Alpha Arbutin vs Vitamin C: Which is Better?

Dealing with hyperpigmentation sometimes requires using various skincare actives for a more effective result. However, knowing how to pair these active ingredients can be confusing. This is the case with popular brighteners like alpha-arbutin and vitamin C. In this article, we will walk you through figuring out which is best for you and how to introduce them properly into your routine.

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What is alpha arbutin?

Alpha arbutin is a natural ingredient derived from the leaves of the bearberry plant that helps brighten the skin. It is usually considered a natural alternative to hydroquinone for skin brightening.

Its chemical structure is similar to tyrosine, an amino acid found in the skin that reacts with the enzyme tyrosinase to produce melanin. This potent molecule helps treat hyperpigmentation by binding with tyrosinase and blocking melanin production.

Although alpha-arbutin occurs naturally, synthetic forms do exist like deoxyarbutin which is formulated to be more potent than its natural counterpart. 

Benefits of alpha arbutin 

  • It is gentle on the skin and safe to use for all skin types
  • It helps fade acne scars, dark spots, sunburns and improves overall skin tone
  • It can be paired with other skin brighteners like retinol and chemical exfoliators for better results.
  • It has some antioxidant properties that can protect the skin from free radicals and reduce signs of aging.

Best natural products containing arbutin

Vitamin C 

Vitamin C also known as L-ascorbic acid is a very popular naturally derived active ingredient best known for its potent antioxidant properties. This molecule is very effective at protecting the skin from oxidative stress and helps reduce signs of premature aging and hyperpigmentation.

Because of how unstable vitamin C molecules tend to be in water, they are mostly formulated in oil-based serums. The stabilized forms of vitamin C commonly used in skincare products include magnesium-ascorbyl-phosphate, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate,  ascorbyl-6-palmitate, and Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate.

Benefits

Best vitamin C serums

Alpha arbutin and Vitamin C: Differences

Although both are great options for dealing with hyperpigmentation, there are significant differences between either molecule that may influence your choice of which actives to use. 

Potency

Alpha arbutin is a more potent skin brightener as compared to vitamin C. It works like hydroquinone in lightening dark spots albeit, without the negative side effects.

Alpha arbutin is effective in concentrations up to 2%, while vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) works best in concentrations between 10 – 20%.

Time of action

Alpha arbutin provides results faster than Vitamin C because it absorbs easily into the skin as opposed to vitamin C. With Alpha arbutin results can be expected after 4 weeks.

Process of action

There is a significant difference in how both molecules work to reduce melanin in the skin. Alpha arbutin mimics the action of tyrosine and blocks the production of melanin when it binds itself with the tyrosinase enzyme.

Vitamin C, on the other hand, interacts with copper ions present in the tyrosinase enzyme to block its action during melanogenesis (the production process of melanin). 

Stability 

L-ascorbic acid is a more unstable molecule as opposed to alpha-arbutin. It is prone to breakdown when exposed to sunlight and water. Alpha arbutin, on the other hand, remains stable in water and is inert when exposed to the sun.

Antioxidant activity 

Vitamin C has a higher concentration of antioxidants which makes it a better antiageing treatment.

Although alpha-arbutin has also been scientifically proven to break down two enzymes responsible for the degradation of collagen in the skin, thus reducing signs of skin aging.

Alpha arbutin vs Vitamin C: Which is better for hyperpigmentation?

Alpha arbutin is one of the most popular and most effective active ingredients used in the treatment of hyperpigmentation. This is due to its similarity to hydroquinone.

Hydroquinone is the most effective skin depigmenting agent known in the skincare industry, however, its side effects are so significant that it is used only under strict medical supervision and even banned in some countries.

In fact, the alpha arbutin molecule is composed of hydroquinone and a group of sugars. While the hydroquinone present in alpha arbutin helps inhibit the action of tyrosinase in the melanin production process, the sugar group acts as a buffer, on which enzymes feed leading to a slower release of hydroquinone in skin cells.

This allows for depigmentation to occur during a longer period of time as alpha-arbutin acts as a reservoir of hydroquinone. This specific structure allows the skin to reap all the positive effects of hydroquinone without any of the side effects.

Vitamin C, on the other hand, is not easily absorbed by the skin and its effectiveness highly depends on each product’s formulation.

Although oil-soluble synthetic forms of vitamin C can get absorbed by the skin, they do not always get converted to vitamin C in the skin.

L-ascorbic acid which is the purest form of vitamin C is very unstable and can be effective on the skin only in high concentrations of 10-20% and at a certain ph. While it has the most antioxidant properties, its formulation largely influences the results the final product will have. This is why results will greatly vary from one brand to the next. Therefore, alpha arbutin remains a better treatment option for hyperpigmentation. 

Can you use alpha-arbutin and vitamin C together?

Yes, you can use alpha arbutin and vitamin C together as both ingredients are generally safe for all skin types and are rarely known to cause side effects.

Also, because of their similar depigmenting action, they can be used together for more effective treatment of discolorations.

However, for pregnant women, it is better to check with your dermatologist before using alpha arbutin.

How to use alpha-arbutin and vitamin C together

When layering your products keep in mind that alpha-arbutin will come first especially as most vitamin C serums are oil-based while alpha-arbutin serums are water-based. Alpha arbutin can be applied twice daily after cleansing the skin.

Vitamin C, on the other hand, can be applied during the day but should be used alongside sunscreen to avoid degradation caused by exposure to the sun. Some skin care professionals recommend using it only at night to avoid a breakdown of the molecule when exposed to daylight.

In low concentrations, vitamin C can be used twice daily for better results. For anything between a 10 – 20% concentration, use your product just once a day.

Alpha arbutin or vitamin C – which is better?

If your main concern is hyperpigmentation then alpha-arbutin is your best bet.

On the other hand, if your main concern is to revive dull skin and reduce signs of aging then Vitamin C is a better option. However, because of how complex hyperpigmentation is, multi-approach treatments are always recommended.

Also, most people struggling with hyperpigmentation also deal with textured skin and wrinkles all caused by exposure to sunlight. Therefore, pairing both ingredients in a single or numerous products increases your chances to smooth skin with an even skin tone.

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