Bakuchiol is the latest in a long line of buzzy skin care ingredients that appeared seemingly overnight and is now absolutely everywhere.
You’ve probably seen it touted on bottles of night creams, serums, exfoliating pads, and oils as “natural retinol” or a “plant-derived retinol alternative”—as if that explains anything at all. What even is this so-called natural retinol, and what can it do for your skin? Here’s what you need to know.
First off, it’s not actually retinol.
The marketing behind products containing bakuchiol strongly implies that it’s basically identical to retinol. It’s not. “Bakuchiol is actually not a [form of] retinol,” Mary Sheu, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells SELF. “It’s structurally and chemically completely different.” Sure, the two molecules behave similarly in cosmetic applications, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same.
Their differences mostly stem from the origins of each molecule. Bakuchiol is derived from the seeds and leaves of the Psoralea corylifolia plant, or babchi, an herb traditionally used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases. In contrast, retinol is one of the major forms of vitamin A—specifically, the form of the vitamin that your body absorbs from animal products.
This means that bakuchiol products have the potential to be vegan and/or cruelty-free, which isn’t always the case for OTC retinol products.
The research is limited but promising.
Even though it was first isolated in 1966, bakuchiol has only very recently started showing up in cosmetics—and since it’s so new, there’s not much clinical research on its efficacy and side effects. However, two recent studies have found promising data on bakuchiol’s supposed anti-aging effects, both on its own and compared to retinol.
In the first study, published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science in 2014, researchers used synthetic skin and collagen cell cultures to test the anti-aging effects of bakuchiol. Their results showed that bakuchiol had very similar gene expression and collagen regulation properties to retinol—at least in fake skin and disembodied cells.
To get an idea of how bakuchiol performed in real life, they also had 16 participants apply a 0.5% bakuchiol product twice a day for 12 weeks. They saw improvements in every category (compared to their baseline, not a placebo treatment): fine lines and wrinkles, roughness, dryness, and elasticity, among others. And they didn’t see the usual side effects of starting retinol, like irritation and dry, flaking skin.
Then a 2018 study published in the British Academy of Dermatology took things one step further, pitting bakuchiol and retinol against each other in a 12-week, double-blind clinical trial on human subjects. For the study, 44 participants received either a twice-daily 0.5% bakuchiol product or a once-daily 0.5% retinol product, and their progress was evaluated by a dermatologist who didn’t know which group was which.
Both groups saw improvements in hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, and redness, and there was no statistically significant difference between their results, which suggests that using bakuchiol twice a day is as effective as using retinol once a day. Plus, the bakuchiol group reported less skin scaling and flaking than the retinol group.
Aaaaand that’s pretty much it for clinical research. At least one study has looked at bakuchiol in combination with other anti-aging ingredients like antioxidants. But as a stand-alone ingredient, our best and only data come from the two above studies. Taken together, those studies suggest that bakuchiol may be functionally comparable to retinol—and possibly a bit gentler.
Of course, there’s a catch.
“Extra-gentle vegan retinol” sure sounds like a slam-dunk, but there’s a catch: For now, we only know how bakuchiol stacks up to retinol, not any other retinoids. “They’re not comparing it to tretinoin,” Olga Bunimovich, M.D., a dermatologist and assistant professor at UPMC in Pittsburgh, tells SELF.
It’s super important to keep that in mind when shopping for a serum, especially if you have more severe acne that may require a more effective type of treatment.
Tretinoin, a form of retinoic acid, is the gold standard retinoid for a reason: It treats acne, hyperpigmentation, and fine lines better than any topical medication out there, thanks largely to its potency. “Tretinoin is about 20 times more potent than retinol because retinol has to be converted to an active form [before the body can actually use it],” Dr. Bunimovich explains. It’s not that retinol can’t treat fine lines or acne; it’s just an inefficient way to go about it.
Since the data we have suggest that bakuchiol’s potency is close to retinol’s, a bakuchiol serum might work as well as an OTC retinol with fewer side effects—but it won’t replace your need (and possibly a prescription) for tretinoin, isotretinoin, tazorac, or adapalene.
There’s one more potential drawback to consider: allergies. The Journal of Contact Dermatitis has published two different case reports of allergic reactions to bakuchiol cosmetics since June 2019. “It’s possible to develop allergic reactions to plant substances,” Dr. Sheu reminds us. “Poison ivy is a plant.” Allergic reactions are rare, but always test new products carefully—and if they cause a reaction, wash ’em off right away.
The bottom line: Bakuchiol might be a good starter retinoid.
So should you try bakuchiol or not? The answer, according to the three dermatologists I interviewed, is an overwhelming maybe.
Bakuchiol is “a nice place to start” with retinoids, Shilpi Khetarpal, M.D., a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF, acknowledging that its vegan status is a big plus for many people.
Dr. Bunimovich took a more skeptical position: “I’m not sure what you’re winning with this [as compared to retinol], to be honest,” she says. And Dr. Sheu is somewhere in between: “Sometimes the naturally derived ingredients [like bakuchiol] are nice to consider,” she says. “But sometimes synthetics are a better way to go. It has to be on a case-by-case basis.”
Just like retinol, bakuchiol could be a great place to start or a waste of time. It all depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re in a committed relationship with your Retin-A prescription, bakuchiol probably isn’t for you—but if you’re in the market for a gentle, plant-derived introduction to the world of retinoids, it might be just the ticket.