Is Bakuchiol The New Retinol For Sensitive Skin?

Touted as nature’s kinder alternative to retinol, bakuchiol is on everyone’s skin right now. Here’s everything you need to know about this plant-based, anti-aging multi-tasker…

By Georgia Gould
Apr 30, 2020
Photo by Baylee Gramling on Unsplash

Along with broad-spectrum sunscreen and moisturizer, retinoids are considered to be fundamental musts for anyone interested in fighting the premature signs of skin aging. Recognized globally as the gold-standard in anti-aging ingredients, retinoids function by stimulating cell turnover, resulting in transformative improvements in the texture and tone of the skin.

Retinoids and retinoid-derived ingredients have served as the foundation of skincare for decades. They help reduce the signs of aging by supporting cell turnover and renewal.”-David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA

The trouble is, for all of their skin-loving properties (think an improvement in fine lines, wrinkles, acne, texture and tone), retinoids are no walk in the park. For certain sensitive skin types, they can be irritating at best, downright painful at worst. Prescription retinoids such as tretinoin ­– the purest, topical form of retinoic acid – are extremely powerful, but notorious for causing redness, dryness and peeling in some patients due to being almost ‘too good’ at increasing cellular turnover. Even retinols, which are gentler but biochemically do the same thing, can be intolerable when applied to particularly sensitive skin. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom, because there are many ways to help sensitive skin get on with retinoids by sticking with lower concentrations and ensuring the product you choose is always Top Allergen Free.

“Any kind of topical acid can irritate sensitive skin, but keep in mind, only tiny amounts of acids are used in many retinol creams, so don’t rule them out completely.”-James A. Yiannias, M.D., Mayo Clinic

Searching for an ideal retinol for sensitive skin? You’ll find some of the best Top Free products right here. If, however, you’re looking for something equally as effective, minus the potential downsides, you’ll be pleased to hear there’s a gentler alternative that’s turning heads in the dermatology world. Its name? Bakuchiol

Here’s what we know about this plant-based ingredient…

Bakuchiol: The Basics

Bakuchiol is a natural compound derived from the seeds and leaves of a herbaceous plant called psoralea corylifolia, more commonly known as the babchi plant. Bakuchiol has been used for centuries in Indian and Chinese traditional medicine – most notably as a topical treatment for various skin conditions due to its antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. 

More recently, bakuchiol has cropped up in skincare due to its ability to seriously hold its weight in a one-on-one anti-aging battle with retinol. And all this comes without the irritation often caused by retinoid-based products.

So, What Are The Benefits of Bakuchiol?

While they share absolutely no structural similarities, bakuchiol has been likened to a functional analog of retinol because it activates the same genes and chemical pathways within the skin’s structure. In doing so, it increases the integrity of the extracellular matrix (collagen, elastin, hyaluronic acid and the like) to dramatically improve the skin’s structure and support. 

This means great things for the visible appearance of your skin. A clinical study carried out by the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), showed that applying a bakuchiol-based skincare product twice daily over a 12-week period resulted in a significant improvement in fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity and firmness. 

Bakuchiol also has the advantage of being easily formulated with other active ingredients to offer real benefits to skin conditions like acne vulgaris. A number of studies have looked into the effects of bakuchiol when combined with Gingko biloba extract and mannitol (a plant-derived humectant) on acne-prone skin, for example. Together, these ingredients were proven to help regulate sebum while providing significant antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties (1). Excellent news for any acne sufferers out there.

Is Bakuchiol Better Than Retinol?

Many patients, sensitive skin or not, are totally happy with their topical retinol, so if that’s you, then we say, why change a good thing? If, however, you’re concerned about enlarged pores, fine lines, dull skin or discoloration and are yet to find a retinoid your skin can tolerate, it might be time to ask your physician about bakuchiol

With all the benefits retinol can offer, minus irritations such as dryness, peeling and photosensitivity, bakuchiol certainly seems to be living up to its name of ‘nature’s alternative to retinol.’ You can also apply it in the morning, because unlike retinoids, bakuchiol doesn’t make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

But what about the use of bakuchiol while pregnant or nursing? Unfortunately, this is still a bit of a gray area – the ingredient is just too new. Decades of research has shown that retinoids are off the menu because they have the potential to interfere with fetal development, but there’s no such clear data on bakuchiol yet. However, many highly respected doctors, dermatologists and skin cosmeticians (including Ole Henriksen) consider it totally safe for use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. 

“Contrary to popular belief, the skin is more of a barrier than a high-speed interstate for topically applied products. This gives dermatologists confidence when prescribing active skincare to pregnant patients.” -David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA

That being said, we recommend you always consult your physician before applying any kind of topical active during pregnancy.

OK, What’s The Catch? 

As with any active ingredient within skincare, purity and concentration levels are always key. It’s interesting to note that some of the other compounds from the babchi plant have proven to be pretty toxic, so you really don’t want any of those getting near your skin. Pure. Remember that word.

When it comes to concentration, research shows that the ideal level of bakuchiol should be somewhere between 0.5 and 2 percent for the most effective, visible results. The problem is, brands aren’t under any obligation to reveal their levels of ingredients. 

“A product is only as good as the purity and concentration of its ingredients. Brands aren’t required to list the levels of ingredients within skincare products, so some are just marketing pixie dust.” -David A. Mays, PharmD, MBA

Many consumers believe that if an ingredient isn’t listed near the top, it’s worthless. Not so. The INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) is a global, standardized system for listing ingredients and requires skincare brands to always print ingredients in order from highest to lowest concentration. Once an ingredient is 1 percent or less, however, it can be listed in any order. This means that potent ingredients like bakuchiol, retinol, antioxidants, and AHAs and BHAs – all of which are effective in small doses – are often listed somewhere near the bottom. 

Confused? Our advice is to stick with brands you trust; who offer complete transparency and have the technology, research and expertise to back up their products.

SkinSafe Recommends

Our pick of some of the most effective bakuchiol products, all of which are 91 percent Top Allergen Free.

1. Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum

This lightweight serum is the perfect addition to your morning and evening skincare routine. It also contains the super-hydrator, hyaluronic acid, plus squalane to help lock in moisture.

2. Burt’s Bees Renewal Firming Eye Cream

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by Burt’s Bees reviewers, this soothing eye cream uses bakuchiol to help reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, under-eye circles and crow’s feet.

3. Ole Henriksen Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum

Harnessing the power of some stellar skincare ingredients like glycolic and lactic acids, this bakuchiol-enriched brightening serum packs a real punch in the fight against skin aging.


1. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, 31 August, 2016, Dove Press journal

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