Retinoids (vitamin A derivatives) are by far the most raved-about ingredients by both dermatologists and skincare junkies. They’re absolutely fantastic for treating both acne and the signs of aging skin.
Unfortunately, retinoids tend to be irritating for most people, turning your face into a dry peeling mess if you’re too heavy-handed (me, a lot of the time). That’s why there’s a lot of excitement around bakuchiol and babchi oil.
Bakuchiol is an ingredient found in the babchi plant (Psoralea corylifolia). You’ve probably read that bakuchiol is as effective as retinol in its anti-aging effects, and some people have dubbed it “the natural alternative to retinol”. Some places even say it’s better than retinol, with “all the benefits of retinol but none of the downsides”. It’s even been touted to be better than prescription tretinoin!
But does it really deserve this comparison? Let’s look at the science.
Is bakuchiol as antiaging as retinol?
There’s one recent open-access independent clinical study, published in the British Journal of Dermatology, that’s particularly impressive. It’s a randomised double-blind trial that lasted 12 weeks, in which 44 people applied either 0.5% bakuchiol cream twice a day, or 0.5% retinol cream once a day on their faces.
Bakuchiol and retinol reduced wrinkle surface area (based on computer analysis) and hyperpigmentation (based on computer analysis and a dermatologist’s grading) to a similar extent. However, people using retinol had more peeling and stinging, while those using bakuchiol had more redness. There wasn’t any photosensitivity in the bakuchiol group.
(Some descriptions of this study missed the fact that bakuchiol was applied twice a day, while retinol was only applied once a day. While this does demonstrate that bakuchiol is much less irritating, it doesn’t show that it’s as effective as retinol, since twice as much was used.)
However, while impressive, these results aren’t super exciting on their own – there have been other ingredients that have been found to work similarly to retinoids to decrease the signs of aging in studies that didn’t get the same hype.
Does bakuchiol act like retinol?
It’s really the in vitro studies that raised the hype bar for bakuchiol.
In a paper published in 2014 (by the founder of the company that sells bakuchiol), the gene expression of bakuchiol was found to be similar to retinol according to a DNA microarray study using full thickness skin models (they displayed similarly shaped volcano plots). This means that there are similarities in how they affect cell pathways. The same study found that bakuchiol and retinol also stimulated collagen in cell studies.
In another study, the same researchers found that bakuchiol was better than retinol at slowing down the activity of two matrix metalloprotease enzymes that break down collagen and elastin, MMP-1 and MMP-12.
However, interestingly, bakuchiol doesn’t seem to act via the retinoic acid receptors (which isn’t that surprising to me as a medicinal chemist – while bakuchiol superficially resembles retinol and tretinoin structurally, its six-membered ring is aromatic and flat, and the oxygen is on the other end of the molecule).
It’s also worth remembering that retinol also needs to be oxidised to retinoic acid (tretinoin) to be active in skin. Whether this process occurs in the in vitro studies to a similar extent as in living human skin is questionable.
A more direct comparison would’ve been bakuchiol vs tretinoin, since tretinoin is already in its active form, but the authors don’t explain why they picked retinol instead.
Bakuchiol does have some additional advantages compared to retinol. As well as better tolerability, it’s also been found to have antimicrobial effects in vitro.
Like retinoids, it’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It’s used in some Bioderma products to prevent the oxidation of squalene in sebum, which is thought to contribute to clogged pores. It’s also more stable than retinol, and has been found to increase retinol’s stability.
However, since it’s a natural ingredient, bakuchiol is more likely to trigger allergic reactions than synthetic retinoids, especially if it’s included as a natural extract.
Related post: Video: Are Natural Beauty Products Better?
Why bakuchiol can’t compare with retinoids
Here’s the single biggest problem with the retinoid comparison:
The main reason for the huge clout that retinoids get in skincare is the wealth of evidence that support their use. The earliest studies on tretinoin date back to the 1970s. There are hundreds of high quality clinical trials on the benefits of tretinoin for skin, which is why it’s often referred to as a “gold standard”.
While the evidence for retinol is a bit weaker, it inherits some of the clout since we know it’s converted to tretinoin in the skin.
But for bakuchiol? The evidence is weak compared to many of the standard skincare ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids and vitamin C, let alone retinoids. But it’s a very attractive marketing story.
Bakuchiol is a promising skincare ingredient, and could be a valuable addition to your skincare routine, but you shouldn’t replace your retinoids with it.
If you have skin that can’t handle retinoids, or if you’re pregnant, bakuchiol might be a safer choice. But in terms of robust evidence for effectiveness, it’s nowhere near retinoids.
Products with Bakuchiol
Dhaliwal S et al., Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoageing (open access), Br J Dermatol. 2019, 180, 289-296. DOI: 10.1111/bjd.16918.
Chaudhuri RK & Bojanowski K, Bakuchiol: a retinol-like functional compound revealed by gene expression profiling and clinically proven to have anti-aging effects, Int J Cosmet Sci. 2014, 36, 221-30. DOI: 10.1111/ics.12117.
Chaudhuri RK, Bakuchiol; A retinol-like functional compound modulating multiple retinol and non-retinol targets, In Cosmeceuticals and Active Cosmetics, 3rd Edition, RK Sivamani, J Jagdeo, P Elsner & HI Maibach (eds), Francis & Taylor, Boca Raton, 2015.
Some of these products were provided for editorial consideration, which did not affect my opinion. This post also contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and support Lab Muffin financially (at no extra cost to you), thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.