skin brightening, but it works by way of a different mechanism: it inhibits the enzymes that stimulate pigment-producing cells. A rare and expensive ingredient, as it has to be extracted from the bearberry plant (who thinks of these extractions?), arbutin is similar to kojic acid (from mushrooms) and licorice root, both tyrosinase inhibitors as well. But arbutin gains the upper hand because of an unexpected benefit: gentleness. We know, we know, this word does not connote ‘efficacy’ in skincare, since we all want overnight results. But when it comes to brightening, everyday use is the name of the game, and arbutin is an ingredient that checks this box for everyone, even at significant percentages within formulas.

Moreover, arbutin can not only be used daily, but twice daily. Its gentle character is appropriate for all skin types, even sensitive, and its key benefit isn’t just lack of irritation; it’s its no known negative interactions. You can safely use it with other beloved ingredients in your regimen, which isn’t the case with all the alternatives. So continue treating blemishes with your favorite beta hydroxy acid and even retinol, while also achieving the luminosity you want. Now you don’t have to pick a lane for skincare goals.

Within the industry, most topical products formulated with arbutin are intended for after-the-fact use, like a brightening ‘band-aid’ to fix problems. Masks, drops, and spot treatments line shelves to address age spots, sun damage, and acne scars, and although we contend that ~90% of topicals never absorb, these formulas have some merit. But at Droplette, we like the idea of both pre- and post-exposure treatment at dermatologist levels of delivery. If you microinfuse arbutin into your skin every morning with our brightening capsule via our device, you are effectively ‘shielding’ your skin from skin darkening after time in the sun or breakouts (although we think we can help reduce the frequency of the latter too.) Arbutin is already a star extraction, but Droplette is poised to establish the true potential of this brightening ingredient and to show why gentler isn’t code language for weaker.