Retinol has long been the darling of the skincare world for its ability to treat wrinkles, pigmentation and breakouts. But there's a catch—it often causes skin to become dry and irritated.
That's why some skincare brands have been turning to a new, natural alternative to retinol: bakuchiol. It's said to offer the same skin benefits, but with none of the annoying side effects.
So, should you ditch your retinol and try this trendy skincare ingredient? In this tutorial, you will find out:
- What it is, and how it works
- What it can do for your skin
- How it compares to retinol (and whether it's safe for pregnancy)
- The best products to try now
What Is Bakuchiol?
Bakuchiol is an all-natural, vegan plant extract. It comes from the babchi plant, which is native to India and Sri Lanka, and has historically been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. The compound is isolated from babchi seeds and leaves, and then it is commercially purified.
You may have heard that bakuchi seed oil and babchi oil are the same thing, but that's not exactly true. Depending on the purification method, they may contain some bakuchiol, but not at the concentration you'd need to reap its benefits. So, you specifically want to look for bakuchiol when scanning ingredients lists.
How Does Bakuchiol Work?
Here are bakuchiol's main mechanisms of action:
- Regulates collagen formation: This study discovered it has collagen-regulating and gene-modifying benefits that are similar to retinol.
- Prevents oxidation: It also prevents the oxidative degradation of lipids (the natural fats in our skin), according to this study.
- Inhibits melanin production: Another study reported that it suppresses the hormone responsible for melanin formation in the skin.
- Reduces inflammation: This study determined that it has anti-inflammatory properties.
- Fights bacteria: It may even be antibacterial, as this study found it decreased acne bacteria in a complex with Gingko biloba and mannitol.
What Does Bakuchiol Do for Your Skin?
Does bakuchiol work? While a lot more research needs to be done—since it doesn't have the vast amount of clinical data behind it like retinol—these are the key benefits identified so far.
1. Improves Signs of Aging
Bakuchiol shows the most promise for treating the signs of aging. This study had participants apply a 0.5% concentration twice daily for 12 weeks. The results showed a "significant improvement" in fine lines and wrinkles, elasticity, firmness and sun damage.
The same amount, 0.5% twice a day for a 12-week duration, was also used in this study. It, too, was found to "significantly decrease" wrinkle surface area.
2. Protects From Free Radicals
Bakuchiol is also an antioxidant, so it can help to protect your skin from the damage caused by free radicals. Specifically, it stops free radicals from "stealing" electrons from the natural fats in your skin, a process that triggers their oxidative degradation (a.k.a lipid peroxidation, a major factor in skin aging).
When skin lipids—which include squalene, sebalaic acid, linoleic acid and cholesterol—become oxidized, it affects the charge and pressure of cells, eventually leading to swelling and cell death. In preventing these changes, bakuchiol is even superior to the most common antioxidant, vitamin E.
3. Fades Pigmentation
If you're dealing with dark spots and discolourations, bakuchiol could be worth trying. Two studies (here and here) found that 0.5%, applied twice per day for 12 weeks, significantly decreased pigmentation. This study found it actually worked better than arbutin at inhibiting melanin production.
4. Reduces Acne
Last but not least, bakuchiol can help to treat and prevent breakouts. Although it was conducted by the manufacturer, this study found that 1%, applied twice a day, reduced acne by 57% after six weeks.
The researchers also compared it to 2% salicylic acid, applied twice daily, which only reduced acne by 48%. (But I suspect this may be because of initial purging, which is a normal and beneficial reaction.) The best results of all were from both ingredients combined, which led to a 67% reduction in acne.
Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that several factors were at play. Bakuchiol has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, so it kills acne bacteria and takes down swelling. Plus, it inhibits the oxidation of sebum, which is thought to be a driving force in the progression of acne.
Is Bakuchiol Better Than Retinol?
With so many of the same benefits, bakuchiol serums might seem like a better option than retinol, especially if you're looking for a gentle, plant-based ingredient. Here's how they compare:
- Almost as effective as retinol: Applying bakuchiol morning and night can be just as effective as nightly retinol. This study had participants put on either 0.5% bakuchiol twice per day or 0.5% retinol once per day, over a 12-week period, and found no statistically significant difference between their results. Just keep in mind that bakuchiol won't be comparable to stronger retinoids, such as retinaldehyde or retinoic acid.
- Gentle and non-irritating: Bakuchiol is gentler on your skin than retinol, which is notoriously irritating. In this study, the authors noted that it achieved results without the usual "undesirable effects" associated with retinol therapy. And while the retinol users in this study experienced "facial skin scaling and stinging," the bakuchiol users did not, leading the researchers to conclude that it is better tolerated.
- Can be used morning and night: Retinol and other forms of vitamin A need to be worn at night, since UV rays can break them down and make them less effective. Plus, they can make your skin more susceptible to sunburn because they replace old skin cells with fresh new ones. Bakuchiol, in contrast, does not make skin more sun-sensitive, according to this study, and is stable in UV light.
Is Bakuchiol Safe for Pregnancy?
Doctors generally recommend that women avoid topical and oral retinoids, including retinol, during pregnancy and breastfeeding. But it's unclear whether bakuchiol is actually a safer substitute.
Some dermatologists, like Dr. Dendy Engelman, believe it is. "Unlike retinols that should be avoided while pregnant, bakuchiol is safe to use."
Others are waiting to see more evidence. "It's theoretically an alternative, but I always recommend checking with your doctor if you're pregnant or nursing before you put anything on your skin," says Dr. Mona Gohara. "While, yes, [it] is a plant, there isn't sufficient testing on it just yet." Dr. Rachel Narazian has similar concerns. "There is not enough evidence to encourage pregnant women to use it, [but] its botanical etiology may make it a safer option."
Dr. Denis Dudley brings a unique perspective as both a skincare expert (he's the co-founder of The Sunscreen Company) and as a retired fetal/maternal specialist in Obstetrics and Gynecology. He believes bakuchiol has "a lack of evidence to support safety claims for pregnant women," on the basis that it absorbs into the body, has a similar chemical structure to retinol, and could have endocrine-disrupting effects.
Until we know more, pregnant and breastfeeding women should stick with the ingredients recommended here.
The Best Bakuchiol Products
So you've weighed the pros and cons, and you're ready to give this ingredient a try. Here are your best bets:
Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum
Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum is an all-natural, jelly-textured serum. Besides the active ingredient, it has polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) for gentle exfoliation, and aloe vera and glycerin to hydrate.
BYBI Bakuchiol Booster
BYBI Bakuchiol Booster contains only two ingredients: 1% bakuchiol, and a base of lightweight, fast-absorbing squalane oil. You can either wear it alone or mix it with a hydrating serum, moisturizer or night cream.
The Inkey List Bakuchiol Moisturizer
The Inkey List Bakuchiol is an ultra-light moisturizer with a 1% concentration of bakuchiol. Its other ingredients include squalane, glycerin, propanediol and sacha inchi oil (the latter is unsaturated, but the squalane will have a stabilizing effect).
Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum
Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum includes bakuchiol along with hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and the brand's signature ingredient, squalane. With its creamy, hydrating texture, it could replace a light moisturizer.
Ole Henriksen Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum
Ole Henriksen Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum combines bakuchiol with moisturizing propanediol, glycerin and squalane oil. It also has AHAs in the form of glycolic and lactic acids, but since there's less than 1% of each, it's not a strong exfoliant.
NUORI Infinity Bio-Fusion Serum
NUORI Infinity Bio-Fusion Serum has 0.5% bakuchiol plus sodium ascorbyl phosphate (a vitamin C derivative), ceramides and hyaluronic acid. Everything from the brand is freshly blended—they make and ship small batches every 10 to 12 weeks to ensure the ingredients are as potent as possible.
Indeed Labs Bakuchiol Reface Pads
Indeed Labs Bakuchiol Reface Pads conveniently let you swipe on the active ingredient, along with brightening niacinamide and soothing allantoin.
Now you know what bakuchiol can do, and how it compares to retinol.
Personally, I think it's a great option if you're specifically looking for a gentle and natural active ingredient, and if your skin is in good shape but tends to be a little sensitive. It would also be worthwhile adding to an anti-acne routine in addition to salicylic acid or other BHAs.
However, for significant sun damage and signs of aging, I think you're better off sticking with retinol and other retinoids. For one thing, they're way more proven, as we have decades of data to demonstrate their efficacy and safety. They also come in many types and strengths, so you can get more dramatic results than are possible with bakuchiol—even with over-the-counter formulations.
If your skin is just too sensitive for retinol, then yes, bakuchiol is a worthy alternative. But you should know that it IS possible to build up a tolerance to retinol, even if you have reactive skin. The key is to start at a low dose and introduce it slowly. With continued use, "it'll absolutely make your skin healthier and more resilient, so it behaves better and acts less sensitive over time," says Dr. Doris Day.
Can't decide? Then go for a treatment that combines BOTH. Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment and Revision Skincare Retinol Complete 1.0 each have a low dose of gentle, encapsulated retinol along with bakuchiol. It's a win-win!
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