With new products, brands, and categories popping up every day, beauty can be a bit overwhelming. Back to Basics is our rudimentary beauty series that serves as your crash course on the science behind some of the best formulations in the game.
Hyperpigmentation, sun spots, acne scarring, melasma — these are just a few common skin concerns that result in bothersome dark spots and an overall uneven skin tone. While there are a number of treatment options available, from chemical peels to laser treatments, there are also plenty of over-the-counter topicals that can help combat these concerns from the comfort of your own home, including the lesser known licorice root.
Vitamin C, niacinamide, and AHAs like glycolic acid are some of today’s more popular over-the-counter skin-brightening ingredients, in addition to more potent skin-lighteners like hydroquinone. However, if you’re dealing with any of the above skin concerns and are looking for a simple — and particularly gentle — OTC treatment, this option might be a worthy of your attention.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is derived from the Glycyrrhiza plant species. According to cosmetic chemist and founder of My Skin Authority Soraya Ali-Hope, its cosmetic and medicinal uses have been traced back 4,000 years. It’s been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda for centuries, and as she mentions, licorice root has even been found in the tomb of King Tut.
Today, licorice root extract has found its way into many skin care formulations due to the skin-transforming benefits of its many chemical components. Primarily, it’s famed for its brightening and toning abilities. “Incorporating licorice root into your routine helps diminish the appearance of dark spots and age spots,” says Dr. Debra Jaliman, board-certified dermatologist author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist. “It’s great for brightening the skin and diminishing hyperpigmentation.”
One of the major components of licorice root is glabridin, a powerful skin brightener. “This molecule acts on melanocytes in the skin by inhibiting tyrosinase, the enzyme that catalyzes melanin production,” explains Ali-Hope. In layman’s terms, it halts production of the enzyme responsible for producing melanin, thus preventing dark spots from developing. This is why she considers licorice root a “superb alternative” to harsher skin lighteners like hydroquinone for the treatment of melasma and hyperpigmentation from UV sun damage and natural aging.
Another component of licorice root is glycyrrhizin, which is chock full of anti-aging and tone-evening benefits. “This gelatinous saponin [an active substance found in plants] is a powerful antioxidant with a high concentration of flavonoids that provides regenerative effects, including brightening the skin and scavenging damaging and skin-aging free radicals,” she says.
Additionally, it’s rich in polyphenols — also powerful antioxidants — which she says help alleviate irritation and inflammation. “These polyphenols soothe and calm with antifungal and antibacterial properties, making licorice root ideal for acne-prone and oily skin,” she says. “The same applies to atopic dermatitis and rashes.” She points out that some of the polyphenols found in licorice, such as licochalcone, can also help the skin regenerate collagen and elastin, improving skin suppleness and strength and upping its anti-aging benefits.
How To Use Licorice Root
Licorice root can be found in all sorts of skin care formulations, but Ali-Hope recommends reaching for creams, lotions, toners, serums, and masks: “Basically, products that remain on the skin to allow the active constituents to work,” she says. Cleansers and other rinse-off products may still be effective, but leave-on products are recommended for optimal results.
Because it’s gentle, Dr. Jaliman says that products with licorice root are typically safe for daily use, both morning and night. However, how often you use it depends greatly on the type of product and the other ingredients in the formula. “Some products with licorice incorporate ingredients that are more powerful, and these products should be used with caution,” she says. “Always follow the instructions on the label.”
When it comes to what to pair your licorice root products with, the general consensus amongst the experts is that it's safe to mix with most other ingredients. As dermatology resident Dr. Charles Puza explains, the major components of licorice root are non-reactive, so, for the most part, you shouldn’t experience any negative reaction incorporating it into your existing routine. Dr. Jaliman says licorice root is great paired with other brighteners like vitamin C and niacinamide, as well as exfoliants like lactic acid and soothing ingredients like aloe. The only ingredient she’s hesitant to mix with licorice root is retinol, which she says may be too harsh for the skin.
Who Is A Good Candidate For Licorice Root?
Licorice root is considered safe for all skin types — and as Dr. Jaliman mentions, it’s even safe for use by pregnant women. Ali-Hope says that it can be especially beneficial for those with oily or acne-prone skin types, those looking to minimize the appearance of the aforementioned hyperpigmentation and sun damage, and anyone with dull or lifeless skin in need of a pick-me-up.
However, as with any natural ingredient, there’s always the risk of developing an allergic reaction. “So many natural products are actually a huge source of contact allergens,” says Dr. Puza. “We see patients every day who switch to a natural product, only to develop an itchy rash. While generally non-irritating to the skin and safe for most, the risk of developing an allergy to licorice root is real.” And even though licorice root is also generally considered safe for darker skin tones, he still recommends that those with melanin-rich skin proceed with caution since it inhibits your body’s pigment production.
For these reasons, he says it’s best to patch test any licorice root product on an inconspicuous part of the body (such as your inner forearm) for one to two weeks to see how your skin reacts, as you would when introducing any new active into your routine.
So, if you’re looking to treat pigmentation issues with a gentle topical product, it’s worth introducing licorice root extract into your skin care routine — in fact, Dr. Jaliman says it’s even more effective at treating these concerns than vitamin C.
Ahead, eight standout products with licorice root extract to help brighten, even, and revitalize your complexion.
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Dr. Jaliman recommends this cult-favorite treatment as a great way to introduce licorice root into your routine. It’s powered by lactic acid — an AHA that exfoliates the skin's surface layers, improving skin texture and the appearance of lines, wrinkles, and pores — but it also contains a combination of licorice root and lemongrass to brighten dark spots and discoloration. Plus, it’s infused with prickly pear extract to soothe any redness or sensitivity.
This illuminating serum targets dullness, uneven tone, and signs of aging with a powerhouse combination of vitamin C, licorice root, palmaria palmata, and niacinamide. Together, they brighten the complexion and work hard to fade spots and hyperpigmentation, all while providing plenty of antioxidant benefits to minimize the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
Uniquely formulated for skin of color by women of color, this milky serum fades hyperpigmentation, gently resurfaces, and minimizes the look of pores. It contains the brand’s “Smart Melanin Technology,” a combination of brightening and tone-evening amber algae, encapsulated vitamin C, licorice root extract, and acne- and inflammation-fighting niacinamide. It’s also infused with a combination of soothing hydrators and pineapple and papaya enzymes that naturally exfoliate and boost glow.
This pH-balancing essence mist pairs licorice root extract with licorice water and saccharomyces ferment filtrate to brighten the complexion, while bamboo water locks in moisture and Centella Asiatica leaf water soothes. It’s great for spritzing on post-cleanse or as a refreshing midday pick-me-up, but it also moonlights as a nutrient-rich makeup setting spray.
This soothing daily treatment targets pigmentation with a combination of exfoliating hibiscus oil and brightening licorice root extract, which help to minimize the appearance of dark spots and discoloration. It also contains anti-aging powerhouse sea buckthorn oil, which helps reduce the look of lines and wrinkles as it nourishes the skin.
Packed with antioxidants and fatty acids, this soothing serum restores the skin and improves radiance. It contains a combination of brightening and refining ingredients like dragon fruit seed oil, licorice root, and bakuchiol, as well as rosehip seed, camellia japonica seed, and plum oils to nourish the skin.
Saie is known for packing plenty of skin care benefits into its line of cult-favorite clean cosmetics, and this tinted moisturizer is no exception. Not only does it provide sheer, dewy coverage and ample sun protection, but it contains licorice extract to brighten and help protect against discoloration after sun exposure. It’s also supremely hydrating thanks to jojoba esters and pansy flower.