Whether you're a seasoned skincare enthusiast or a beginner just starting to build a staple product regimen, we're willing to bet you've heard of retinol. The world of skincare ingredients may be saturated, but nothing beats the proven prowess of this active. Derived from vitamin A, it's known for its myriad benefits, from increasing cell turnover to improving texture and tone to stimulating collagen and smoothing out wrinkles (not to mention that these effects and more are backed by years of scientific data). The only not-so-little problem? Retinol is known to have troublesome side effects, including redness, irritation and peeling.
Enter phytoretinols, relatively new players on the scene that promise to deliver all the benefits of retinol, without any of the drawbacks. Admittedly, this sounds too good to be true, so we turned to a cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline and certified dermatologist Ife J. RodneyMD, to explain exactly what phytoretinols are and what they can (and cannot) do.
Meet the expert
Can phytoretinols live up to their lofty claims? Read on to find out what the experts had to say.
Ingredient Type: A variety of molecules of plant origin
Key Benefits: Similar to retinol, including increased collagen production, fewer fine lines and wrinkles, decreased hyperpigmentation and even improved acne, says Koestline
Who should use it: Anyone with sensitive skin and/or who cannot tolerate retinol; pregnant and nursing women can also use phytoretinol, says Rodney
How often can you use it : Daily
Works well with : Moisturizing ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid and squalane, as well as niacinamide and peptides, Rodney explains; some formulas also combine phytoretinol with retinol
Do not use with : Alpha-hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide
What are phytoretinols?
First and foremost, it's important to note that phytoretinol isn't a specific ingredient; it's a generic term for herbal ingredients with retinol-like activity, explains Rodney. They bind to the same nuclear receptors as retinol, adds Koestline, hence the almost identical benefits. You may see phytoretinol used as a marketing term on product packaging; here are some specific ingredients that fall into this category.
- Bakuchiol: Perhaps the best known phytoretinol, bakuchiol, extracted from the Psoralea corlifolia plant, is seemingly everywhere lately. "It has similar properties to retinol, but also strengthens the skin's moisture barrier, preventing excessive water loss," Rodney explains. It has also been scientifically proven to have comparable effects to retinol when it comes to improving photoaging, but without any of the irritating side effects.
- Extract of picão preto: Derived from a plant commonly found in South America, picão preto extract also has retinol-like activity. "In human fibroblasts, it has been shown to bind to retinol receptors even better than retinol and to reduce the expression of the collagen-degrading protein MMP-1 as much as retinoic acid," says Koestline. (As a reminder, retinoic acid is only available by prescription and is more potent than retinol, which you can get over the counter).
- Rose hip seed oil"Some studies show that rosehip oil has similar potency to retinol in improving hyperpigmentation and reducing acne," says Rodney. And as an added benefit, it's naturally rich in vitamin C, notes Koestline, a well-known skin brightener, anti-wrinkle and antioxidant in its own right.
- Sea fennel extractAlthough there are no direct studies comparing sea fennel extract to retinol, this ingredient helps exfoliate the skin, improve skin thickness, reduce wrinkles and regulate collagen and sebum production, Koestline explains.
Benefits of phytoretinols for the skin
As mentioned above, you get the same set of benefits as with retinol, which means phytoretinols can improve cell turnover and target wrinkles, fine lines, dullness, acne and uneven texture, Rodney explains. Plus, because they're plant-based, many have the added benefit of containing extra nutrients and antioxidant properties, theoretically giving you even more bang for your buck.
That said, while some of the various phytoretinol ingredients have been studied head-to-head with retinol, there aren't enough studies that compare most phytoretinols; at least for now, some of the results may be anecdotal, Rodney notes. Still, the two experts we spoke with were convinced that their benefits were legitimate.
Side effects of phytoretinols
That's the beauty of phytoretinols: "There are no known side effects," says Rodney, who adds that they are a good option for all skin types, especially sensitive skin. This, again, is in stark contrast to the many irritating side effects that can accompany retinol. Unlike retinol, phytoretinols are safe for pregnant and nursing women, she adds. (Although it's always a good idea to check with your doctor). And, of course, any ingredient, natural or not, always has the potential to cause an allergic reaction, so starting with a patch test every time you try a new ingredient or product isn't a bad idea.
How to use phytoretinols
While phytoretinols work well with many other skincare ingredients (including retinol? you'll find phytoretinol ingredients combined with traditional ingredients in many formulas), there are a few with which they don't mix well. Rodney advises against combining them with benzoyl peroxide, as the two can neutralize each other. Glycolic acid can also reduce the quality of phytoretinols, she says; similarly, Koestline says it's not a good idea to use with any alpha-hydroxy acid.
Separate any phytoretinol products you use in time and space from products that contain these ingredients, i.e., use benzoyl peroxide or AHAs in the morning and phytoretinol at night. At this point, it's worth noting that (again, unlike retinol) phytoretinols have no associated photosensitivity, Koestline says, so it's fine to use these ingredients morning or night.
The best products with phytoretinols
A top choice for Rodney, "this contains bakuchiol, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid to help with cell turnover and inflammation, and leaves skin plump and hydrated," she says. Bonus points for the fact that it comes in recyclable packaging.
While this has a short list of ingredients, everything in this formula is very effective, Koestline says. There's bakuchiol in the mix, and the base is rose hip seed oil, which is rich in vitamin C (and is a phytoretinol in itself). As the name suggests, use it alone or mix it into a moisturizer of your choice.
Picão preto is the star of the show here, offering retinol-like effects, including smoothing the skin and reducing fine lines and wrinkles. It also contains anti-aging peptides and hydrating hyaluronic acid.
Minimalists will appreciate this simple oil, which Rodney says helps reduce the signs of aging and sun damage and accelerates skin cell turnover. Not to mention, the affordable price can't be beat.
Koestline also recommends this natural 100% formula, which combines both bakuchiol and rose hip seed oil. She also praises it for the addition of skin-soothing blue tansy.
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