Alpha Arbutin vs Azelaic Acid: Know the Difference and What’s Right for You

Alpha arbutin and azelaic acid have recently gained attention as potent skin lighteners. Today you find them in lots of topical treatments for hyperpigmentation, either alone or combined with other active ingredients. In this article, we will discuss the difference between azelaic acid and alpha arbutin. You will learn how both can be used on the skin as well as their possible side effects. 

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What is Alpha Arbutin?

Alpha arbutin is a naturally occurring derivative of hydroquinone obtained from plants such as bearberry, cranberry, and blueberry plants. It also exists in a synthetic form called deoxy-arbutin. It is used in skincare to treat hyperpigmentation by preventing the formation of melanin in the skin.

This molecule is considered a tyrosinase inhibitor because it has a similar molecular structure to tyrosine (an amino acid which bonds with tyrosinase to trigger melanin formation).

When absorbed by the skin, alpha arbutin replaces tyrosine, binds to tyrosinase, and blocks its action. That’s how it reduces the formation of melanin.

Alpha arbutin should not be confused with beta-arbutin, which is a cheaper and unstable version.


  • Alpha arbutin is an effective treatment for several pigmentary disorders like brown spots, sunburns, melasma.
  • It is gentle on the skin and has a similar lightening effect as hydroquinone but without its irritating effects.
  • It improves skin tone – its skin lightening effects helps get rid of dark spots for a more uniform complexion.
  • It is safe to use for all skin types and can be used in combination with other skin brightening ingredients like retinoids and exfoliating acids.

What is Azelaic acid?

Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring skin care ingredient used to treat hyperpigmentation and acne. It is derived from plants such as wheat, barley, and rye and acts as a competitive tyrosinase inhibitor to prevent the formation of melanin in the skin. Its particularity is that it selectively works on over pigmented parts of the skin (abnormal melanocytes) and has little effects on normal skin, freckles, nevi, and senile lentigines.


Alpha arbutin vs Azelaic acid: Side effects

Although both of these products are commonly presented as two effective and safer alternatives to hydroquinone in treating hyperpigmentation, they have a few side effects that should be noted.

Side effects of alpha arbutin

The main side effect of alpha-arbutin is that when used in high concentrations, it may cause what is called paradoxical hyperpigmentation. Meaning that high concentrations of alpha-arbutin can cause hyperpigmentation.

This study highlights that although at 3% alpha-arbutin may cause depigmentation, a high dosage may cause hyperpigmentation.

Hypersensitivity to alpha-arbutin can also occur. This will manifest in the form of irritation, mild skin breakouts, sensitivity to sun or sunburns, and redness.

Side effects of azelaic acid

Azelaic acid can slightly increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun because of its mild exfoliating properties. It is therefore important to wear your sunscreen after applying azelaic acid during the day.

Although rare, azelaic acid may also cause hypersensitivity in some people. This may result in dry skin dryness, mild irritations, and redness.

Can you use alpha arbutin and azelaic acid together?

It is totally safe to use alpha-arbutin and azelaic acid in the same routine. To date, there is no scientific evidence that indicates a negative reaction between alpha-arbutin and other skincare ingredients.

However, azelaic acid does not pair well with certain ingredients like salicylic acid (BHAs) and alpha-arbutin is heat sensitive.

How to use alpha-arbutin and azelaic acid

Both ingredients can be used twice daily, morning and night in the same routine. Apply your alpha-arbutin product after toner (and exfoliant), layer your azelaic acid product, and then follow with a moisturizer.

Is alpha arbutin or azelaic acid better for pigmentation?

Based on currently available studies, azelaic acid is presented as a better option to correct hyperpigmentation.

In a 2013 clinical study of different melasma treatments on 160 participants, a 20% azelaic acid cream was found to be more effective than a 5% arbutin + 0.5% Glabridrin cream as well as a 5% arbutin+ 10% glycolic acid +3% kojic acid cream.

When compared to hydroquinone, the most effective skin brightening agent in skincare, a 20% azelaic acid cream was found to be as effective as a 4% hydroquinone cream at treating melasma.

Alpha arbutin vs azelaic acid for acne

While alpha-arbutin is only effective in fading acne scars, azelaic acid on the other hand helps prevent and treat acne. Its antibacterial properties are effective against Propionibacterium acnes, a bacteria responsible for causing inflammatory acne.

This is why azelaic acid is recommended in the treatment of mild (pustular/papular) to severe acne (cystic). Furthermore, its exfoliating properties enable it to prevent pores from getting clogged and in this way prevent acne.

Alpha arbutin vs azelaic acid for eczema

Azelaic acid and alpha arbutin are generally considered non-irritants, however for people with very sensitive skin,  like eczema-prone skin, these active ingredients may not be suitable.

Although azelaic acid has anti-inflammatory properties, it may trigger irritations on eczema-prone skin.

Nevertheless, studies indicate that azelaic acid can be a possible treatment for certain forms of eczema such as perioral dermatitis. It is recommended to carry out a test patch before applying it to the rest of your skin.

A 2021 comprehensive review of the therapeutic potential of alpha-arbutin revealed that it is likely to cause contact dermatitis. As such may not be suitable for people with eczema-prone skin. It is recommended to check with a dermatologist before application.

Alpha arbutin vs azelaic acid for rosacea

Rosacea is a predominantly inflammatory skin condition that requires to be managed using anti-inflammatory treatments. This is one reason why azelaic acid is a recognized treatment for rosacea.

Its anti-inflammatory properties give it a soothing effect that can help calm and reduce inflammations and breakouts caused by rosacea. In this study, a 15% Azelaic acid gel was more effective at treating rosacea than 0.75% Metronidazole gel.

On the other hand, alpha-arbutin is a skin brightener and has no anti-inflammatory properties.

Best natural products with arbutin

Antipodes Manuka Honey Skin Brightening Light Day Cream

  • Anti-blemish moisturiser
  • Hydrating but light on the skin
  • Brightens and firms
  • Suitable for combination/oily & blemish-prone skin

Available from: Amazon / Content Beauty / Lookfantastic

Oskia London Renaissance Brightlight

  • Intensive Pigmentation & Dark Spot Serum
  • Fades acne scars
  • Reverses signs of UV damage
  • Boost the overall health of your complexion

Available from: Amazon / Cult Beauty

Oskia Renaissance 360 Anti-Ageing & Brightening Supreme Cream

  • Hydrating, brightening, anti-ageing day cream
  • Suitable for all skin types but ideal for those 30 years plus, and those with pigmentation issues

Available from: Amazon / Lookfantastic

Best natural products with azelaic acid

HOLIFROG Galilee Antioxidant Dewy Drop

  • Restoring & repairing hydrating serum
  • Lightweight & silky
  • Suitable for all skin types

Available from: Content Beauty / Amazingy

REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic

  • Exfoliating and brightening toner
  • Smoothes, tones and reduces pore size
  • Evens out skin tone

Available from: Amazon / LookFantastic

100% Pure Tea Tree Balancing Moisturizer

  • Lightweight, quick-absorbing moisturizer
  • Contains acne-fighting herbs
  • For oily and acne-prone skin
  • Soothing, calming and anti-inflammatory

Available from: 100% Pure

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