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If you’ve ever tried retinol only to end up with red, flaky, peeling skin three days later, you’re not alone. Retinol is beloved by dermatologists for a reason—it’s been scientifically proven to increase cell turnover, boost collagen production, and help with skin issues ranging from acne to fine lines to pigmentation. But it can also have some pretty harsh effects (see above). And if you have sensitive skin or a condition like eczema or rosacea? Forget it.

That’s exactly why derms and clean beauty fans are so excited about bakuchiol, a less-irritating, vegan, natural alternative to retinol.

What Is Bakuchiol?

Pronounced either “buh-KOO-chee-all” or "back-uh-heel,” depending on who you ask, bakuchiol comes from the leaves and seeds of the psoralea corylifolia (or babchi) plant. It’s long been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to heal and soothe skin, but thanks to the clean beauty movement and a demand for more natural, plant-based ingredients, it’s recently gone mainstream.

And rightfully so: Research shows this buzzy wonder ingredient might work a lot like retinol, but without all the side effects.

Is Bakuchiol Really a Natural Alternative to Retinol?

Before you can understand what bakuchiol does for your skin, it’s important to know how retinol works. Derived from vitamin A, retinol is the most potent retinoid you can buy over the counter. The well-studied ingredient communicates with skin cells to encourage turnover and stimulate collagen production, resulting in fewer fine lines and wrinkles, less pigmentation, and improved tone and texture. By prompting cell regeneration, retinol can also help unclog pores, thus clearing up acne and blackheads. It’s no wonder dermatologists put it right up there with sunscreen!

However, those magical benefits come with some drawbacks. Retinol can be very irritating and drying, causing peeling, tightness, and redness. Even though most side effects clear up after a few weeks, they can be too much for some people, especially those with sensitive skin. 

Structurally, bakuchiol doesn’t look anything like retinol, but studies show it increases cell renewal and collagen production in much the same way. The really exciting part, though, is that it doesn’t seem to cause the same adverse reactions as retinol. And because it has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties, bakuchiol is especially ideal for anyone with super-sensitive skin or conditions like rosacea or inflamed acne.

Is Bakuchiol Safe?

Bakuchiol looks like it’s safe, though the verdict’s still out on whether people who are pregnant or breastfeeding are OK to use it.

Unlike retinol, which doesn’t get along with exfoliators, toners, or benzoyl peroxide, bakuchiol seems to interact fine with other ingredients. That said, everyone is different, and even so-called “safe” ingredients can cause bad reactions on certain people. As with any new product, be sure to patch test before using. 

It’s also worth noting that the studies on bakuchiol are limited, and because it is so much gentler, some derms worry it may not be as effective as retinol in the long run.

How to Incorporate Bakuchiol Into Your Skincare Routine

Like retinol, bakuchiol can be applied topically. It’s commonly found in serums, but it’s also popping up in tons of other products—from face oils to night creams—making it easy to integrate into your skincare routine. And though most experts recommend applying retinol in the evening, bakuchiol is gentle enough to be used morning or night (or both!).

Next Up: Bisabolol