Skin irritated by retinol? Try this natural alternative instead
Hailed as a gentle alternative to retinol, bakuchiol – one of skincare’s buzziest ingredients – boasts the same skin healing and acne-fighting benefits. There’s even scientific proof to back it up.
Cast your eye over any skin guru’s bathroom cabinet and you’ll likely spot more retinol-loaded beauty products than you’d care to count – and for good reason. There’s a lot to love about the power ingredient, which has soared to cult skincare status in the last couple of years; namely its skin-smoothing, brightening, collagen-stimulating prowess and its ability to treat acne.
Billed as the ‘gold standard’ in anti-ageing, the vitamin A-derivative is proven to speed up our skin cells’ turnover. In turn? Fine lines are reduced, pigmentation is treated and blackheads and whiteheads are both minimised. In their place, expect plumpness, radiance and a more even skin tone and texture.
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It’s no wonder experts say retinol is one of only three ‘magic’ skin ingredients we really need alongside vitamin C and SPF. Commonly found in over-the-counter products, it can also be prescribed in higher concentrations by dermatologists.
But, like most things we love, retinol has a downside. All that turbo-regeneration action can come with a side serving of dryness, flaking, redness and inflammation if your complexion’s sensitive.
It’s why experts advise introducing retinol into your routine gradually – either by slowly upping your usage or even by creating a barrier with the application of a more moisturising cream or serum first.
Bakuchiol vs retinol
But what if there was a kinder alternative to retinol? An ingredient that promised the same transformative powers only without the risk of irritation? According to scientists, there is, and it comes in the form of a natural, plant-based ingredient called bakuchiol.
With Pinterest searches for it up 275%, bakuchiol (pronounced buh-koo-chee-all) is a star in many of the industry’s most in-demand skincare products. Allies of Skin uses it in its overnight serum while Ole Henriksen has chosen it as the hero of his Transform Plus range.
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And it’s got the research to back it up. A clinical study looking at bakuchiol’s impact on skin found it to be just as effective as retinol when it comes to nuking hyperpigmentation and fine lines. But – and here’s the seriously exciting part – bakuchiol testers experienced none of the soreness or irritation that is so often reported with retinol.
Intrigued? Here’s everything you need to know about retinol’s calmer, less angsty little sister in our ultimate bakuchiol cheat sheet…
What is bakuchiol?
Derived from the seeds and leaves of Eastern Asia’s ‘babchi’ plant (officially the psoralea corylifolia plant), bakuchiol has been a mainstay in traditional Ayurvedic and Chinese skin-healing treatments for centuries.
It’s long been loved for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties – the same characteristics that have led scientists to take a closer look at it in recent years.
While it doesn’t have the same make-up as retinol (it doesn’t come from vitamin A) bakuchiol’s effect on skin is remarkably similar hence the term ‘retinol alternative.’
What are the benefits of using bakuchiol for your skin?
It’s been found to improve skin brightness, sort uneven skin tone, up plumpness, minimise enlarged pores, boost firmness, smooth out texture and lessen fine lines. In short, it offers all the same plus points as retinol – but with less risk of irritation.
In one study, researchers from California, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania observed the effect on 44 participants, giving them either bakuchiol or retinol to apply. After 12 weeks, both showed a reduction in wrinkles and hyperpigmentation but the retinol users reported more skin scaling and stinging. Another study showed it to be highly effective at treating acne.
“Bakuchiol has been shown to activate a number of chemical pathways in skin cells that ultimately lead to improved collagen production, decreased collagen breakdown and reduction of melanin (pigment) synthesis.The overall net effect seems to be an improvement in fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation which are commonly associated with the natural ageing process of the skin.
“It’s definitely the ‘new kid on the block’ and is gaining a lot of interest as the demand for plant-based or botanical ingredients grows in the beauty and skincare industry,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto.
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Can bakuchiol be used for all skin types?
Yes! The magic of bakuchiol is that it’s tolerated by all. Whether you’re dry, dehydrated, oily or sensitive, you’re much more likely to get on with it than you are retinol.
“Bakuchiol brings the power of retinoids to everyone safely without any of the negative side effects,” comments skincare expert Ole Henriksen.
Is bakuchiol safe during pregnancy?
One of the main issues with retinol is the fact it’s not advisable to use if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding your baby. This applies to retinoids in all their forms including retinoic acid and Retin-A.
Certain studies have shown that taking vitamin A in high doses during pregnancy can be harmful to the unborn child. Similarly, retinoids taken orally (such as tretinoin) are known to case birth defects. While applying these topically in skincare hasn’t been proven to cause problems in pregnancy or breastfeeding, doctors recommend avoiding it.
So what’s the deal with bakuchiol? While some experts say there’s not yet quite enough evidence to confirm either way, most, including Ole Henriksen, rule it is perfectly safe to use while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding – offering a major advantage over retinol.
When should you start using bakuchiol in your skincare routine and how often?
There’s no hard and fast rule for when you should start reaching for bakuchiol although most of the bugbears it tackles are likely to hit in your mid-20s onwards. Unlike retinol, it won’t break down in the sun or make your skin more sensitive to UV rays so you’re free to use it both day and night. In the studies mentioned, participants applied it twice a day.
Can bakuchiol be used in combination with other ingredients?
Dryness and flaking aside, retinol can also pose some problems when it comes to mixing it with other skincare ingredients. While some experts advise against cocktailing with other actives, like alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or vitamin C, others maintain it’s not an issue.
Although if your skin’s fussy, you’ll likely to get on better with gentle giant bakuchiol that will very easily complement your existing arsenal. In research with acne sufferers, it worked particularly brilliantly alongside spot-fighting benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.
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Are there any side effects of using bakuchiol in skincare products?
“Bakuchiol is the sort of ingredient that ticks a lot of boxes for consumers and brands, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it heavily marketed in the future. It appears to have minimal side-effects compared to alternatives, and seems to be effective,” Nina Goad of the British Association of Dermatologists tells Stylist.
But despite the impressive research, Goad isn’t lauding it as skin’s ‘holy grail’ just yet. After all, retinol has over 40 years of clinical trials behind it –10 times that of bakuchiol.
“If reducing wrinkles is a major concern, don’t necessarily rush to switch from retinol immediately. Researchers are optimistic but there is more research to be done. It’s also worth considering that even the most effective anti-wrinkle ingredients can only do so much. Although you can’t prevent skin ageing entirely, you can try to avoid excessive exposure to environmental factors that increase it, particularly UV exposure and smoking,” Goad adds.
What does bakuchiol look like?
Bakuchiol creams, oils and serums come in all kinds of textures and colours but the ingredient itself, like the flowers of the babchi plant, is a dreamy pale purple shade.
Henriksen says its beautiful lilac hue is part of the reason he wanted to incorporate the ingredient into his popular Ole Henriksen Transform Plus Retin-Alt products. Since purple’s especially adept at colour-correcting dull, sallow skin, he combined it with a pearlescent finish to add an immediate glow.
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10 of the best bakuchiol products to add to your skincare routine
Best affordable bakuchiol serum: The Inkey List Bakuchiol
This rejuvenating moisturiser is affordable as it is effective: applied morning and evening, this cream will work to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Formulated super-hydrating squalene as well as omegas 3, 6 and 9, it helps to strengthen and maintain the skin’s barrier. It’ll help stimulate the production of collagen and improve skin’s elasticity, too.
Shop The Inkey List Bakuchiol at Cult Beauty, £9.99
Best speedy bakuchiol wipes: Indeed Labs Bakuchiol Reface Pads
We can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from these multi-tasking pads. Swipe one all over post-cleaning morning and night to brighten, smooth and help even out skin tone and texture. Bakuchiol plays the leading role – naturally –but it’s paired with other known skin goodies, too. Niacinamide fights inflammation, improves barrier function and regulates oil production while allantonin helps skin hold onto more moisture.
Shop Indeed Labs Bakuchiol Reface Pads at Boots, £19.99
Best bakuchiol serum for smoothing: Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum
Despite the name, this bakuchiol-spiked overnight treatment isn’t just a weapon against dark spots. Loaded with mandelic, lactic and salicylic acid, it gets to work on large pores, breakouts, blackheads and any rough texture, too. Don’t expect any dryness, though – hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and fatty acids from rosehip and tamanu oil put a stop to that.
Shop Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum at Cult Beauty, £89
Best bakuchiol oil: Omorovicza Miracle Facial Oil
We’re not surprised this has scored five-star reviews on almost all its online stockists. It offers all the usual niceties of an oil – think nourishing, plumping, and comforting. But it’s brimming with all-important bakuchiol to help refine skin texture. It’s not so ‘slick’ that it can’t be used under make-up but we favour massaging in a few drops at night to wake up with a calmer, more rested-looking complexion.
Shop Omorovicza Miracle Facial Oil at Space NK, £85
Best bakuchiol serum for brightening: Ole Henriksen Transform PLUS Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum
‘Natural’ super-ingredients are at the heart of Henriksen’s Transform Plus range with a bakuchiol pair as the debut. Combined with exfoliating alpha-hydroxy acids, this milky day serum leaves skin infinitely smoother while Edelweiss stem cell – a resilient flower that thrives in harsh conditions – helps with elasticity. The glimmering purple tint has an instant effect, too. You’ll notice a beautiful freshness and luminosity in seconds.
Shop Ole Henriksen Transform PLUS Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum at Boots, £50
Best bakuchiol night cream: Ole Henriksen Transform PLUS Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Crème
This is the night-time part of the plan. Again, it uses alpha-hydroxy acids and Edelweiss stem cell but it’s richer and deeply hydrating for a rejuvenating effect while you snooze. Like the serum, it can be used daily.
Shop Ole Henriksen Transform PLUS Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Crème at Boots, £48
£46 AT BOOTS
Best bakuchiol serum for plumping: REN Clean Skincare Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Concentrate
Alongside bakuchiol, this night-time elixir boasts vitamin E, Andean musk rose seed oil, arctic seabuckthorn berry fruit flesh and Brazilian white beggar’s stick flower. In short? Carefully-chosen botanical ingredients impart plumpness, smoothness and radiance. Warm five drops in your palm and pat over your face, neck and décolletage before your night serum or cream.
Shop REN Clean Skincare Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Concentrate at Space NK, £47
Best bakuchiol and retinol serum: Oskia Super 16 Serum
If you’re not ready to side-line your retinol yet, this is the perfect gateway. Bakuchiol’s the main player but there’s also a mild form of retinol (vitamin A palmitate). If you like the comforting, skin-supple results of an oil – but not the greasiness – you’ll rate it.
Shop Oskia Super 16 Serum at lookfantastic, £92
Best bakuchiol booster: Bybi Bakuchiol Booster
Dial up your existing creams, lotions or serums by mixing in a few drops of this or apply it directly to skin. Its price point makes it a great entry-level serum that combines 1% bakuchiol with 99% squalene. The latter’s just as impressive – it’s an exceptional moisturiser that soothes and nourishes without blocking pores. A smart addition whether you’re dry or spot-prone.
Shop Bybi Bakuchiol Booster at Boots, £12
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