Anyone who’s researched how to treat fine lines, breakouts, or dark spots has likely come across the buzzword in skin care science: retinol.
If you haven’t, retinol is the go-to skin care ingredient to reverse signs of aging. The downsides of it though? It’s quite harsh on the skin and once you start using it, your skin can get used to it and it’ll no longer have incremental benefits. This means eventually to achieve the same smooth results, you can only go up in application strength. Sounds like an intense skin commitment.
But there’s been a new ingredient making waves as retinol’s gentle sister, who works equally strong magic. Bakuchiol (pronounced buh-KOO-chee-all) is a plant extract that beauty publications are calling a natural, less-irritating, and vegan alternative.
But could it actually be as powerful and beneficial as dermatologists’ go-to ingredient? With the help of experts and science, we explored.
First off, what exactly is retinol and why does it work?
Retinol is the OG of skin care for dismissing wrinkles, fine lines, and dull skin. It’s the third strongest form of retinoid, a vitamin A derivative, that promotes skin cell renewal and stimulates collagen production. Research shows 12 weeks of application can result in smoother, firmer, and all-around more youthful-looking skin.
Meaning: your concerns? Covered!
- hydration levels
- hyperpigmentation and sun damage
- acne flare-ups and breakouts
Types of retinoid There are five types of retinoid, all which have varying degrees of effectiveness. Retinol is the third strongest over-the-counter option while tretinoin and tazarotene are available by prescription only.
However, while it’s a favorable option for lots — and we mean lots — of people, it can also be too harsh for those with sensitive skin.
Studies show the side effects can be as serious as burning, scaling, and dermatitis. And with an ingredient that loses effectiveness over time, that’s not good news for people who need to consistently apply. These downsides are what led to the popularity of bakuchiol.
Is the fanfare around bakuchiol real?
The up-and-coming bakuchiol is a plant extract that’s said to have been used in Chinese and Indian restorative medicine for years.
“It’s an antioxidant found in the seeds and leaves of the plant Psoralea Corylifolia,” explains Dr. Debra Jaliman, assistant professor in the department of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Studies have shown that bakuchiol helps prevent fine lines and wrinkles, and helps with pigmentation, elasticity, and firmness.”
“It works through the same receptors that retinol uses, which is why many refer to it as a natural retinol alternative,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital.
It’s clear that these similar results are why it’s giving retinol a run for its money.
But what really gives bakuchiol its edge? Well, as previously mentioned, it’s a natural alternative, meaning not only is it not as irritating, it’s a great option for those who shop vegan, clean, and in consideration of skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or dermatitis.
“Bakuchiol is not a vitamin A derivative and hence not as irritating as that ingredient,” dermatologist Dr. Purvisha Patel says. And a small trial confirms this: In a study with 44 participants, those who used retinol reported more stinging and harsher skin texture.
Should you make the switch?
It comes down to an individual, their skin care needs, and even personal opinions around beauty.
“[Bakuchiol] has the advantage of not causing irritation,” says Zeichner, who notes there really isn’t any serious downside to using bakuchiol. “However, it’s unclear whether it’s truly as effective as traditional retinol.”
Jaliman believes “you won’t get the same results as retinol.” And Patel agrees. A 2006 review shows that retinol has been studied since 1984 and has been tested with far more participants than bakuchiol.
You might already be using retinol If you’re using a product that promises to smooth fine lines, it’s likely there’s some retinol in it already. However, if it’s not advertised on the label, it probably isn’t a strong percentage and likely at the bottom of the ingredient list.
“There’s not a lot of data with [bakuchiol] as of yet and it could be promising,” says Patel. “Retinol, however, is a tried-and-true ingredient that delivers what it promises in the concentrations [in which] it’s given. So, for now, retinol is [still] the gold standard for a safe, effective ingredient in skin care that helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles.”
To sum it up
It doesn’t hurt to use bakuchiol, especially if you have sensitive skin or have a serious routine with multiple topical prescriptions. “It can [also] be used as an entry-level product,” Zeichner adds.
And for those with more resilient skin, you can still mix and match, depending on the products you choose. “After your skin acclimates, you can add retinol to the regimen in the future. In some cases, you can use both bakuchiol and retinol together for added benefits.”
After all, the ingredients are more alike than different, not one is superior to the other. “Similar,” Jaliman highlights, is the keyword most experts use when comparing the two. With the right products, you might not even have to pick one or the other.
For serum hoarders like us, that’s about the best beauty news ever.
Mix and match for your preferred skin regime:
- New to retinol? Try First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate ($58), Paula’s Choice Resist Barrier Moisturizer ($32), or Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Regenerating Cream ($22)
- Looking for bakuchiol? Try Ao Skincare #5 Repair Rejuvenating Night Treatment Moisturizer ($90), Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum ($39), or Ole Henriksen Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum ($58)
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Emily Rekstis is a New York City-based beauty and lifestyle writer who writes for many publications, including Greatist, Racked, and Self. If she’s not writing at her computer, you can probably find her watching a mob movie, eating a burger, or reading an NYC history book. See more of her work on her website, or follow her on Twitter.