If there were a rom-com written about the spectrum of skin care, natural skin care would be the Rachael Leigh Cook in "She's All That" of the bunch: formerly frumpy, recently catapulted into "cool girl" territory thanks to a glam makeover. But, if high school wisdom still holds, there's always a downside to popularity — namely, the constant rumors. The big one going around about natural skin care is that it's less effective than the man-made, chemical-filled stuff. In some cases, that may be true. But a little-known herbal extract called bakuchiol is here to put the rumors to rest.
Bakuchiol (pronounced "buh-KOO-chee-all") is a "naturally occurring antioxidant found in the seeds of Psoralea Corylifolia, a plant found in Eastern Asia," explains Jesse Werner, founder of Whish, one of the first brands to incorporate the ingredient into its product offerings.
I've heard bakuchiol described as a "natural version of retinol" or an "herbal Botox," so I asked Werner if there was any truth to those claims. His answer made my highly-sensitive skin positively tingle with anticipation: "Clinical studies have confirmed that bakuchiol is a true retinol-like functional compound without the negative effects of retinol." In other words, bakuchiol is a potential game-changer for those who struggle with sensitive or reactive skin and aren’t confident in the risk-to-reward ratio of retinol.
First, a quick refresher on retinol: A member of the retinoid family, which includes all vitamin A derivatives, it's considered a Holy Grail ingredient for all things anti-aging and anti-acne; but even though it's derived from natural vitamin A, the majority of retinoids are synthesized in some way. Retinol is commonly found in over-the-counter anti-aging products, and can be prescribed in higher concentrations by a dermatologist.
When applied to the skin, retinol "interacts with special retinoic acid receptors" and "initiates a biochemical cascade that leads to activation of certain genes that control collagen production, and reduction of the release of inflammatory mediators," says Dr. Neil Sadick of Sadick Dermatology in New York City. The result? Smoother, clearer, younger-looking skin.
Oh, and potentially a whole lot of irritation.
Nearly all retinol users go through something called retinization: a period of about four weeks when redness, inflammation, dryness and even peeling occur while the skin adjusts to the medication. Dermatologists largely recognize this phase as temporary and safe, which is why retinol is so popular. But for some skin types, the it-gets-worse-before-it-gets-better functionality of retinol often ends at it-gets-worse. In addition to retinization, a small percentage of retinol users contract a red, scaly, itchy rash known as retinoid dermatitis.
While naturally derived ingredients aren't always less-irritating than synthetics, the notion that bakuchiol may be a less-harsh anti-aging option is certainly an appealing one. "We were looking for the most effective ingredients to prevent and repair wrinkles, sagging skin and overall skin health. We kept coming back to retinol," remembers Werner. "However, retinol is not natural, it's very harsh on the skin, and it is very unstable. We searched the globe for an effective and natural retinol-like ingredient and we finally found bakuchiol."
Bakuchiol doesn't function in quite the same way that retinol does, but here's the amazing thing: It offers similar results. "In one third party, 12-week clinical study, the conclusion was that retinol and bakuchiol do not have close structural similarities, yet they exhibit a similar gene expression profile especially on key anti-aging genes and proteins, which is remarkable," explains Werner. In layman's terms, bakuchiol visibly reduces fine lines, wrinkles and acne, and is considered a functional analog of retinol.
What's more, the ingredient actually has some advantages over retinol, aside from simply being a natural alternative. Dr. Sadick confirms that it can be used "without any harsh side effects like irritation, flakiness and redness." It also has photostability on its side; ulike retinol, which can break down and become less effective, it remains active even in direct sunlight.
As a natural skin-care devotee with a penchant for DIY formulations, I decided to experiment with raw bakuchi seed powder (which retails for $13 for a half-pound bag). It should be noted that bakuchi seed powder, sometimes called babchi seed powder, isn't the same thing as bakuchiol – bakuchiol is the "compound extracted from the seeds using a solvent," says cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, who adds that "there's not likely to be a downside to adding bakuchi powder to a facial mask." He notes that "no topical treatment would compare to Botox," but can't deny that bakuchiol has all the makings of a natural alternative to retinol.
I applied my self-blended bakuchi face mask for three days straight, once using equal parts powder and water, once substituting Manuka honey for water (for a more hydrating formula), and once subbing in yogurt (for a lactic acid-spiked, skin-brightening effect). The results? I swear my skin feels firmer and bouncier. All of my active acne from day one was shrunken and healing by day three. I loved the results so much that I'm currently infusing my own bakuchi oil, as well.
But if you're less game to go the DIY route, bakhuchiol is actually becoming much more common at beauty retailers of late. The ingredient first started popping up in skin-care formulations back in 2014, and its popularity has only grown since then, though it's remained somewhat under the radar and is still far from ubiquitous. If you're curious to try out the natural alternative to retinol for yourself — and honestly, you should be — click through the gallery below to see some of our favorite formulas.
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