Do natural retinoids exist?

Retinol is the gold standard in anti-ageing skincare. It is commonly rumoured skincare cannot diminish signs of skin ageing. This statement is false. In fact, it’s more than false. Published clinical studies prove skincare can diminish signs of skin ageing.

A happy accident: Retinol is a pro-form of vitamin A. An active which several decades ago was tested for use as a topically applied anti-acne medicine. The results showed yes – acne reduced – but also with side effects. One of which was a reduction in perceived skin age i.e. reduction of fine lines and wrinkles.

Today it is known and accepted retinoids can help reduce and reverse signs of skin ageing.

However use of clinical strength retinoids is associated with side effects i.e. can cause skin to become irritated, dry and scaly. Retinoids are also a man-made active and therefore may not be an acceptable treatment for people wishing to use natural skincare. Which begs the question – is there a natural retinol? Can natural skincare be as effective for anti-ageing as retinol skincare?

Understanding retinol: The different types

Retinol can be referred to my many names – and the type which a person uses matters. Some forms of retinol are considered to be sensitive skin friendly – however may be weaker in benefits. Other forms of retinol are more effective however may cause irritation.

Retinol and retinoids are all forms of vitamin A. Vitamin A is scientifically described as retinol1, however there are many different kinds of retinol. These other kinds of retinol are referred to as retinoids i.e. ingredients which can be metabolised/broken down within the human body into retinol. These may also be described as pro-vitamin A.

The most common forms of retinoids used in skincare include;

  • Retinol
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Hydroxypinacolone retinoate
  • Retinyl palmitate
  • All-trans-retinoic acid/retinoic acid (Tretinoin) – this is only available on prescription
  • Pro-vitamin A – beta-carotene

There are also new generations of retinoids which are based on the original all-trans-retinoic acid, these are known by brand names such as;

  • Adapalene – 3rd generation persecution retinoid
  • Tazarotene – 3rd generation persecution retinoid

For retinoids to be anti-ageing effective they must be recognised by retinoic acid receptors in the human body2. This therefore requires retinoids to be metabolised into an ingredient which will engage with a retinoic acid receptor. i.e. all-trans-retinoic acid.

For example an ingredient like retinyl pamitate must be metabolised by the body into all-trans-retinoic acid. Conversion happens via a cascade of transformations;

Retinyl palmitate > retinol > all-trans-retinoic acid3

Retinoids which must first be converted into retinol are not considered as effective as retinol. This is a direct result of diminished dosing as 1% retinyl palmitate equates to a much lower percentage of retinol i.e. conversion is not 100% efficient.

Is there a natural retinol?

Natural retinols are not widely known – however to date there are 2 natural retinols worthy of note. The first is found in small quantities inside of rosehip oil. The second is known by the name bakuchiol with recent testing showing bakuchiol to have significant benefits for both anti-ageing and acne.

Rosehip oil is an extract taken from the seeds of a plant called the wild rose bush. As with many natural products rosehip oil is a natural mixture of many ingredients i.e. fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamins. Rosehip oil also contains all-trans-retinoic acid – the exact ingredient which human retinoic acid receptor bind with.

Note: Rosehip oil can be found in griffin+row Nourish natural skin moisturiser and Enrich antioxidant night cream.

Although all-trans-retinoic acid is found naturally inside of rosehip oil the quantities vary greatly. In part this is due to the conditions wild rose bushes grow in i.e. do they have adequate soil nutrients and in part this is due to the way in which rosehip oil is extracted.

A study published in the journal of The American Oil Chemists Society concluded rosehip oil obtained through cold-pressing had up to 700% greater content of all-trans-retinoic acid than rosehip oil obtained through solvent extraction4. The same study also notes when rosehip oil is cold-pressed its average all-trans-retinoic acid content is of 0.32 to 0.36 mg/L.

Note: Prescription strength all-trans-retinoic acid is available in strengths from 0.025%.

The strength of all-trans-retinoic acid in rosehip oil is around 0.00036%. While helpful for general up-keep of skin, it is clear rosehip oil is not likely to have the same noted benefits as prescription strength all-trans-retinoic acid.

Which is why the discovery and recent reporting of bakuchiol as a natural retinol is of intense interest. Bakuchiol is an extract taken from a plant known as the psoralea corylifolia which grows natively in India and Sri Lanka. The same compound can also be found naturally in several other plants including those colloquially known as cherry rice flower, Father David elm and long pepper.

A clinical trial which was accepted for publication by the British Journal of Dermatology in June 2018 concluded bakuchiol is comparable with retinol in its ability to improve photo ageing5. Of significant interest, the very same study also concluded bakuchiol to be better tolerated than retinol.  

Bakuchiol: A natural retinol

For more than a decade bakuchiol has been known to have anti-proliferative, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-acne activity – making it helpful for several identified skin concerns e.g. psoriasis, ageing and acne. Retinoic acid has similar benefits and therefore scientists have noted bakuchiol appears to target similar cellular pathways including the modulation of retinoic acid receptors i.e. upregulation of collagen.

Published studies have noted topical application of bakuchiol can;

  • Improve fine lines and wrinkles
  • Reduce wrinkle depth
  • Brighten/lighten and lessen pigmentation
  • Improve skin’s firmness

The above changes in skin i.e fine line and wrinkles are a natural sign of skin ageing however can be significantly speeded by photo ageing i.e. unprotected sun exposure.

During clinical trial of bakuchiol natural retinol cream a 0.5% bakuchiol cream was directly compared with the impact and changes induced by a 0.5% retinol cream. Participants were asked to apply the bakuchiol cream twice daily and the retinol cream daily for 12 weeks.

Note: Retinol is known to degrade on exposure to light – therefore normal retinol use is restricted to PM only.

12 weeks is a relatively short time for anti-ageing benefits. In order to help reduce and reverse skin wrinkling a person’s collagen production must be boosted. Collagen change can take up to 3 months to begin to visualise noticeable benefits.

Even in such a short timescale it was concluded both bakuchiol and retinol significantly decrease wrinkle surface area and hyperpigmentation. There was no significant anti-ageing differences seen between treatments. There was however significantly less skin scaling and stinging reported in the participants who used the cream containing 0.5% bakuchiol.

Benefits of natural retinol vs retinol

Bakuchiol is not known to degrade on exposure to light or to cause any sensitivity of skin to light. Therefore unlike retinol, skincare containing bakuchiol could be used in AM and PM. Using skincare regularly helps to improve visual benefits.

Bakuchiol is also studied to have fewer side effects then retinol. Retinol can cause significant skin irritation which may present as scaling and/or stinging. Recent studies note bakuchiol to be kinder to skin.

Some studies also suggest bakuchiol can prevent the breakdown of both collagen and elastin whereas retinol is focused predominantly in preventing the breakdown of collagen6. Both collagen and elastin are essential for healthy skin integrity.

What does retinol do to your face?

Wrinkles are a primary sign of skin ageing. Wrinkles occur when the structural integrity of skin is compromised. Skin which is youthful, wrinkle free and healthy has peak structural integrity. A network compiled by units of collagen and elastin. Collagen acts as skin’s scaffolding and elastin acts as skin’s rebound effect. When either collagen or elastin are damaged – skin develops fine lines and wrinkles.

Collagen levels naturally decline with age however collagen levels may also be accelerated by UV light, pollution exposure and inappropriate skincare. It is not just a decline in collagen levels which may cause skin ageing but also a hardening of existing collagen fibres. In vitro studies confirm bakuchiol is able to promote collagen production7. A fact which can be visually evidenced in vivo i.e. when tested in real life by the studied reduction in wrinkle depth. Bakuchiol is also noted to help prevent the breakdown of existing collagen fibres by limiting the activity of collagen degrading enzymes.

In addition to anti-wrinkle benefits, bakuchiol is also studied to be effective in reducing pigmentation disorders of skin. A benefit which would be helpful in mitigating age spots, liver spots, sun spots, melasma and post inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Bakuchiol is thought to help decrease skin’s pigment intensity and strength of expression via two mechanisms;

  • By being an antioxidant
  • By interfering with the melanin synthesis pathway

Antioxidants help prevent uneven skin tone and pigmentation by preventing a person’s melanin pathways from being over stimulated. Antioxidants are most beneficial in the prevention of pigmentation. Many antioxidants also help reduce melanin expression by preventing melanin from being made as is the case for natural retinol bakuchiol i.e. bakuchiol works by inhibiting the tyrosinase enzyme – a rate limiting step in the synthesis of melanin. This is the most effective way to help reverse pigmentation disorders.

Note: Active ingredients which help anti-age skin must continue to be used for continuing results. If a person was to stop use of a topical anti-ageing cream then the benefits would be gradually reduced/lost over a set period of time. It is therefore important to consistently use anti-ageing creams. 

Is retinol good for acne?

Can natural retinols like bakuchiol help treat and prevent acne to the extent at which retinol can? Retinoids are an approved prescription treatment for acne, however skincare products containing retinol are also qualitatively known to help reduce acne symptoms. For regulatory reasons skincare containing retinol for which a prescription is not needed cannot make claims to treat acne.

A study published in the Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine in 2015 concluded bakuchiol as a promising new agent for anti-acne skincare8. Bakuchiol was able to;

  • Downregulate 5-alpha-reductase – an enzyme which converts testosterone to DHT – a potent stimulator of oil glands. Both bakuchiol and retinol show a 40% reduction in skin’s expression of 5-alpha-reductase.
  • Helps to inhibit the growth of p.acnes bacteria.
  • May be effective for helping prevent textural acne scarring by reducing collagenase activity – an enzyme which degrades collagen.
  • Can help reduce inflammation – acne is a chronic inflammatory skin condition.
  • Helps to prevent lipid peroxidation because of its antioxidant benefits – oxidised skin lipids can be highly comedogenic.

Trial results: 1% bakuchiol when used with 2% salicylic acid showed nearly a 70% reduction in acne lesions and inflammation. When 1% bakuchiol was used alone a 57% reduction in acne was evidenced. When 2% salicylic acid was used a 48% reduction in acne was seen.

How to find skincare containing natural retinol: The most natural retinol cream

Natural retinol as bakuchiol can be found in skincare which states “bakuchiol” on a skincare products ingredients list. As only a small amount of bakuchiol is needed for benefit – bakuchiol will be found near the end of a skincare ingredients list.

Many skincare products claim to contain natural retinol because they contain an ingredient which is known to be a source of vitamin A however in the treatment of acne and ageing concentration is key. Therefore it is advisable when looking for a natural retinol to ensure the ingredients list contains bakuchiol.

Note: Certain natural skincare products may also contain man-made forms of retinoids – this is because the word natural does not require a skincare product to use 100% natural ingredients. Man-made forms of retinol will be found on an ingredients list as retinol, retinaldehyde, retinyl palmitate or hydroxypinacolone retinoate.

References and sources

  1. Metabolism of vitamin A and its active metabolite all-trans-retinoic acid in small intestinal enterocytes. A. Lampen, S. Meyer, T. Arnhold, H. Nau, J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2000 Dec; 295(3): 979–985.

  2. Allenby G, Bocquel MT, Saunders M, et al. Retinoic acid receptors and retinoid X receptors: interactions with endogenous retinoic acids. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1993;90(1):30-4.

  3. Characterization of esterase and alcohol dehydrogenase activity in skin. Metabolism of retinyl palmitate to retinol (vitamin A) during percutaneous absorption. J. Boehnlein, A. Sakr, J. L. Lichtin, R. L. Bronaugh, Pharm Res. 1994 Aug; 11(8): 1155–1159.

  4. Concha, J., Soto, C., Chamy, R. et al. J Amer Oil Chem Soc (2006) 83: 771.

  5. Br J Dermatol. 2018 Jun 27. doi: 10.1111/bjd.16918. [Epub ahead of print] Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoageing.

  6. M Pechere, L Germanier, G Siegenthaler,JC Pechere and JH Saurat, The antibacterial activity of topical retinoids: The case of retinaldehyde, Dermatol 205(2) 153–158 (2002)

  7. Bakuchiol: a retinol-like functional compound revealed by gene expression profiling and clinically proven to have anti-aging effects. R. K. Chaudhuri, K. Bojanowski, Int J Cosmet Sci. 2014 Jun; 36(3): 221–230. Published online 2014 Mar 6. doi: 10.1111/ics.12117