Beauty in The Cabinet of Good and Evil: A Look at Bakuchiol, Retinol and Natural Skincare Products

best vanity mirrors

Let’s Get Real

As marketers aggrandize the virtues of “clean beauty,” are we becoming desensitized to what really matters when it comes to skincare and selfcare?  In other words, are we to buy into the proposition that the absence of bad makes something good?

Even seasoned skincare professionals, including those with MD or PhD following their names, are often conflicted, if not confused, by the good, the bad and the deceptive that goes into a skincare formulation.

Buyer Beware: “Clean” is Not a Regulated Term

Clean beauty is a movement that encompasses a breadth of intentions, all of which should at least promise avoidance of exposure to harmful or toxic chemicals.  Although many associate “natural” and “organic” with clean, there are very few products that can claim to be all natural and still stand up to cosmetic industry safety standards.

Clean beauty is sometimes about sustainable sourcing, but is always about avoidance of harmful chemicals.  However, many chemicals may be perfectly safe in some applications while posing risk in others. And in many cases, risk is user dependent. For instance, a plant-derived cosmetic ingredient that is considered safe, even at high concentrations, can trigger severe reactions to allergic individuals even at very low concentrations.

If you’re looking for a resource for evaluating the general safety of ingredients in the products you choose, you might want to search the Skin Deep database of the Environmental Working Group (EWG).  The EWG ratings consider factors such as the potential for allergies, skin irritation and toxicity. Ingredients are assigned a score from 1 to 10 with higher scores indicating a greater potential for health concerns.  Keep in mind that the scores are based on available industry research, so some ingredients may have limited data and that can affect the reliability of the ratings.  There are critics of the EWG who believe that scores sometimes overstate the risk of an ingredient with benefits at levels below risky exposure thresholds.  So while a good place to start in assessing safety of skincare ingredients, Skin Deep may not always tell a fully relevant story.  

best face masks

How Traditional and Trending Skincare Ingredients Stack Up<

Some will say, “when choosing ingredients, stick with the tried and true.”  But what happens when the tried-and-true are no longer meeting your expectations or, worse yet, being proven to have potential adverse effects over time?  How does one navigate the world of beauty and balance the often mutually exclusive goals of being “clean” and being effective?

What is arguably becoming an empirical truth in beauty is that if you’re not managing the impacts of inflammatory stress from all sources, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle in terms of skin clarity and radiance. Inflammation is at the heart of virtually everything we don’t like about our skin, so sometimes less is more when it comes to seeking that skincare genie in a bottle.  

is retinol good for you

Rethinking Retinol

Retinol, the non-prescription relative to Retin-A, the drug that heralded the era of cosmeceutical skincare, has become a staple ingredient for products intended to reverse the visible signs of skin aging.  But is it for everyone?

Retinol is a synthetic form of vitamin A and therefore is not typically considered to be a "clean" or "natural" skincare ingredient. Although it is not a naturally occurring substance, dermatologists generally consider retinol to be safe and effective when formulated for stability at appropriate concentrations and used with proper precautions.

And speaking of precautions, they are not to be trivialized.  Although there are no confirmed cases of topical retinoids causing fetal harm, the recognized risks of birth defects associated with oral retinoids has led to recommendations of precaution during pregnancy.  A recognized risk associated with retinol during pregnancy is increased sun sensitivity.  And herein lies a paradox: retinol can contribute to risk of sun damage and hyperpigmentation during pregnancy and retinol has benefits in treating the sun damage and hyperpigmentation that often manifests during pregnancy.  What a capricious player in the world of skincare!

The most widespread challenges with retinol are associated with irritation, dryness and flaking, especially for those with sensitive skin. Because retinol increases the rate of skin cell turnover, the outermost layer of the skin may become more vulnerable to environmental stressors. And for that reason, some aesthetic specialists are recommending alternatives to retinol, or at least cycling off retinol from time to time to give skin a break.

what are the pros and cons of retinol

What About Bakuchiol?  Better Than Retinol?

Bakuchiol scores favorably on the Skin Deep rating scale with the major precaution being that the body of research is not as extensive since it is a relatively new entry into the beauty market. 

Bakuchiol is derived from the seeds and leaves of Psoralea corylifolia , a plant that has roots (no pun intended) in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine. Here are the reported benefits of bakuchiol and how it compares to retinol:

  1. Skin refining properties: Bakuchiol has demonstrated antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce visible signs of aging such as fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone. It also improves the elasticity and firmness of the skin. 
  1. Gentle on skin: Perhaps the greatest advantage of bakuchiol over retinol is that it is better tolerated by all skin types. Bakuchiol is considered a gentle alternative to retinol, making it suitable even for individuals with sensitive or reactive skin.
  1. Suitable during pregnant and breastfeeding: Bakuchiol is not a Vitamin A derivative and, being a plant-based ingredient, is considered safe for use when there are concerns about retinol. However, it's always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional when considering products for use during pregnancy.
  1. Compatible with other skincare ingredients: Unlike retinol, bakuchiol is relatively stable in the presence of light and air. This allows for better daytime use and for use in combination with other skincare ingredients without reducing its efficacy.

best face cream

Other Emerging Skincare Ingredients

There are a host of new plant-based ingredients being studied for their benefits to skin.  One of the attractive aspects of certain phyto-nutrients is that they can nourish bacteria that contribute to the healthy microbiome that helps protect the skin by forming a protective barrier, regulating inflammation, and preventing the growth of harmful pathogens.  Research in this area is just starting to emerge and we should expect prebiotics to become an important part of clean beauty products in the future.

A lavender-based triglyceride complex found inSolvasa’s DeStressance® Serum has been shown to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles after just a few uses.   Triglycerides can serve as a source of nourishment for the skin by delivering essential fatty acids that help maintain the skin's natural barrier function to promote healthy-looking skin. Lavender is renowned for its soothing and calming properties that can help alleviate skin irritation, redness, and inflammation.

Another sought-after ingredient is Niacinamide.  Although it is a synthetic ingredient, it is produced from a naturally occurring form of Vitamin B3 and generally is considered clean and safe.  Niacinamide is popular for its breadth of skin benefits including improved texture, reduced appearance of pores, regulation of oil production and enhancement of barrier function.  It also provides anti-inflammatory benefits to reduce redness and hyperpigmentation.

best serums

Is Natural Always Better?

Don’t be fooled by Mother Nature. Just because something is derived from nature doesn’t automatically make it safe or better from you. 

While there are many natural ingredients that are beneficial for skin wellness and beauty, there are reasons why in some cases they may not be suitable for most people or specifically for you.  When a product that is based on natural ingredients, here are some things to consider: 

  1. Allergenicity: Just because a product is natural doesn't mean it's entirely safe for everyone. If you tend to be allergic to natural ingredients such as nuts, fruits, and essential oils, check the ingredient list and test the product on a small patch of skin before using it all over your face. 
  1. Irritation: Some natural ingredients can be harsh and lead to irritation, redness, and dryness. For example, some people may experience irritation from topical vitamin C products, yielding the opposite effect from its promoted benefits.
  1. Variable quality: Unlike synthetic skincare products that can be precisely formulated and tested, natural skincare products can vary in quality and effectiveness depending on the yield of a particular harvest or how they are sourced and processed.
  1. Lack of preservation: Natural skincare products can be more difficult to preserve making them more susceptible to bacterial growth, which can lead to skin infections.

Clean and Natural Skincare from the Inside Out

With due respect to the Environmental Working Group, clean beauty goes well beyond skin deep.  Integrating naturally anti-inflammatory practices into your lifestyle can support radiant skin from the inside out.  Habit stacking simple mindfulness practices into your day and eating a low glycemic Mediterranean diet can be as important to your clean and natural beauty regimen as the assortment of lotions and serums in your medicine cabinet. 

Lori Bush is a wellness and beauty industry innovator and thought leader.  She has authored a number of papers dealing with health, beauty and business leadership and is a co-author of a best-selling beauty and wellness book.