Before humans ever discovered the beneficial uses of the uva ursi plant, bears got there first. This short evergreen shrub that grows in the northern regions of North America, Europe and Asia, and the mountains of South America is actually named uva ursi (Latin for “bear grape”) and bearberry in English for the animals that love its fruit. Based on uva ursi leaf extract's benefits for skin, we wonder if bears secretly have great complexions under all that fur.
Traditionally, several Native American tribes used uva ursi in their smoking mixtures (kinnikinnick in Algonquin). Today, people use various forms of uva ursi to treat cystitis, kidney stones, and urinary tract infections. This is because it has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties (though no trial has proven that it is an adequate replacement for antibiotics in treating UTIs).
How Uva Ursi Brightens Skin
When it comes to using uva ursi leaf extract for skin, however, the science backs this ingredient very clearly. The leaves of this humble bearberry plant contain a chemical called arbutin. Arbutin is actually a naturally occurring form of hydroquinone. Both arbutin and hydroquinone brighten skin the same way, by blocking an enzyme called tyrosinase that produces melanin—the brown pigment in skin. Melanin is the skin's natural form of protection against the sun, but exposure to UV rays, scarring, and hormone changes can cause overproduction of melanin, leading to dark spots. These chemicals can stop the process, and within a few weeks, new skin cells will be a more even color.
Hydroquinone is a controversial chemical that can cause an allergic reaction in some, permanent discoloration in others. It's been shown to be carcinogenic in rodents but not humans, so while the FDA allows it in the U.S., it's been banned in Europe, Japan, the U.K., and Australia. The good news is that arbutin from uva ursi leaves is not as harsh as synthetic hydroquinone. While hydroquinone can sometimes kill the melanin-producing cells in the skin, arbutin has shown to be a gentler variation.
Uva Ursi's Antioxidant Benefits
The benefits of bearberry go beyond skin brightening. The plant is also packed with antioxidants. Those molecules work to protect against damage done by UV rays. Since that damage can be a cause of inflammation, collagen loss, and wrinkles, using uva ursi leaf extract can prevent skin from showing signs of aging.
What About Uva Ursi Side Effects?
Digesting uva ursi has possible side effects of nausea, vomiting, irritability, insomnia, and an increased heart rate, and it's not recommended for prolonged use that way (nor for children at all). But when applied topically uva ursi skincare products have been found to be safe, with no reported negative side effects.
This is why lotions, serums, and creams with uva ursi leaf extract are a gentle, but effective option for achieving brighter, smoother skin—and why it's an especially ideal ingredient in an eye cream.