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This Natural Alternative to Retinol Is Actually Better Than the Real Thing

Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images

It’s never a good idea to label something nature’s answer to some other thing. Like wellness influencers calling berries “nature’s candy.” Berries are literally among the top ten foods you can put in your mouth, but saying they’re nature’s candy is just setting everyone up for disappointment.

I couldn’t help but bring that kind of negative thinking to the table when I cracked open my first bottle of bakuchiol, a.k.a. #naturesretinol. But as I sit here a month later with my skin glowing, I’m mildly irked to admit that my annoyance at this dorky hashtag was unfounded.

As beauty’s hot new “natural” ingredient, bakuchiol has been popping up in loads of exciting new formulations, and the good news is that both clinical studies and anecdotal evidence support the claim that it’s a dupe for retinol, the wonder drug for smooth and bouncy skin.

“Bakuchiol is just as effective as retinol in stimulating collagen production,” says Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified dermatologic surgeon and New York-based celebrity dermatologist. Bakuchiol was formulated into a finished skin-care product and was tested in a clinical case study by twice-a-day facial application, according to Dr. Engelman. “The results showed that, after 12 weeks of treatment, significant improvement in lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, firmness and overall reduction in photo-damage was observed.”

But what truly makes bakuchiol worth its weight in gold is the fact that it comes with none of the baggage that retinol does. “I’ve created skin-care product prototypes using bakuchiol and I personally think it is a great natural alternative to retinol, especially for those with sensitive or dry skin prone to retinol irritation,” says Rhonda M. Davis, cosmetic chemist for Alquemie Product Development Group.

Retinol has been used for decades as one of the few reliable over-the-counter ingredients with solid anti-aging credentials (not to be confused with Retin-A or tretinoin, its turbo-charged version, which is available by prescription only). It’s the Swiss Army knife of beauty — it promotes collagen production, encourages cell turnover, reduces wrinkles and dark spots, and even fights acne. But all that comes at a cost. Retinol is irritating to the skin, causing major side effects like irritation, peeling, redness, dryness, and sun sensitivity. Pregnant women can’t use it for fear of causing birth defects in the fetus, and it’s most often a no-go for people with sensitive skin.

Bakuchiol, on the other hand, has all of retinol’s benefits, but you won’t suffer that scorched-earth aftermath. As someone with sensitive skin, I can vouch for that. Even after a month of regular use, I’ve experienced none of the tell-tale irritation that I’d get from retinol after just a few days. I started by alternating a couple of bakuchiol serums: Herbivore’s Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Serum and Beautycounter’s Countertime Tripeptide Radiance Serum; I also added Countertime Ultra Renewal Eye Cream to the mix. By now, I’d run out of facial real estate but still had Omorovicza’s Miracle Facial Oil to test, so I’ve been deploying that on my limbs shamelessly, like a one-percenter.

After a month, I found my skin smoother and firmer, with improved clarity and tone. The texture of my eye area is nearing baby’s bottom territory, though some darkness remains. And since I wasn’t restricted to night-only use (often the case with most retinol products), I could easily fit bakuchiol into my daily routine.

Which brings me to another plus in the bakuchiol versus retinol showdown: Bakuchiol can be used safely during the day without fear of causing sun sensitivity. Who am I even, I wondered, as I dripped bakuchiol oil on my legs in 90-degree weather and dabbed the cream around my eyes. The audacity of being out in the sun with a retinol-adjacent substance slathered all over me was breathtaking; I’m too cowardly to ever have tried messing with retinol like this. (Full disclosure: I did sunscreen my face; the body I wasn’t that fussed about).

In my limited anecdotal experience, there was one area I didn’t see an improvement in: Bakuchiol doesn’t seem to mimic retinol’s deeply satisfying pore-unplugging action. To be fair, none of the studies I read claim this to be the case. According to Dr. Engelman, bakuchiol’s antibacterial properties mean that it’s great for those with acne and oily skin, and that the acne-prone should take advantage of its gentleness. “There are instances where you should avoid specific products when using a retinol, such as exfoliators, toners, benzoyl peroxide, as they can cause irritation. However, due to bakuchiol’s natural composition it’s safe to use with other products in your skin-care regimen,” she says. Davis agrees, pointing to salicylic acid as a great add-on to combat acne and comedones. In other words, it’s helpful when used with another acne-clearing aid.

If you’re wondering where this beauty unicorn has been your whole life, it turns out that the East has known about it all along. Bakuchiol is derived from the seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia or babchi plant, and has been used in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. “Bakuchi (as it’s known in Ayurveda) has been used to treat leukoderma or vitiligo, hyperpigmentation, skin rashes and a host of other skin conditions,” says Michelle Ranavat, the founder of Ayurveda-inspired beauty brand Ranavat Botanics. Ranavat, who is based in Los Angeles, learned about this ingredient in 2016 at an Ayurvedic conference in Kolkata, India, while researching ingredients. “I was working on a brightening mask and I was looking for ingredients that helped create an even complexion. Bakuchi really stood out.” Ranavat says since hyperpigmentation is such a huge area of focus especially for the South Asian community, learning about this ingredient was very exciting.

To know if you’re getting a bakuchiol product with enough of the hero ingredient to make a difference, Davis advises you to read the fine print of the ingredient list. Bakuchiol should be listed before the preservatives (which most often show up as phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, or ethylhexylglycerin). If it comes after those ingredients, you’re only getting a small percentage, which won’t do much for the skin.

Davis thinks as chemists become more aware of bakuchiol’s benefits and see more studies that back its clinical claims, it will become a major retinol contender and will be widely used in formulas. You might not have to wait that long — here’s what’s already out there.

The Best Bakuchiol Products

The Inkey List Bakuchiol

This culty British beauty brand landed at Sephora a few months ago. Each product contains one star ingredient, and this lightweight moisturizer celebrates — you guessed it — bakuchiol.

Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Serum

Bakuchiol’s benefits are boosted by this formula’s gently resurfacing Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs) that turn over skin and help the star ingredient penetrate better.

Olehenriksen Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum

With AHAs thrown into the mix, this serum is an effective resurfacing and brightening glow-maker.

Alpyn Beauty Natural PlantGenius Melt Moisturizer

Ceramides, squalane, Vitamin C and loads of hydrating oils go into this indulgent, bakuchiol-enriched moisturizer.

Ranavat Botanicals Flawless Veil Illuminating Masque

The Ayurveda-inspired brand brings back skin-care ingredients used for centuries like Fuller’s earth, saffron, turmeric, and sandalwood, along with bakuchi-seed powder.

Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum

Biossance packs in skin-nourishing squalane oil with bakuchiol to hydrate and plump skin.

ISDINCEUTICS MELATONIK 3-in-1 Night Serum

Dr. Dendy Engelman recommends this serum as perfect for all skin types. It has bakuchiol, melatonin, and Vitamin C, which acts like a triple-threat to oxidative stress, free radical damage, and collagen degradation.

OMOROVICZA Miracle Facial Oil

Skin-saving oils like sea buckthorn berry, rosehip, and sweet almond go into this mix along with our hero ingredient, but the best part is the baby-oil-meets-hothouse-flowers scent.

BeautyCounter Countertime Collection

This six-piece bakuchiol bacchanalia provides multi-product support with a cleansing oil, hydrating essence, serum, eye cream, as well as light and rich moisturizers. They all contain bakuchiol and an antioxidant alpine-rose extract.

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This Retinol Alternative Is Better Than the Real Thing