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While the word licorice usually brings up images of trick-or-treating and candy shops, licorice extract also has use as a pretty powerful skincare ingredient – especially if you are dealing with unwanted pigmentation. It’s already in a number of fan-favorite products, but learning how to spot it and when to use it can supercharge your skincare routine and even out your complexion. Intrigued? Here’s what two skincare experts had to say about the benefits of licorice extract for the skin.
What Is Licorice Extract?
It all starts with the licorice plant (a.k.a Glycyrrhiza glabra). “It’s a herbal extraction from the root of the licorice plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra, and it’s one of the oldest medicinal remedies,” says Natalie Aguilar, a Los Angeles-based celebrity aesthetician and dermatological nurse. “It’s been used in herbalism, traditional medicine, and skincare.” The licorice plant is native to Western Asia, North Africa, and Southern Europe, and, in addition to its topical and edible uses, licorice is used as a flavoring agent for tobacco.
The root of the licorice plant is where much of its power lies. It's long been used to treat coughs, colds, and chills, and ulcers, and it's also where black licorice candy comes from. But that's not all. The licorice root is the source of the extract that can be used topically on the skin.
The Benefits of Licorice Extract in Skincare
The main benefits of licorice extract is its power to target, treat, and fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation in multiple ways. For starters, “licorice extract is a beneficial ingredient when it comes to treating facial discoloration because it decreases inflammation and oxidation,” Aguilar says. “Decreasing inflammation is really important when addressing hyperpigmentation,” she adds, because post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is one of the most common types of dark spots. That anti-inflammatory element can also work to calm irritation. While “it’s most effective in improving the look of an uneven skin tone, licorice extract has skin-soothing properties,” says Purvisha Patel, MD, board certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare.
But there is more to this botanical ingredient. “Licorice contains a flavonoid, which is an antioxidant-rich component that decreases the way our skin ages and discolors,” Aguilar explains. “Licorice extract also inhibits the production of an enzyme (tyrosinase) that produces pigmentation in the skin.”
For these reasons, it can act as a gentler natural alternative to some of the other pigmentation-fighting ingredients on the market. “It’s a natural skin lightener that can help fade sun spots and discoloration left from the sun, acne scars, and melasma,” Dr. Patel says. Aguilar agrees. “The best thing about licorice extract is that it is plant-derived, unlike synthetic ingredients like hydroquinone, which have been proven to be harmful over a certain period of time,” she notes.
The Best Candidates for Licorice Extract
The best candidates for licorice extract are those experiencing unwanted pigmentation and dark spots caused by UV damage, inflammation, age, or hormonal fluctuations. You can benefit from adding the ingredient to your routine if:
- You have an uneven skin tone
- Your have acne-prone skin
- You are predisposed to PIH
- You want to prevent pigmentation
- You’re looking for an overall brighter complexion
Topical licorice extract is well-tolerated by most and considered a rare allergen. While the ingredient itself is unlikely to cause a reaction, a larger formula that it’s a part of may not agree with you. If you know you have sensitive or reactive skin, we always recommend patch testing a product prior to applying it to your entire face. Furthermore, both of our experts recommend skipping licorice extract entirely if you have a known allergy to licorice.
How to Find the Right Licorice Extract Product
The medicinal benefits of licorice extract (sometimes labeled as licorice root extract or Glycyrrhiza glabra root extract) can be enjoyed by consuming the ingredient in its natural state, which is why you can find it at many health and wellness stores like this one. When it comes to topical use, however, it’ll be easier on your skin to use a product that contains licorice extract as part of a blend.
The good news is that this ingredient can complement other actives. “As wonderful as this ingredient is, it does better when mixed with other ingredients that do similar things, such as azelaic acid and vitamin C,” Dr. Patel shares. “The effects can also be augmented when used in combination with a retinol to help increase the absorption.” Aguilar, meanwhile, likes to use licorice extract with brighteners like niacinamide and lactic acid. It comes down to your skin type and the other products you’re using, but it’s generally best to avoid using licorice extract with known irritants, like benzoyl peroxide and hydroquinone.
How to Add Licorice Extract to Your Skincare Routine
Licorice root can be found in an array of skincare products, including toners, serums, and lotions. But, as with most skin tone evening actives, it’s often best enjoyed in a targeted treatment or serum. The ingredient can be used as part of your morning and/or evening routine, and, while licorice extract isn’t known to increase photosensitivity, you should still be wearing sunscreen daily to protect your skin and prevent any further hyperpigmentation.
Dr. Patel recommends her Visha Skincare Advanced Correcting Serum, which blends licorice extract with retinol, vitamin E, niacinamide, ferulic acid, and hyaluronic acid to address fine line and wrinkles, acne, scars, collagen production, and pores. As she explains, it’s “one product that works like five.” Aguilar points to the Eminence’s Bright Skin Licorice Root Booster Serum as a favorite thanks to its pairing of brightening licorice root with a natural hydroquinone alternative complex (featuring African potato and tara tree), exfoliating lactic acid, toning lemongrass, and more.
If you are dealing with tough-to-treat discoloration on the body – specifically, the underarms – Aguilar is a fan of the Kaia Naturals Takesumi Bright Starter Kit. “The set combines the most effective and safe actives to minimize stubborn dark spot pigmentation with ingredients including kojic acid, a skin brightening active and tyrosine blocker; licorice root extract; niacinamide, which minimizes redness, blotchiness, and reduces inflammation; and alpha arbutin to minimize dark spot formation.” The kit includes a gentle bar soap and sensitive skin-friendly deodorant.
Other great options include the Undefined R&R Day Serum, which is packed with botanical extracts to hydrate, refine pores, and help fade dark spots and acne scars; the licorice extract- and vitamin C-infused Versed Stroke of Brilliance Brightening Serum; and the Physicians Formula’s Brightening Skin Booster Vitamin Shot, which targets signs of visible aging. On the toner front, consider the Rodan + Fields Reverse Intensive Brightening Toner to improve the look of dark spots, discoloration, and uneven tone.
Whether it's the result of sun damage, acne, or melasma, licorice extract is great for treating unwanted pigmentation and dark spots. The botanical ingredient can be used alone for medicinal and wellness purposes, but, for topical skincare use, it’s best to reach for a serum or toner that contains licorice extract. Use it AM or PM, and, remember, it plays well with other brightening actives.
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
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