Phytoretinol: The Best Retinol for Sensitive Skin

Plant-based retinols are being touted for their ability to diminish everything from acne to wrinkles. Here's what the research shows.

Retinol is one of skin care’s buzziest compounds. Derived from vitamin A, retinol is known to combat fine lines, wrinkles, acne and dark spots making it one of the most popular (and most studied) ingredients for aging beautifully.

Unfortunately, the compound is also notoriously irritating and can cause redness, dryness, peeling and sensitive skin, especially when you first start integrating it into your routine (this adjustment period is sometimes called the “retinoid uglies.”) Luckily, now there’s a gentler alternative that offers many of the same skin care benefits. Enter: phytoretinol.

To learn more about these trendy new compounds, we spoke with Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, a dermatologist with Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto, and Vee Mistry, an aesthetician and the founder of facial studio SKINBYVEE, 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 any plant-based versions of retinol, and there are several kinds derived from different plants on the market. Though retinol in general has been well-researched, phytoretinols are still being explored. Some phytoretinols, like bakuchiol, have been studied and tested in clinical trials. Others, like the phytoretinol derived from the Picāo Preto plant, are increasing in popularity, but there aren’t any studies to prove its efficacy as a retinol. “Just because somebody says it has a retinol effect, unless it’s been shown in a study, I’m not going to vouch for it,” says Skotnicki.

Traditional retinols are available over the counter, though some forms (like Accutane) need to be prescribed. Phytoretinol products, meanwhile, 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 the 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 a 0.5 percent bakuchiol cream or a 0.5 percent retinol cream. The study found that bakuchiol is comparable to retinol in its ability to decrease wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. Plus, bakuchiol was better tolerated than retinol, with the retinol users reporting more facial skin scaling and stinging. Skotnicki explains that this study demonstrated that, on a molecular level, bakuchiol binds to the same receptors as retinol, so “it has retinol-like effects.”

Another popular phytoretinol is rosehip oil, which comes from the seeds of the rosehip fruit and is chockful of vitamin A. In a 2012 study, researchers in Iran found that participants with acne who used cream containing rosehip oil and other retinoid-rich plant oils (like fenugreek) saw a reduction of acne lesions and skin inflammation compared to those in the control group. Though the study was quite limited (the study was short-term and the sample size was very small) and there isn’t enough evidence to prove the efficacy of these treatments, the results of the study still suggest that these oils are useful in the treatment of acne.

Other phytoretinols, such as those derived from the Picāo Preto plant, haven’t been studied enough to say conclusively whether they’re effective or not.

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 isn’t typically recommended or prescribed to people who are pregnant or lactating because isotretinoin (a.k.a. Accutane), a common retinoid, can cause a variety of birth defects. “But, phytoretinol has been shown not to penetrate to the blood level,” says Mistry, making it safe to use for pregnant people.

Phytoretinol might also be a great choice for people with sensitive skin as it’s less irritating than traditional retinol. “You can use phytoretinol and not have that downtime or that irritation that just pure retinol would likely cause,” says Mistry. Plus, you don’t need to build up a tolerance to phytoretinols like you need to with traditional retinols so you can dive right in and use it daily.

If we’re talking about retinol for beginners, what do people need to know about phytoretinol?

Skotnicki recommends doing your research before diving into a phytoretinol. Make sure that your product contains phytoretinols that have been studied to be effective, like bakuchiol. “Use something that’s been studied and published and shown to work,” says Skotnicki. “Go with the science.”

Next: Layering Skin Care Products—Am I doing It Right?

Originally Published in Best Health Canada