There is no getting around the fact that the cosmetic industry is driven by marketing. As a cosmetic chemist, that means you’ll be asked to incorporate ingredients in your formula that help tell a better marketing story. When I first started in the industry, that meant incorporating a blend of natural extracts into a standard synthetic formula. Marketing would then craft their story around those extracts while the synthetic ingredients actually made the product work. But consumers, regulators and social media communicators have gotten wise to this practice of “greenwashing” or “sciencewashing” and it is frowned on today.
Now, formulators are encouraged to use functional levels of ingredients that have evidence behind them demonstrating the materials could work. Whether the feature ingredients actually work in a formula is a different story because it’s difficult for formulators to know. Typically, you learn about ingredients from suppliers who provide data that is sometimes biased. Or you might read about them in articles in trade journals, peer-reviewed journals or on the Internet.
Here is how I go through and investigate whether an ingredient may actually perform a noticeable function in a formula or whether it is simply a marketing story. Let’s use Retinol and Backuchiol as an example.
First, it is helpful to know what the ingredients are and why they are used.
This term is used for vitamin A compounds, such as retinol and retinoic acid. Retinoids have long been used topically to help repair sun-damaged skin and reduce fine lines and wrinkles. In addition, it is thought these materials can smooth skin, unclog pores, and improve skin texture.
The way retinoids are thought to work is that they fade dark spots by reducing the contact time with pigment creating cells; they reduce fine lines/wrinkles by stimulating synthesis of collagen and glycosaminoglycan. They may also inhibit enzymes that breakdown collagen and smooth skin by modulating genes involved in epidermal cell turnover.
Both in vivo and in vitro testing shows that retinoids can penetrate the skin and thus potentially have a functional effect.
Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin) has undergone extensive clinical testing and qualifies as an active in a prescription drug. Fewer good studies have been done on the over the counter versions which are derivatives of retinoic acid like retinol or retinaldehyde. Retinol is shown to be effective vs placebo, but not as effective when compared to retinaldehyde for wrinkle reduction. Neither work as well as the prescription drug.1
The problem with retinoids is that they can cause irritation. So, scientists have been on the lookout for ingredients that can get the benefit of retinoids without the irritation. This is where bakuchiol comes in.
Bakuchiol is an ingredient getting a lot of good press lately. It is a compound derived from the babchi plant (Psoralea corylifolia) which has traditionally been used in India for Ayurveda treatments. The main source of its popularity is because it has been suggested as an effective alternative to retinoids.
This is because in a couple of studies Bakuchiol has been shown to match the effectiveness of retinol for skin aging. And since retinols have the unfortunate side effect of being irritating to a lot of people’s skin, bakuchiol extract is said to be effective without the irritation. This means a lot of people who can’t use retinol because of the negative side effects might be able to get similar effects using bakuchiol.
The next step in evaluating ingredients is to look at the latest evidence. Using a review paper or recently published book is often helpful to find the consensus of the science.
What’s the evidence?
In a recent study looking at the performance of Bakuchiol in skin, researchers found that indeed it was less irritating than retinoids. They also found that it had skin improvements in the areas of smoothness, radiance, overall appearance and anti-aging after 4 weeks.2 And in a review paper researchers state that bakuchiol has similar functional properties as retinoids to treat acne, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and wrinkles. They also state that more clinical evidence is needed to verify these effects.3
Basically, there’s some suggestive evidence, but more research is needed before saying for certain if bakuchiol is a good alternative to retinoids in your formula. Retinoids have been studied in skin care since the early 1980’s and have a big head start in terms of research.
I remain skeptical of the ingredient. The studies weren’t well controlled and they typically don’t compare them to proper controls. But that is par for the course for most actives in cosmetic products.
Should you use it in your formula?
If you believe retinoids are having a functional benefit in your formula, then there is not enough evidence that bakuchiol can work as a replacement. In truth, I’m not completely convinced OTC retinoids have a big effect over a good moisturizer. If you are just using retinoids as a marketing story then bakuchiol is a perfectly fine replacement. It helps tell a story and you might get some benefit from it as a bonus.
It is really up to you and your marketing department to decide what you can say and what you can prove when delivered from a product. Just remember, lab results don’t necessarily translate into consumer perceptible results when used in a formula.
- Rong Kong et al – A comparative study of the effects of retinol and retinoic acid on histological, molecular, and clinical properties of human skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 15, 49—57.
- Draelos, Zoe Diana, et al. “Clinical Evaluation of a Nature-Based Bakuchiol Anti-Aging Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin.” Journal of Drugs in Dermatology: JDD 19.12 (2020): 1181-1183.
- Greenzaid, Jonathan, Adam Friedman, and Pooja Sodha. “The Use of Bakuchiol in Dermatology: A Review of In Vitro and In Vivo Evidence.” Journal of drugs in dermatology: JDD 21, no. 6 (2022): 624-629.
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