Licorice Root

Licorice root extract is an organically derived pigment corrector. It is often combined with other organic ingredients such as glycolic acids, ascorbic acid, beta arbutin, bearberry extracts, soy & green tea. It has modest pigment inhibiting properties & is best used in rotational therapy with other more powerful molecules.

Benefits

Pigment corrector, naturally sourced

When to use

AM or PM

Works with

Vitamin C, azelaic acid

Caution with

Compatible with many

Dermatologist science score

What is the Skin Science behind licorice?

Derived from the root of the licorice plant, it can be classified as organic & natural. Licorice root acts as an antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals. Also has bactericidal properties, keeping acne bacteria in check. 

In its depigmentation role licorice root is a pigment corrector prescribed by dermatologists. This ingredient can be used to treat melasma, post inflammatory hyperpigmentation from acne & generalized pigment disorders. It is best prescribed with other skin care actives including argan, arbutin, citric acids, azelaic acid & bearberries. 

Licorice root extract lightens skin through the inhibition of melanin (pigment).

Does licorice lighten skin?

The active skin lightening compound found in licorice root is liquiritin. This compound can slow down production of darker pigments. In turn, this will lessen hyperpigmentation, & provide some degree of skin lightening. This compound is best combined by pigment reducing lasers & gentle chemical peels for best effect.

How long does it take for licorice to lighten skin?

Skin lightening should be seen at 2 weeks, with maximal effects within 4 to 8 weeks. Licorice root extract is not as powerful at inhibiting pigmentation enzymes compared to medically prescribed tyrosinase inhibitors. The true value of licorice lies with combination therapy, namely combining this with other active botanicals, chemical peels, &/or lasers.

What other skin conditions can licorice treat?

Melasma: This is a special form of skin pigmentation due to genetic, hormones & UV. Licorice root extract is part of my pigmentation corrector regiment during the maintenance phase. Best combined with argan oil, arbutin, salicylic acid, retinol, ascorbic acid & bearberries as most of these ingredients synergistically inhibit pigmentation production by melanocytes. 

Post inflammatory hyperpigmentation: Use with ingredients as above. 

Acne: Licorice has bactericidal properties, killing c.acnes, the bacteria implicated in acne. With pigmentation suppression activity, licorice can reduce post acne marks. 

Anti-aging: Has antioxidant properties to reduce UV & environmental induced free radicals. Best used in the am for this purpose.

Does licorice extract lighten dark circles?

Licorice extract can lighten sunspots & some forms of dark circles. That’s because it contains a unique active compound called Glabridin, which applied topically has been shown to reduce the formation of pigment in the skin, while also reducing inflammation. 

Most eye creams would also contain ingredients such as vitamin K & caffeine; ingredients that regulate blood flow. Other pigment inhibitors found in eye creams include alpha arbutin, argan oil, & botanical extracts such as wild berries.

Pigment type

Pigment depth

Efficacy

Superficial pigment (works well) Superficial melasma Works well
Light melasma Mixed melasma, post inflammatory hyperpigmentation Moderate efficacy
Deep pigment Dermal melasma Doesn't work

In its depigmentation role licorice root is a pigment corrector prescribed by dermatologists. This ingredient can be used to treat melasma, post inflammatory hyperpigmentation from acne & generalized pigment disorders.

When should I apply licorice root extract?

Morning or night as part of your skin care routine. Can be used as a stand-alone topical, however it is best used in combination with other pigment inhibitors.

Can Licorice be used with other skin care actives?

Yes, due to the low irritant potential, licorice can be compatible with vitamins ABC, arbutin, bearberry, kojic acid & other pigment inhibitors.

How much licorice is safe?

A daily oral intake of 1–10 mg of glycyrrhizin, which corresponds to 1–5 g licorice, has been estimated to be a safe dose for most healthy adults. Although licorice root is generally considered safe as a food ingredient, it can cause serious side effects, including increased blood pressure and decreased potassium levels, when consumed in large amounts or for long periods of time. 

Topical application of creams are safe as the allergic reaction rate of licorice is very low. If you do react to creams, it is most likely due to other ingredients associated with licorice extract. Be guided by the instructions on your skin care product as to the frequency & amount of topical application.

How do I incorporate this in my daily skin care routine?

A sensible skin care routine that involves licorice goes something like this;

AM: Cleanser, SPF, Make up, Antioxidants (Vitamin C, Tocopherol, Ferulic Acid)

PM: Cleanser, *Licorice based pigment corrector. (Option to add retinol, niacinamide or ascorbic acid)

* Best combined with other pigment inhibitors such as arbutin & bearberry. My current rotational routine as of 2024 is to rotate HQ with HQ free pigmentation correctors. Up to 6 months on, with 6 weeks off. Be guided by your allocated nurse or dermal therapist.

A SummaryDavin’s viewpoint on licorice root for melasma & pigmentation

Dr Davin Lim | Dermatologist
The Melasma Clinic, Brisbane | Sydney

I do prescribe licorice as part of an anti-pigmentation plan, most often in combination with arbutin, Kojic Acid, botanicals & other pigment correctors. There are far better inhibitors such as hydroquinone & t.acid orally, nevertheless licorice root has a place during the ‘rest intervals’ of HQ. Of note, licorice root has been used as a medicinal extract for centuries by the Chinese (Traditional Chinese Medicine), & has a long safety record.

This is one ingredient that you can use if you are into the fuzzy world of organic & naturopathic skin care. Add this to your list of green tea extracts, azelaic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, & berries of every sort. The caveat? If you really want to treat pigmentation, go with the un-natural world of chemicals- the efficacy rate is much higher.