What is Bakuchiol? The Retinol Alternative You Need To Know
Photo Source: Herbivore Botanicals
Hands down, retinoids are the holy grail to end all holy grails of skincare. Good luck trying to dispute that with dermatologists and cosmetic chemists who have helped make it a staple—for decades—on top shelves everywhere. Not to mention the people who have seen their skin vastly improve with its use. With the power to speed up cell turnover and improve fine lines and wrinkles, sun damage, acne, and rosacea, it’s hard to beat.
Everyone should use it! Well, not quite. The thing is retinol (the word commonly used as a blanket term for all retinoids, which we explain more here) can be really tough to work into your skincare routine. There’s purging, there’s molting. There’s scaling, flaking, itchiness, and redness with burning or stinging sensations as well. You have to slowly build up your use of it, starting with a low percentage applied only a few days a week. Even then, for many people, their skin simply can’t tolerate it. Irritation isn’t a good trade-off for breakout- and line-free skin.
What if there was some way to reap all the benefits AND avoid the dreaded retinol side effects? There just might be, and it’s called bakuchiol.
What is bakuchiol?
Bakuchiol (pronounced either "buh-koo-chee-all" or "back-uh-heel") is an active compound from the babchi plant (Psoralea corylifolia), which has been used in both traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to treat a number of conditions, including skin disorders like psoriasis and vitiligo. Studies have shown that it has antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiaging functions. It’s also a phytoestrogen (an estrogen-like compound derived from plants), which, like estrogen, can regulate skin aging.
Bakuchiol has no structural resemblance to retinol, but it’s becoming known as the natural, non-irritating, plant-derived alternative to it. However, note that much of the retinol in widely available products is now synthetic rather than animal-derived, so attaching “vegan” to these product descriptions is usually for marketing clout.
Bakuchiol vs. retinol
The first study of bakuchiol’s effects on the skin was published in 2014. Researchers used synthetic skin and collagen cell cultures and found that that bakuchiol had very similar gene expression and collagen regulation properties to retinol.
A 2018 study comparing 0.5% bakuchiol to 0.5% retinol for 12 weeks found that bakuchiol’s effects on photo-aging are comparable to retinol while bakuchiol is more easily tolerated with less of the common skin scaling side effects reported.
So that clinical research is certainly promising, but those two studies are the backbone of claims about bakuchiol. There’s very little else about it and a lack of long-term data.
Where can you find bakuchiol?
So you’re curious enough to try it, but where to buy bakuchiol? Unlike Retin-A aka tretinoin—the powerful prescription retinoid only available from a doctor—bakuchiol isn’t regulated by the FDA as a drug.
Per FDA classifications, anti-aging (their words, not ours) products regulated as drugs are “intended to affect the structure or function of the body,” whereas those deemed cosmetics intend to make “lines and wrinkles less noticeable.” The difference is in the intention to change the function of your body or merely your appearance. For now, skincare products with bakuchiol fall into the cosmetics camp, meaning you can just go right out and buy them!
The ingredient is still relatively new to market, but some easily findable brands have made a bakuchiol serum. Check out Herbivore Botanicals Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Serum, Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum, and Olehenriksen Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum to start. There’s also a whole line from Beauty Counter, called Countertime, that highlights a “retinatural complex” featuring bakuchiol. As a plant compound bakuchiol is especially being hailed in the natural skincare world, so brands that emphasize “clean” and “green” values have been the first to make bakuchiol products widely available.
Fun fact: The flower of the babchi plant is purple, so that’s often the color of choice for products and their packaging.
Should you make the switch to bakuchiol?
Retinoids are tried and true—and rigorously studied—while bakuchiol is quite new to mass skincare. If your retinoid of choice works well with your skin, there’s no reason to stop using it. But if you’re one of the many who hasn’t been able to work retinol into your routine without pissing off your skin in the process, products that contain bakuchiol could give you retinol-like rewards without the risk.
One benefit of making the swap for bakuchiol is also that it’s easier to fit into a skincare regimen with other actives. Unlike retinol, you shouldn’t have to worry about pairing it with vitamin C serums or exfoliating acids. And you can use it day or night, without the same worry of sun sensitivity that retinol necessitates. Still always wear that SPF though!
In any case, the discovery of bakuchiol’s effects on skin are changing the game, and it’s sure to be in an ingredient we’ll be seeing a lot more of.