What is bakuchiol? Meet the anti-aging retinol alternative

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Moisturizers, serums, night creams: many of us seek out products boasting retinol as part of our skincare regimens. For decades, dermatologists have praised retinol for its anti-aging properties. But retinol can also cause irritation, redness, and peeling—especially for those with sensitive skin.

Bakuchiol (pronounced ba-KU-chee-ol or BAK-uh-heel) is a plant-based alternative to retinol. While new to the skincare market, it’s made from a plant that has been known to the Indian practice of Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Recent research has shown that it matches retinol’s benefits while causing fewer side effects.

What are the benefits of retinol?

While commonly found in skincare products, you may not know exactly what retinol does in the body. Understanding retinol’s benefits will help you decide if it’s worth seeking an alternative. 

So what is retinol?

Retinol is a Vitamin A derivative and a type of retinoid. All retinoids work by stimulating collagen production, making your skin appear fuller and smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles. Scientifically speaking, retinoids convert into retinoic acid after being applied to your skin, and it is the retinoic acid that stimulates collagen synthesis.

Retinoids come in a variety of strengths. From weakest to strongest they are:

  • Retinyl palmitate

  • Retinol

  • Retinaldehyde

  • Adapalene (strongest available over-the-counter)

  • Retinoic acid (available by prescription)

There’s also a newer, non-prescription form of retinoic acid called granactive retinoid, but there isn’t yet enough research to determine how strong it is relative to more established retinoids. 

Retinoids marketed towards people with sensitive skin are likely retinyl palmitate or low-concentration retinols. These retinol products may cause less irritation, but they are also less effective than their higher-concentration counterparts. 

Retinol’s additional health benefits

Our skin replaces itself about every 28 days, but this process slows down as we age. Retinol speeds up skin cell regeneration, working on a cellular level to make your skin look younger. 

Retinol additionally:

  • Smooths fine lines and minimizes the formation of wrinkles

  • Treats and prevents acne

  • Fades hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and spots caused by photodamage (sun damage)

  • Improves signs of aging across a range of skin types and skin of color

What are the side effects of retinol?

The most common side effect of retinol is known as retinoid dermatitis. It is characterized by redness, irritation, drying and peeling of the skin. Side effects are worse for the first several weeks of using a retinol product.

Sun exposure is another consideration. When using a prescription-strength retinoid you may have increased photosensitivity, and therefore the FDA recommends limiting exposure to sunlight. That means applying your retinoid at night and wearing sunscreen daily. 

Pregnancy is another major consideration. It’s best to steer clear of retinoids if you are pregnant or planning to have a baby.

What is bakuchiol?

Research overviews support the benefits of retinoids, but side effects may leave you seeking alternatives, especially if you know from experience that your skin can’t tolerate retinol.

Enter bakuchiol. This natural ingredient has seen recent scientific study due to its antioxidant, anti-microbial, and anti-inflammatory properties.

Bakuchiol is not structurally similar to retinol. However, topical use of bakuchiol initiates a retinol-like regulation of gene expression. Meaning: your body reacts to bakuchiol similar to the way it reacts to retinol, making bakuchiol a natural anti-aging supplement.

Where does bakuchiol come from?

Psoralea corylifolia is commonly known as the babchi plant. Bakuchiol is extracted from the seeds of this plant, in a process first documented in 1966. The seed has been used in Indian Ayurveda practice for much longer. In traditional Chinese medicine it goes by the name Bu Gu Zhi, and it is used to treat vitiligo.

Does bakuchiol work as well as retinol?

A recent study from the respected British Journal of Dermatology sought to answer this question.

In the study, 44 volunteers applied either bakuchiol 0.5% cream or retinol 0.5% cream twice daily to their facial skin. Portraiture and an analytic system were used to track progress at 0, 4, 8, and 12 weeks, and patients reported side effects including stinging, scaling, and redness.

The study was randomized and double-blind, meaning participants used the facial cream not knowing whether it was bakuchiol or retinol, and the dermatologist assessing pigmentation (skin coloring) and redness also did not know. Double-blind studies are performed to avoid bias and preconceived notions.

After 12 weeks, bakuchiol and retinol both decreased wrinkling and hyperpigmentation to a statistically similar degree, but those who used retinol reported more skin scaling and stinging. Both groups saw a 20% reduction in wrinkling, but bakuchiol reduced hyperpigmentation by 59% while retinol reduced it by 44%. 

In other words, bakuchiol boasted the same benefits (or better) but with fewer side effects.

More research needed

The study concluded that while bakuchiol is promising as a more tolerable alternative to retinol, more research with a larger number of participants is needed. Of scientific articles available through PubMed, 60,162 contain the word retinol, but only 138 mention bakuchiol.

Research into bakuchiol continues, and it may have benefits beyond its retinol-like properties. A handful of studies show that bakuchiol suppresses the proliferation of cancer cells, including in prostate cancer and skin cancer.

Thus far, few risks have been found. In one case, ingesting and over-applying babchi seeds caused jaundice, but the unprocessed dried babchi seeds are more potent than what’s found in bakuchiol skincare products. 

The bottom line on bakuchiol

While more research is needed, bakuchiol looks to be a promising solution if retinol irritates your skin. 

Bakuchiol is also an attractive alternative for those who seek natural health and beauty products, meaning it should be easy to find bakuchiol in products that are also vegan, organic, cruelty-free, paraben-free, PEG-free, and free of synthetic fragrances. 

For now, products containing bakuchiol are typically more expensive than retinoids and may be harder to find. Like retinoids, you’ll find bakuchiol in a variety of serums and creams. All are formulated for topical application to your face. 

It’s also possible to find bakuchiol in the form of undiluted seed oil but this product must be diluted before use. These products are often sold as “Bakuchi oil,” which is the Sanskrit name of the plant.

If you want to give bakuchiol a try, check out The Cut’s 2019 guide to the best bakuchiol products, which features a variety of cosmetic formulas, from bakuchiol-rich creams to bakuchiol serum and bakuchiol oil. 

Whatever your reasons for seeking a retinol alternative may be, it’s good to know that there’s a gentle, effective option in bakuchiol, a “new” discovery with an ancient history in traditional medicine.