Plant-based retinols are touted for their ability to diminish everything from acne to wrinkles. Here’s what the research shows.
Retinol is one of the hottest compounds in skin care. Derived from vitamin A, retinol is known to fight fine lines, wrinkles, acne, and dark spots, making it one of the most popular (and most studied) ingredients for aging gracefully.
Unfortunately, the compound is also notoriously irritating and can cause redness, dryness, flaking and sensitive skin, especially when you start incorporating it into your routine (this adjustment period is sometimes referred to as the “ugly retinoids”) .) Fortunately, there is now a gentler treatment. alternative that offers many of the same skin care benefits. Enter: phytoretinol.
To learn more about these hot new compounds, we spoke with Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, dermatologist at Bay Dermatology Center in Toronto, and Vee Mistry, esthetician and founder of SKINBYVEE facial studio, all about phytoretinol.
(Related: The 10 Best Retinol Serums in Canada for Anti-Aging Results)
What is phytoretinol?
“Phytoretinol” is an umbrella term used to describe all plant versions of retinol, and there are several types derived from different plants on the market. Although retinol in general has been the subject of much research, phytoretinols are still being studied. Some phytoretinols, like bakuchiol, have been studied and tested in clinical trials. Others, like phytoretinol derived from the Picāo Preto plant, are gaining popularity, but there are no studies proving its effectiveness as a retinol. “Just because someone says it has a retinol effect, unless it’s been shown in a study, I’m not going to vouch for it,” Skotnicki says.
Traditional retinols are available over-the-counter, although some forms (like Accutane) must be prescribed. Phytoretinol products, on the other hand, are available over-the-counter anywhere you can buy skincare products.
Is phytoretinol as effective as regular retinol?
The answer to this varies depending on the phytoretinol.
Bakuchiol (which comes from the seeds of Psoralea corlifolia plant) is the most popular phytoretinol, and for good reason. A double-blind study published in the British Journal of Dermatology compared 44 patients who used either 0.5% bakuchiol cream or 0.5% retinol cream. The study found that bakuchiol is comparable to retinol in its ability to reduce wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. Additionally, bakuchiol was better tolerated than retinol, with retinol users reporting more flaking and tingling of facial skin. Skotnicki explains that this study demonstrated that at the molecular level, bakuchiol binds to the same receptors as retinol, so “it has similar effects to retinol.”
Another popular phytoretinol is rosehip oil, which comes from the seeds of the rosehip fruit and is packed with vitamin A. In a 2012 study, Iranian researchers found that participants with acne who used cream containing rosehip oil and other retinoid-rich plant oils (such as fenugreek) saw a reduction in acne lesions and skin inflammation compared to those in the control group. Although the study was quite limited (the study was of short duration and the sample size was very small) and there is not enough evidence to prove the effectiveness of these treatments, the Study results still suggest that these oils are helpful in treating acne.
Other phytoretinols, such as those derived from the Picāo Preto plant, have not been studied enough to say conclusively whether or not they are effective.
What are the benefits of using phytoretinol instead of traditional retinol?
While traditional retinol is touted as a holy grail ingredient for many, not everyone can use it. According to Skotnicki, retinol is generally not recommended or prescribed for pregnant or breastfeeding women because isotretinoin (aka Accutane), a common retinoid, can cause various birth defects. “But phytoretinol has been shown not to penetrate to the blood level,” Mistry says, making it safe to use for pregnant women.
Phytoretinol might also be a great choice for people with sensitive skin because it’s less irritating than traditional retinol. “You can use phytoretinol and not have that downtime or irritation that pure retinol would probably cause,” says Mistry. Plus, you don’t have to build a tolerance to phytoretinols like you have to with traditional retinols so you can dive right in and use it daily.
If we talk about retinol for beginners, what should we know about phytoretinol?
Skotnicki recommends doing your research before diving into a phytoretinol. Make sure your product contains phytoretinols that have been studied for effectiveness, such as bakuchiol. “Use something that’s been studied, published, and shown to be effective,” says Skotnicki. “Go with science.”
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