Okay, Do Gentle Plant-Based Retinols Really Work? by Marie Claire

by Chloe Metzger | Marie Claire 

They supposedly get rid of wrinkles without any irritation.

Here’s how skincare popularity works: One ingredient gets some buzz, rises to fame, is touted as a miracle among beauty devotees, and then spawns dozens of copycats claiming to be the next best thing. We’ve seen it with vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and Botox—each ushering in a wave of “cheaper” and “better” alternatives—and now, we’re seeing it with retinol, a longtime skin favorite that’s spawned a new cool kid on the block: plant-based retinols.

“Retinol, a form of vitamin A, is seen as the pretty girl of the class,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor at Yale. “It gets all the attention, because it gets the job done when it comes to wrinkles.” And it makes sense—retinoids (an umbrella term for all vitamin-A derivatives, like retinol) are the only class of topical ingredients clinically proven by billions (approximately) of studies to literally slow down your skin’s aging process by increasing collagen production and decreasing collagen breakdown.

But, with every popular kid comes a bunch of haters, and retinol is no exception. “Retinol is incredibly effective, but it can also be irritating at first, so it’s gotten a bad rap in some circles,” says Dr. Gohara. The recent trend in natural products hasn’t helped, either: “Even though there’s no research that says going ‘green’ is necessarily better for your skin, I’m seeing patients shy away from retinoids, since they’re chemically formulated,” she says.

And that’s all it takes for an underground movement to be born and a new product—i.e. natural, plant-based retinols—to come onto the scene. In the last few months alone, the number of emails in my inbox touting “alternatives” that claim to behave “just like retinol” to produce “similar” benefits, all “without the irritation” has tripled. But could those emails be true? Can carrots and leaves and flowers really be as effective as a cell-stimulating chemical?

According to Dr. Gohara, maybe. “The thing that makes retinol a queen is that it actually increases collagen production, which is a very rare, very important aspect in anti-aging.” Why? Collagen is responsible for, well, everything: smoothing, firming, and strengthening your skin, so it’s more resistant to new and existing wrinkles. “Most ingredients that claim to be similar to retinol really only work to protect you from wrinkles, rather than treating the ones you already have,” she says.

Beta-carotene is one of the latest and greatest in plant “retinols,” since it converts to vitamin A in your body—that is, if you eat it. When it’s used topically, however, “the vitamin A component is irrelevant, so it instead just acts as an antioxidant, protecting your skin from environmental damage that contributes to wrinkles.” Good, but, you know, nowhere near the full-potency vitamin A that’s in retinol.

The same goes for rosehip oil, another ingredient that claims to rival retinol. “The amount of vitamin A found in most rosehip oils won’t be enough to have the same effect on your skin as retinol,” says Dr. Gohara. Yes, rosehip’s inherent levels of vitamins C and A will still act as protective antioxidants for your skin, and they’ll still help even out your complexion, but they won’t trigger the same collagen production as retinoids do.

And that was the same answer I got for every retinol-adjacent ingredient I asked about, including Spanish needle, sea fennel, seaweed extract, lycopene, and licorice root: they’ll do something beneficial for your skin—whether that's softening, brightening, or protecting—but they definitely won’t impact those fine lines. That is, until I asked about bakuchiol.

Bakuchiol is a plant extract that has actually been scientifically studied and proven to function the same way as retinol, stimulating the production of collagen in your skin to smooth the wrinkles you have and protect you from the ones you don’t. But unlike retinol, bakuchiol does it all without causing dryness, irritation, or flakes. If that sounds like a dream, it’s because it kind of is, especially if you’re someone with naturally dry, sensitive skin.

Still, cautions Dr. Gohara, you shouldn’t expect miracles from any plant-based alternatives. “I just don’t think anything really matches the power of retinol,” she says. “But if you’re in a situation where you simply can’t tolerate retinoids, or you really want a natural skincare routine, I think using a gentle, less intense alternative like bakuchiol can still be effective.” I mean, hey, worst that can happen is your skin, overall, looks a lot better, right?


Clean up your routine with these Bakuchiol products.


Nourish PM Treatment

Buy for $75, or pair with any other these products for free delivery.

This supercharged PM treatment has been formulated to: 

+ Protect
Red Algae (Astaxanthin) - It’s the most powerful natural antioxidant known – 6000x stronger than Vitamin C. Helps prevent the oxidative damage to skin after exposure to UVA rays.

+ Natural retinol alternative
Bakuchiol - All the benefits of Retinal with none of the typical sensitivities. 

+ Hydrate naturally
Sodium Hyaluronate - Hydrates by activating the skin's own natural moisturizing factors.

+ Fight oxidative stress
Totarol - A powerful antioxidant that helps reduce oxidative stress and free-radical damage to the skin.

+ Repair
Mānuka Honey - A naturally bioactive, anti-microbial compound that nourishes and draws precious moisture deep into the skin, while encouraging rapid tissue repair.

+ Condition
Palmitoyl Tripeptide-37 - Increases the rate 
of skin healing and renewal, while slowing the thinning of aging skin.

+ Retain the skin’s natural oils
Harakeke Seed Oil - Contains fatty acids that are attributed with repairing, moisturizing and soothing damaged skin.


Buy for $75, or pair with any other these products for free delivery.


Reverse Longitude PM Serum Shot 

Buy for $95, or pair with any other these products for free delivery.

This supercharged PM serum shot has been formulated to: 

+ Stimulate new collagen production 
Retinal (Retinaldehyde) - A stronger form of Retinol, it renews and regenerates skin cells, stimulates new collagen production, increases skin elasticity and reduces trans-epidermal water loss.

+ Boost Retinal
Bakuchiol - All the benefits of Retinal with none of the typical sensitivities. When combined with Retinal, it boosts its effectiveness.

+ Protect
Red Algae (Astaxanthin) - It’s the most powerful natural antioxidant known. It provides potent rejuvenation benefits.


Buy for $95, or pair with any other these products for free delivery.


Byrdie is a mobile content platform focused on insider beauty secrets, product reviews, and more—all vetted by their beauty editors.

Ao Skincare products   About Ao   Ao Ingredients   Blog



"Skincare science needs to be on the very edge of social change and evolution in order to succeed."

Dr. Mark Gray