Bakuchiol: everything you need to know

Medical-grade skincare or cosmeceuticals have received a lot of hype in recent years, seeing many scrambling to try and layer trendy active ingredients without fully knowing how they can affect the skin, especially sensitive skin.

“People will jump on a product, brand or regimen really quickly... They'll use them all at once and their skin will become irritated and breakout. Then they are back to a place where they have to start from the bottom,” says US-based plastic surgeon and founder of Anokha Skincare, Dr Nina Naidu.

This is something regularly seen with retinoids derived from vitamin A. While being highly effective, this group of ingredients can come with some downsides and is unsuitable for some clients and skin types. Luckily there is a hot new(ish) ingredient on the block that is reported to give many of the benefits of retinoids, without the downsides.

We take a deep dive into the natural vitamin A/retinol alternative everybody is talking about – bakuchiol – with a little help from the skincare experts.

What is bakuchiol?

“One of the most buzz-worthy ingredients in skincare, bakuchiol has taken the industry by storm,” says Daniel Isaacs, director of research at Medik8. 

“Hailed for its anti-ageing powers that are almost comparable to the gold standard, vitamin A, bakuchiol can provide a natural, plant-based alternative.”

Bakuchiol (pronounced bah-ku-chee-ol) is a naturally sourced phytochemical ingredient derived from the Indian babchi plant. It’s a herb used in many Indian and Asian practices, to help heal and soothe the skin, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects.

“Used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine, bakuchiol is used topically by skincare companies as an alternative to retinol to improve skin tone and texture and is particularly used to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, address hyperpigmentation and acne and strengthen collagen production as well as its free radical neutralising effects on the skin,” explains Cigdem Yemal Kilmaz, chemical engineer and founder of the CPD-accredited course Skin Masterclass Pro.

Is bakuchiol as effective as retinol?

It was the British Journal of Dermatology that kicked off all the buzz about bakuchiol back in 2019 when it published a study investigating the comparison between retinol and bakuchiol.

The study was conducted over 12 weeks and concluded that both bakuchiol and retinol significantly decreased wrinkle surface area and hyperpigmentation, with no statistical difference between them.

“To my knowledge, this has never been seen with any other ingredient,” says Dr Naidu. “It also showed that bakuchiol was actually more effective than retinol in the treatment of pigmentation of the skin.”

Dr Naidu, who uses bakuchiol in her skincare range, started Anokha on the back of patient concerns about using medical-grade skincare. “The younger population was worried about any effect that certain skincare would have on an unborn baby, if they're trying to get pregnant or if they're breastfeeding,” she says. 

“The other population that was concerned about medical-grade skincare was those who had recently gone through menopause and noticed their skin had become much more sensitive with age so they weren't able to tolerate harsher ingredients."

Isaacs adds that bakuchiol and retinol can both help to visibly reduce fine lines and wrinkles and help to speed up cellular turnover in the skin, giving it a smoother, softer-looking surface... “They both help to support the production of collagen and elastin - for a more youthful-looking, plumper complexion and can help to hinder the excess production of melanin, leaving the skin looking evenly toned and brightened.”

However, one big advantage bakuchiol has over retinol is that the former is often better tolerated and thus suitable for a broader spectrum of clients. 

What are the advantages of bakuchiol vs retinol?

Retinoids are a family of ingredients derived from vitamin A that includes retinol, retinoic acid and retinaldehyde. 

“They are a fantastic family of ingredients and act at the level of the epidermis by regulating specific genes and that's really groundbreaking, says Dr Naidu.

“That's why it's been so hard to find a good alternative to it. Retinoids are effective against fine lines, wrinkles and also various skin conditions including psoriasis, acne and hyperpigmentation but they do have a high incidence of side effects… specifically irritation, dryness, peeling, redness and burning,” she continues."

All of these things, theoretically, will go away within four to six weeks but for some patients, those effects never go away, so it's very difficult to use this ingredient with sensitive skin.”

Isaacs adds, "Seeing as it is not photostable, it can’t be used in the morning. It's also usually not recommended for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.”

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The evidence surrounding pregnancy and the use of topical retinoids is still inconclusive, but the possibility of it being absorbed into the bloodstream and causing vitamin A toxicity in the unborn baby means the ingredient is not recommended for this group.

“As it is generally better tolerated than retinol, bakuchiol can be used more flexibly within a client’s skincare regimen,” says Yilmaz.

“It can be used at any time of day (whereas retinol should be applied at night), can be used by pregnant women (although further research and a patch test is still advisable) and can be mixed with other ingredients without risking negative interaction between them, such as increased irritation and/or redness.”

Isaacs adds, “It is also an ideal substitute for very sensitive skin who struggle to incorporate retinol into their regimes.” 

Another edge bakuchiol may have over retinoids is that clients are becoming ever more conscious of the effects that our modern lifestyles have on the planet – seeing as bakuchiol is natural and plant-based, this ingredient could be more desirable to the eco-aware. 

Is bakuchiol easier to manufacture and store than vitamin A?

Retinol is prone to oxidation, meaning when it is exposed to air, light, or heat, it can break down and lose its potency. 

“To prevent oxidation, skincare products should be formulated with stable packaging, added extra antioxidants, a pH in the optimal range of  5.5, and careful manufacturing processes,” says Yilmaz.  

“One of the benefits of bakuchiol is that it is less prone to oxidation than retinol, meaning it's more stable and does not degrade as quickly, making it easier to use during the storage and manufacturing stage.” 

Yilmaz states that to prevent the oxidation of bakuchiol in skincare products, manufacturers can use similar techniques as those used for retinol. Products containing bakuchiol should be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight to prevent exposure to heat and light, which can accelerate oxidation.

How to use bakuchiol – what can it be combined with? 

Bakuchiol can be used up to twice a day, depending on how well the skin being treated tolerates it and comes in a number of oil-based formulations. 

“It’s often combined with other actives and works particularly well with hydrating ingredients such as urea, hyaluronic acid, amino acids and peptides, so it’s important to check the INCI list before recommending to a client as there may be secondary ingredients to the bakuchiol that will add additional benefit to the client’s skin,” says Yilmaz, who sometimes likes to use bakuchiol in combination with retinoids to enhance the latter's effectiveness and stability. 

Dr Naidu adds that bakuchiol, when combined with salicylic acid, has been shown to be highly effective in those suffering from acne. 

As bakuchiol is an oil, Dr Naidu recommends using it as the last layer in a skincare routine morning and night to seal everything in.

“Apply after cleansing and water-based products like serums, and moisturiser… as it is an oil it is more occlusive so will be the heaviest layer. If you try and put a water-based product on top of oil it just won't be absorbed,” she says.

Dr Naidu also explains that it's important to manage client expectations with this natural ingredient.

“Sometimes people feel that skincare is working better if they see irritation because they know it's doing something. Moving over to the natural ingredients, I really had to educate people that they will see the results but they're going to take longer… You're not going to see the irritation. The sensations that you might feel are going to be more subtle.”

When Naidu first used the ingredient she found her skin would tingle a little and experienced some initial tightness and dryness.

“I had a little bit of skin purging at about two weeks which then resolved very quickly. It was so much milder than what I saw when I was using retinol and was a lot easier to tolerate.”

The bottom line

Both bakuchiol and retinol can be huge assets to your kit and your client’s skin but which one you use should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“When assessing which ingredient is best for your clients it's important to consider their skin health as a whole when providing a skincare consultation so that you can recommend the most effective products for them,” concludes Yilmaz.  

Do you use or recommend bakuchiol to your clients? What other ingredients do you like to combine it with?