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, irritated, red and flaky.
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 what it can do for your skin
- The differences between bakuchiol and retinol
- The best bakuchiol products to choose from
- My thoughts on whether it's worth the hype!
What Is Bakuchiol?
Bakuchiol is an all-natural, vegan plant extract.
It comes from the babchi plant (also known as the Psoralea corylifolia), which is native to India and Sri Lanka, and has historically been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.
You may have heard that bakuchi seed oil and babchi oil are the same thing, but that's not exactly true.
Bakuchiol is a compound isolated from babchi seeds and leaves, which is then commercially purified.
Bakuchi seed oil and babchi oil are oils expressed from babchi seeds. 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.
What Does Bakuchiol Do?
Does bakuchiol work? Compared to retinol, not a lot of clinical research has been conducted yet, but the data we do have is promising.
These are the benefits identified so far.
Improves Signs of Aging
This 2014 study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science found that bakuchiol has the same collagen-regulating and gene-modifying properties as retinol.
The researchers also had participants apply a 0.5 percent concentration twice daily for 12 weeks. The results showed a "significant improvement" in fine lines and wrinkles, elasticity, firmness and sun damage.
Another study, published in the British Journal of Dermatology in 2019, also tested 0.5 percent, twice a day for 12 weeks. It was proven to "significantly decrease" wrinkle surface area.
Fights Free Radicals
Bakuchiol is also an antioxidant, so it helps protect skin from the damage caused by free radicals.
According to a 2000 study in Planta Medica, it specifically prevents the oxidative degradation of lipids, the natural fats in our skin.
When these lipids (which include squalene, sebalaic acid, linoleic acid and cholesterol) become oxidized, they cause changes to the charge and pressure of cells, eventually leading to swelling and cell death. In preventing this process, bakuchiol is even superior to the most common antioxidant, vitamin E!
It works on dark spots by inhibiting melanin production, and may even be more effective than arbutin, according to a 2010 study in Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry.
Although it was conducted by the manufacturer, a 2011 study in Cosmetics & Toiletries found that one percent bakuchiol, applied twice a day, reduced acne by 57 percent after six weeks.
The researchers also compared it to two percent salicylic acid, applied twice daily, which only reduced acne by 48 percent. (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 percent 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 might seem like a better option than retinol—especially if you're looking for a gentle, plant-based ingredient.
Here are the pros and the cons.
✓ Almost as Effective as Retinol
In the 2019 study, participants applied either 0.5 percent bakuchiol twice per day or 0.5 percent retinol once per day, over a 12-week period.
The good news is there was no statistically significant difference between their results. So that means using bakuchiol twice a day is as effective as using retinol once a day.
✓ Gentle and Non-Irritating
In the 2014 study, the authors noted that bakuchiol achieved results without the usual "undesirable effects" associated with retinol therapy.
Those observations were repeated in the 2019 study. While the retinol users experienced "facial skin scaling and stinging," the bakuchiol users did not, leading the researchers to conclude that it is better tolerated than retinol.
✓ 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 the 2019 study, and is stable in UV light. So you can safely wear it both morning and night (although sunscreen is always a must!).
✗ Other Active Ingredients Are Equally If Not More Effective
It's important to remember that bakuchiol isn't the only ingredient that has demonstrated results that are similar to retinol. It just happens to be the one getting a lot of marketing attention right now!
For example, this 2010 study found that a routine with five percent niacinamide, peptides and retinyl propionate was comparable to one with 0.02 percent tretinoin (which is 20 times stronger than retinol).
And a 2012 study compared 0.025 percent tretinoin with a treatment containing two percent dioic acid, 1.5 percent salicylic acid and HEPES. The latter produced greater improvements in skin tone evenness, clarity, blemishes and blotchiness.
✗ May Be Sensitizing and Allergenic
Unlike retinol, bakuchiol is a plant-based ingredient. So even though it's usually gentle, some people may develop sensitivities and skin reactions.
✗ Has Estrogenic Properties
What you probably haven't heard about bakuchiol is that it is a phytoestrogen—a plant compound that that functions like estrogen.
We know that estrogen first initiates swelling (by creating an oxygen deficiency). Then, it also stimulates collagen synthesis, as per this 2019 study in the International Journal of Women's Dermatology.
But since excess collagen accumulates with aging and stress, similar to the process of scar formation, more collagen isn't necessarily beneficial. A balance between the production and breakdown of collagen is what we're after (and what happens with healthy cells).
Considering that estrogen is associated with numerous degenerative processes, I'm highly doubtful that the skin changes it produces are actually beneficial ones. As a phytoestrogen, bakuchiol would obviously be weaker, but could still add to the body's estrogen burden.
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, bakuchiol is a plant, there isn't sufficient testing on it just yet."
"There is not enough evidence to encourage pregnant women to use it, [but] its botanical etiology may make it a safer option," says Dr. Rachel Narazian.
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 the best bakuchiol serums to choose from....
Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum
Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum is a 100 percent natural, jelly-textured serum featuring bakuchiol (although the brand doesn't say how much). It also has polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) for gentle exfoliation, plus aloe vera and glycerin to hydrate.
BYBI Bakuchiol Booster
BYBI Bakuchiol Booster contains only two ingredients: one percent bakuchiol, and a base of lightweight, fast-absorbing squalane oil. You can either wear it alone or mix it with a hydrating serum, cream or balm.
The Inkey List Bakuchiol
The Inkey List Bakuchiol is an ultra light moisturizer with a one percent concentration of bakuchiol. Its other ingredients include squalane oil, 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 glycolic and lactic acids, but since there's less than one percent of each, it's not a strong exfoliant.
Pacifica Future Youth Crystal Ball Serum
Pacifica Future Youth Crystal Ball Serum blends an unknown amount of bakuchiol with sugar, hyaluronic acid, quartz powder and glycerin. It has a roll-on applicator, so make sure you apply it to clean skin only.
Indeed Labs Bakuchiol Reface Pads
Indeed Labs Bakuchiol Reface Pads let you swipe on your bakuchiol, along with brightening niacinamide, soothing allantoin and the antioxidant hydroxyacetophenone.
Nuori Infinity Bio-Fusion Serum
Nuori Infinity Bio-Fusion Serum has 0.5 percent 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.
Beautycounter Countertime Tripeptide Radiance Serum
Beautycounter Countertime Tripeptide Radiance Serum offers the anti-aging benefits of bakuchiol, a tripeptide and amino acids. It also has glycerin, squalane and hyaluronic acid to restore the moisture barrier.
Conclusion: Is Bakuchiol Worth the Hype?
Now that I've done a lot of digging on bakuchiol, I'm not convinced it really lives up to the hype.
I think it could be a decent option if you only want to use natural and vegan ingredients, and if your skin is already in pretty good shape. With twice daily use being equivalent to nightly 0.5 percent retinol, the results will be fairly modest.
I believe that most people are still better off using retinol or other retinoids. For one thing, they're way more proven—we have decades of data to demonstrate their efficacy and safety. (And you don't have to worry about any estrogenic effects.)
Obviously, retinoids also come in a range of strengths, depending on the type and concentration you choose. Someone with sun-damaged, acne-prone, oily or mature skin might find bakuchiol too weak to do much, whereas a stronger retinol, retinaldehyde or hydroxypinacolone retinoate treatment could give them dramatic results.
But what about people with sensitive skin?
If you're SURE you can't tolerate retinol, then you could go ahead and try bakuchiol. Keep in mind that there is still the possibility of an allergic reaction or contact dermatitis.
However, you shouldn't automatically write off retinol, because the idea that sensitive skin can't use it is a myth. It IS possible to build a tolerance if you start at a low dose (say, 0.3 percent) and slowly introduce it to your routine. (I'd apply it twice a week at first, and gradually increase the frequency to nightly. After that, you can move up to a higher strength.)
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.
Personally, I'll be sticking with my A313 Vitamin A Pommade (reviewed here). I've been using retinoids for so long that my skin tolerates them really well at this point, even at higher concentrations. When I recently switched to Lixirskin Night Switch 1% Retinol for my fall skincare routine, I felt like it wasn't doing anything, probably because my skin is used to the (much stronger) A313.
Knowing that, I can't imagine I'd notice any benefits from bakuchiol, which is weaker than both. (That's why the Herbivore Bakuchiol I bought a while back is still sitting untouched!)
But I'd love to hear about YOUR experiences with bakuchiol... am I missing out?
Have you tried bakuchiol?
What results have you noticed?