Bakuchiol plant
Originally used in ancient medicine, bakuchiol is now the new skincare ingredient taking over the beauty industry. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Skincare formulators finally heard the pleas and cries of people with sensitive skin, a gentler version of retinol: bakuchiol, a naturally derived and vegan ingredient. This vegan alternative is the prized possession of skincare fanatics and ageless celebs. The plant-based alternative is having a major moment because it has results similar to retinol - smoother and glowing skin, except it's not animal-derived and is found in the babchi plant (Psoralea corylifolia). It has all the perks of the Vitamin A derivative but without the downsides, irritated and dry skin. Originally used in ancient Chinese and Indian medicine, bakuchiol is now flying off shelves all over the world.

Retinol is the crème de la crème of skincare ingredients and is the cure to wrinkles, acne and hyperpigmentation. But how can bakuchiol live up to the expectations or compete with retinol, a titan and juggernaut in the skincare world? Like any other new trending skincare ingredient, it is important to investigate whether this widely praised ingredient is all hype or if it's the real deal.

With new ingredients popping up almost every day, it's understandable if you're a little confused about retinol and bakuchiol in general. So here's the relevant information on bakuchiol, what it is, its benefits, how it works and will it give retinol a run for its money.

babchi plant
Bakuchiol is touted as a vegan alternative to retinol and it is derived from the babchi plant (Psoralea corylifolia). Image Credit: Shutterstock

Meet bakuchiol: the ‘natural retinol’

The first and most crucial information to note down about bakuchiol is that it's not a form of retinol, and neither is it identical. Both are structurally and chemically different. In an exclusive interview, Gulf News spoke to skincare formulator chemists - Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu. They are also the founders of US-based Chemist Confessions, a skincare brand and educational website and resource about skincare.

Victoria Fu explained why retinol and bakuchiol are opposites. She said: "Bakuchiol and retinol are not related compounds. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has been in use for decades for the skin while bakuchiol is a relatively much newer ingredient. The reason that they end up in the same conversation is that initial studies suggest that bakuchiol may interact with the retinoic pathway in the skin giving bakuchiol its anti-ageing properties."

Bakuchiol and retinol are not related compounds. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has been in use for decades for the skin while bakuchiol is a relatively much newer ingredient.

- Victoria Fu, co-founder of Chemist Confessions

A 2014 study by US-based researchers published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science discovered that bakuchiol has no structural resemblance to retinoids but can function as a functional analogue of retinol. Functional analogues are chemical compounds that have similar physical and chemical properties.

But bakuchiol based studies are new and limited. "Bakuchiol first caught researchers' eyes because it seems to activate very similar biological pathways as retinol. But more studies are needed to fully understand bakuchiol's mechanism," said Fu.

The same study also found that after 12 weeks of using bakuchiol, the subjects in the study found significant improvement in lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, firmness, collagen increase and reduction in photo damage. Photo damaged skin is wrinkles, roughness and hyperpigmentation caused by prolonged sun exposure.

Bakuchiol is based on the Sanskrit name, bakuchi, the name of the plant source and has been used to treat skin problems such as rashes, eczema and dermatitis for centuries in ancient medicine. Bakuchiol has been a part of Ayurvedic medicine, but it was first isolated in 1966. Bakuchiol only became mainstream recently in cosmetics and beauty products. Even though there’s limited clinical research on its efficacy, the studies on bakuchiol have yielded positive and promising results.

Brimming with anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, bakuchiol sounds like the dream ingredient, but there's no reason you should promptly swap your mighty tretinoin prescription for bakuchiol.

Bakuchiol skincare
Bakuchiol also claims to improve hyperpigmentation and increase collagen, but clinical studies on the ingredient are limited.

Retinol vs Bakuchiol: Who wins?

In spite of bakuchiol’s five star reviews, there is one major downfall; the lack of clinical studies behind it. Retinol is a hardcore derivative that requires your skin to purge, but the wealth of evidence backing up bakuchiol's claims are lacking.

Gloria Lu says that whether bakuchiol is better than retinol is subjective. She said: "In terms of anti-ageing benefits, it (bakuchiol) isn't better than retinol. It's lacking the countless clinical studies that retinol has under its belt. In fact, in one study that directly benchmarks 0.5 per cent bakuchiol to 0.5 per cent retinol, retinol used once a day performs similarly to using bakuchiol twice a day. That said, bakuchiol is less likely to irritate as compared to retinol. So if your skin has a hard time adjusting to retinol, bakuchiol could be a better alternative."

Regarding the issue of tolerability, bakuchiol gets a few extra points because those taking retinol report stinging and peeling skin. Bakuchiol is not photosensitive, which means you can get away with applying it day and night.

In a 2018 study published in the British Journal of Dermatology, US-based researchers demonstrated that bakuchiol is comparable with retinol in mitigating the effects of photo-ageing and a more tolerable alternative to retinol.

Topical tretinoin (retinoic acid) has been used in the cosmetic industry for almost 40 years. Retinol has solidified its claims in curing acne and photo-damage and has treated additional dermatological conditions. "Tretinoin (retinoic acid) is still the gold standard proven to work on both cystic acne and hyperpigmentation. If you're looking for an over the counter alternative, we also recommend looking into 0.1 per cent adapalene," said Gloria Lu.

Tretinoin (retinoic acid) is still the gold standard proven to work on both cystic acne and hyperpigmentation.

- Gloria Lu, co-founder of Chemist Confessions

Bakuchiol is a pretty friendly ingredient that gets along with other actives like PHA (polyhydroxy acids) and AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) but it should be slowly incorporated into your daily routine. Victoria Fu suggests: "With exfoliants like PHA, AHA, it is always important to proceed with caution and not over layer. So introduce bakuchiol slowly into your routine. Use 2 to 3 times a week and monitor."

Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu recommend these bakuchiol-based products:

Both of them recommend products that disclose the percentage of bakuchiol in the product.

• Paula's Choice 0.3 per cent Retinol + 2 per cent Bakuchiol Treatment
• Face Theory – Bakuluronic moisturizer M1 with 2% Bakuchiol, Hyaluronic Acid and Vitamin C

So which should I choose retinol or bakuchiol?

Bakuchiol is vying for the number one spot, but it might need more scientific data and evidence to achieve that. Nevertheless, if you're facing issues with retinol, it's time to visit the dermatologist and see if bakuchiol is the right fit for you.