In the quest for flawless skin, few things are as problematic as dark spots. Be they from sun damage (this is why it's so important to wear sunscreen daily, people!), hormonal conditions such as melasma, or a leftover reminder of massive pimples past, nothing mars complexion perfection as much as discoloration.
When it comes to fading spots, hydroquinone is the often-recommended derm favorite, available both by prescription and in lower concentrations over-the-counter. But there are numerous drawbacks to the highly potent ingredient, which is why more and more products now rely on natural alternatives. One of the best among them? Licorice extract, which, incidentally enough, works in a very similar way to hydroquinone. Here, dermatologists explain exactly how this natural standout gets the job done, and what else you need to know about it.
Meet the Expert
Read on and see spots run.
Type of ingredient: Skin brightener
Main benefits: Inhibits the production of an enzyme needed to produce melanin (pigment) in the skin, helps remove excess melanin, has anti-inflammatory benefits.
Who should use it: Anyone looking to reap the spot-fading, skin tone-evening benefits, as well as those looking to soothe irritated skin. Plus, unlike many other similar ingredients, it's a good option for pregnant women looking for a safe way to treat melasma.
How often can you use it: This largely depends on the particular product formulation, but in most cases, once or twice a day, maximum, says Chwalek.
Works well with: Because of its main benefits, it's often mixed with other antioxidants and skin brighteners, such as niacinamide and vitamin C.
Don't use with: Because it does have the potential to be somewhat irritating, Linkner advises not using it in conjunction with retinol and/or hydroquinone.
What is Licorice Extract?
Like the sweet treat, it all comes back to the licorice plant (scientific term: Glycyrrhiza glabra...we'll just call it the licorice plant). The root of the plant has been used for medicinal purposes for years and is where black licorice the candy comes from, but it's also the source of licorice extract used topically for skin. This extract is filled with a variety of beneficial compounds, which do everything from delivering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects to helping fade dark spots. It's this latter effect that makes it a choice ingredient in many skin-brightening products. It even acts similarly to hydroquinone (more on that in a minute), considered to be the gold-standard brightening ingredient, though notorious for its unwanted side effects and even potential safety concerns.
Benefits of Licorice Extract For Skin
- Minimizes the production of tyrosinase to combat discoloration: The production of melanin (AKA pigment or color) is a complicated process, but at the heart of the matter is an enzyme known as tyrosinase. Licorice extract inhibits the production of tyrosinase, in turn inhibiting the production of dark spots.
- Removes excess melanin: Licorice extract brightens the skin in another way, too. "It contains liquiritin, an active compound that helps to disperse and remove existing melanin in the skin," explains Chwalek. In other words, not only can it help prevent new spots from forming, but it can also fade existing ones.
- Acts as a potent antioxidant: Like many other plant-based extracts, licorice contains a flavonoid, an antioxidant-rich component that decreases reactive oxygen species, which both age and discolor the skin, says Linkner.
- Offers anti-inflammatory benefits: While the flavonoid is anti-inflammatory in and of itself, there's yet another molecule, licochalcone A, which inhibits two inflammatory markers that trigger the inflammatory cascade, Chwalek says.
- May help control oil production in the skin: Though this isn't one of the more commonly agreed upon benefits, Chwalek says that there's some evidence to suggest that that licochalcone A compound may have the added benefit of regulating oil production. It's why licorice extract is often used in Ayurvedic medicine as a dandruff treatment.
Side Effects of Licorice Extract
While this is a rare allergen, meaning it in and of itself is unlikely to cause an actual allergy, depending on what other ingredients it's mixed with, it can sometimes cause a reaction, notes Chwalek. Linkner notes that it can also be irritating for some. As a general rule, if you're concerned about it stressing out your skin, try any new products out on a small test spot before applying all over your face.
How to Use It
Like other spot-faders, it's a good idea to look for this in a serum, which will be more concentrated and contain higher amounts of the ingredient. Per the point about it being potentially irritating, be sure to follow exact product directions when it comes to how often and when to use it. And, while it should go without saying, be extra diligent about sun protection and daily SPF when using licorice extract (or any ingredient targeting hyperpigmentation). Sun exposure may counteract and thwart any of your skin-brightening efforts.
The Best Products With Licorice Extract
Along with licorice root, this product also contains other high-powered skin-brightening ingredients like niacinamide, azelaic acid, and tranexamic acid. Shea butter gives it a rich, hydrating texture that's great for dry skin, and centella asiatica helps calm inflammation.
As anyone who has ever dealt with a massive, stubborn pimple (AKA everyone) will tell you, even once the culprit itself is gone, it can leave behind a lingering reminder in the form of a pesky new dark mark. (The technical term for this is post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation). Enter the beauty of this treatment, which packs both ingredients to knock out current blemishes, such as salicylic acid, as well as ingredients to ward off any accompanying spots, such as licorice extract and glycolic acid.
Naturals for the win. “This product contains two other plant-based, skin-brightening agents—Gigawhite and a natural hydroquinone alternative derived from the African potato and tara tree—in addition to the licorice root extract,” says Chwalek. Couple that with the addition of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, and Coenzyme Q10, and you have a recipe for a more even and radiant complexion. You can also use it on its own, or mix a few drops into a mask for added brightening benefits.
A skincare winner in Byrdie's 2019 Eco-Beauty Awards, this pulls double duty as both a moisturizer and treatment. On the moisturizing front, it delivers lightweight hydration; one Byrdie editor calls it "light-as-air" and "the perfect prep step for foundation." On the treatment front, licorice root extract and niacinamide brighten, while a laundry list of other antioxidants and anti-irritants (aloe, chamomile, vitamin E, to name a few), work to soothe your complexion.
Per the point of licorice extract being a great anti-inflammatory and calming ingredient, this serum works quickly to soothe stressed skin. Glycerin combats dryness, green tea extract offers antioxidant protection, and licorice extract tamps down redness. Also worth noting: The brand uses a unique type of seaweed encapsulation technology to ensure all of these active ingredients stay fresh and potent...AKA effective.
Does licorice root extract lighten your skin tone?
Long story short, yes. Studies have shown that licorice root extract contains compounds called liquiritin and licochalcone, both of which inhibit your body from making tyrosinase. This slows down the process where your skin produces melanin, so over time, your skin can become lighter.
Is licorice root extract suitable for acne-prone skin?
Licorice root extract has no known side effects on acne-prone skin.
How often can you use licorice root extract in your skincare routine?
In most cases, products containing licorice root extract are safe to use up to two times a day.
Sarkar R, Arora P, Garg KV. Cosmeceuticals for hyperpigmentation: what is available? J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2013;6(1):4-11. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.110089
Frattaruolo L, Carullo G, Brindisi M, et al. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of flavanones from glycyrrhiza glabra L. (licorice) leaf phytocomplexes: identification of licoflavanone as a modulator of NF-kB/MAPK pathway. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(6):186. doi:10.3390/antiox8060186