Retinol vs. Bakuchiol — Which is Better?

Two board-certified dermatologists weigh in.

face serum
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When it comes to anti-aging skincare, retinol has long been known as the holy grail ingredient. However, those who have tried it are all too familiar with the adjustment period, which consists of extra-dry skin and, at times, flaking and irritation. Many people can tolerate the powerhouse ingredient, but with an increasing number of people who identify as having sensitive skin (which is about 60% to 70% of women and 50% to 60% of men, according to a 2019 study), retinol may not be a blessing for everyone.

Enter: bakuchiol. Known as nature's retinol, this plant-derived anti-aging ingredient is a godsend for people who can't tolerate retinol. It became wildly popular in the skincare industry a few years ago — predominantly in the clean beauty space.

However, there are still many questions surrounding bakuchiol, retinol, and what the real differences are between these two anti-aging ingredients. As such, we tapped two board-certified dermatologists to find out all there is to know about retinol and bakuchiol, including what they are, how they differ, their side effects and, ultimately, how to chose the best one for your skin. Get all of the answers, below.

What Is Retinol?

Retinol is a vitamin A derivative. "It's used in skincare to stimulate collagen production, improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and improve pigmentation," explains Elyse Love, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

Furthermore, Dendy Engelman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at the Shafer Clinic in New York City, explains that retinol works as an anti-aging ingredient because it's a cell-communicating ingredient that has the ability to connect to almost any skin cell receptor site and tell it to behave like a healthy, younger skin cell. Apart from being an anti-aging ingredient, Dr. Engelman also touts it as a powerful antioxidant that can interrupt the free-radical damage process that causes wrinkling and other signs of aging.

Retinol is available in over-the-counter products as well as prescription ones, and while they both work, one works quicker than the other. (Dr. Engelman says that OTC ones can take up to six months to show results while prescription retinol can have an effect in just a few weeks.) However, your dermatologist can determine which one is better for your skin type, concerns, and goals.

What is Bakuchiol?

"Bakuchiol is a natural alternative to retinol, found in select plants, that has been shown to have similar skin improving effects as retinol," explains Dr. Love. The plant in question is Psoralea Corylifolia, and bakuchiol is extracted from its seeds.

"Bakuchiol has a history in medicine for soothing rashes, calming redness, and healing cuts," adds Dr. Engelman. "In skincare, it acts similarly to retinol and has been shown to upregulate and stimulate collagen — it also works as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant."

When using bakuchiol, Dr. Love says people can expect to see effects in approximately six weeks if they use the ingredient twice a day. For dramatic changes, Dr. Engelman shares that a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science outlined that applying bakuchiol twice a day for 12 weeks resulted in significant improvement in lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, and firmness.

VIDEO: 10 Tips Dermatologists Say Are Absolutely Necessary, No Matter Your Skin Type

What Are the Side Effects of Retinol?

As previously mentioned, people who use retinol typically experience an adjustment period where their skin acclimates to the ingredient's strength. "If started too quickly or too strongly, retinol can cause skin irritation in the form of redness, flaking, burning, stinking, and dryness," furthers Dr. Love. "For this reason, only a thin layer of retinol should be applied, and it should be started three times a week."

After regular, consistent use, she says that people can slowly increase how frequency they use their retinol product, up to a nightly. "Once tolerating nightly, the strength of retinol can be increased as tolerated and desired," she says. "A thin layer will always be enough of the product.

Dr. Engelman adds that retinol can make the skin more sensitive to the sun. As such, make sure to use sunscreen every day and reapply it every two hours to prevent irritation.

What Are the Side Effects of Bakuchiol?

Bakuchiol is an almost universally tolerated ingredient with very few incidences of irritation, says Dr. Love. However, for people with extremely sensitive skin, Dr. Engelman says similar side effects to retinol may be experienced.

How to Use Retinol

For starters, make sure your skin has been cleansed and dried before application. Then, Dr. Love notes that retinol should be used exclusively at night. (Remember what we said about it causing sun sensitivity? This is why it's recommended to use at night.)

She says to use a pea-sized amount of product, and to start by using it two to three times a week. Over time, the use can be increased as skin builds up its tolerance to retinol. "Many people will only tolerate retinol three to five times a week, and that's fine," adds Dr. Love.

For over-the-counter options, ROC's Retinol Correxion serum capsules keep the ingredient as fresh and potent as possible thanks to its biodegradable capsules, which also make it great for mess-free travel. Another option is the Shani Darden Retinol Reform, which combines the hero ingredient with lactic acid and apple extract for immediately smooth skin.

After you've applied your retinol, follow up with a moisturizer — but watch out for irritating ingredients. Dr. Engelman says that benzoyl peroxide and both AHA and BHA acids have the potential to irritate the skin as they're exfoliants.

How to Use Bakuchiol

Despite bakuchiol being much more gentle than retinol, Dr. Engelman still recommends doing a patch test on your skin to gage how it'll react to it before applying it all over your face. If it all works out, Dr. Love says that people can start using it twice a day from the get-go. "It can also be used every morning and on non-retinol nights for those who are able to tolerate retinol at less than nightly frequencies," she says. "For those using retinol nightly, it can be used in the AM to supplement retinol results."

Dr. Love recommends the Avène RetrinAL Advanced Correcting Serum as it "combines bakuchiol with niacinamide and hyaluronic acid for instant hydration and gradual improvement in fine lines, pigmentation, and barrier function."

How to Chose Which Ingredient Is Right For You

Since both bakuchiol and retinol are anti-aging ingredients, Dr. Engelman says that either will work on mature and aging skin. However, there are other factors that come into play, such as sensitivity and whether or not your skin is prone to acne.

Dr. Love says that since retinol is one of the most studied ingredients in skincare, she recommends it for those who can tolerate it. Dr. Engelman says to just pay attention to the skin and how it is reacting to retinol. If your skin becomes too flakey, sensitive or red, it could be that you're using too high of a dose or the use could be too frequent. If this is the case, you can opt for a product with a lower dose of retinol, cut back on frequency, or opt for bakuchiol instead.

People with super sensitive skin or are prone to irritation should play it safe by opting for bakuchiol from the get-go. "The antibacterial properties of bakuchiol mean that it's great for those with acne or oily skin, and the anti-inflammatory properties make it perfect for those with sensitive skin," adds Dr. Engelman. Plus, Dr. Love says that it's also great for those with rosacea, perioral dermatitis, or with eczema who find they are unable to tolerate retinol.

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