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What’s Alpha Arbutin and Where Does It Come From?

What’s Alpha Arbutin and Where Does It Come From?

Posted by Dr. Hannah Sivak on Jan 17th 2020

Let’s start at the beginning.

What is bearberry? A plant.

What is arbutin? A chemical.

Now that we sorted that out, let’s look at the details.

This is a plant that has been used in folk medicine to alleviate an assortment of ailments. It contains many phytochemicals, some of them good for you, others not so much. Among those chemicals is arbutin, which we can use as an active ingredient.

The Science Behind Arbutin

Arbutin is a derivative of hydroquine present in many plants, but is sometimes called arbutoside or hydroquinone β-D-glucopyranoside. This means that there is glucose attached to the hydroquinone part of the molecule in a “beta” link. The glucose molecule has a particular structure that allows it to attach to other molecules in a couple of different ways that differ in the way they are arranged in space.

But Why Does This Matter?

An enzyme that can break an alpha linkage is unlikely to be able to break a beta linkage. This means that the alpha and beta forms of arbutin behave in different ways in the human body.

What Do We Know?

It is also true that the natural form, which is beta arbutin, has been used for centuries, so we have information about what it does to the body and the skin.

Conversely, the arbutin with the glucose linked in alpha has been created recently in a laboratory. Does it matter, natural or synthetic? No, what matters is that they will behave differently. Skin Actives does not currently use the alpha form because there is just not enough information on its potential side effects.

Why would a skincare company use alpha arbutin? There is no good reason.

It is supposed to inhibit melanin synthesis in some way, but there are too many unknowns. In other words, we would happily use arbutin, the beta glucoside, obtained from plants or from a laboratory. The body is not able to distinguish whether it was made by a plant or a person.

But the body can tell whether it is alpha or beta glucoside.

Somebody should tell the skin care industry about the Precautionary Principle. It’s a common idea, anyone can read about it on Wikipedia. So it’s not as if they don’t know. In the industry, novelty is seen as a virtue when, in reality, it is anything but. Older ingredients have accumulated more information about possible side effects and efficacy.

At Skin Actives our mission is health and education. We’ll always empower you to become your own skin health expert. Our products are made with safe actives that you can also count on to work.