Bakuchiol, retinol and retinoids: What's the difference?

Here's how each ingredient works, so you can figure out which one is right for you.

Written by
Kate Iselin
Medically reviewed by
min read
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Retinol has to be one of the most talked-about skincare ingredients out there and for good reason.

It really is one of the most effective things you can use on your face, and it can treat everything from acne to ageing skin, scars, and more. It is scientifically proven to make visible changes to our skin — so there’s no wonder why it’s considered a gold standard ingredient.

But retinol is also an ingredient that some people can be nervous about using.

It can make our skin more photosensitive, it can be tough on sensitive skin, and it can even cause a retinol “purge”. Plus, it can be complex to figure out exactly what kind of treatment we want to use: should we shop for retinol or retinoids?

Are both of these things just vitamin A? And what’s this “bakuchiol” that we’re all suddenly hearing about, anyway?

To clear things up, here’s our guide to bakuchiol, retinol, and retinoids — including explanations of how each skincare ingredient works and summaries of scientific studies, so you can figure out which one is right for you.

B‍ut first, let's dive into the role of vitamin A — which retinol is derived from — in skincare.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A, like all other vitamins, is an essential micronutrient that our body needs to perform at its best.

It helps our respiratory tract, bladder, and eyes to function, as well as our skin to refresh itself daily so our bodies have a constant, reliable barrier against infection and the outside world [1].

Our bodies can’t manufacture vitamin A, so it has to come from our diet. Leafy green vegetables, eggs, milk, corn, pumpkin, and mangoes are all excellent sources of vitamin A [1].

This vitamin is actually stored in fruits and vegetables as carotenoids, which are the pigments that give orange, yellow, and green fruits and vegetables their colour. So if you’ve ever wondered if there was a scientific connection between eating carrots and having good eyesight, now you know that there is, and it's called vitamin A.

So, can we just skip the skincare and eat our leafy greens to get clear skin? We can to a degree: a complete diet, with lots of vitamins and minerals, will certainly keep our bodies — including our skin — in good health.

But to make fast, visible changes to our skin, we need a concentrated shot of vitamin A in its most active form. And that’s where retinoids come in.


The term ‘retinoids’ refers to an entire family of ingredients derived from vitamin A [2][3].

In the same way that the word ‘fruit’ can refer to apples, oranges, and strawberries, the word ‘retinoid’ can refer to retinol, retinal, retinaldehyde, and many more [3][4].

There are some differences between all of these retinoids, but the one that’s most relevant to us when choosing a skin treatment is how much work our body has to put into converting each retinoid into retinoic acid, which is the form of retinol that our body can use [5].

Generally speaking, the more work our body has to put into converting a retinoid into retinoic acid, the weaker that treatment will be.

For this reason, skin treatments that contain retinoic acid — as opposed to another retinoid that our body will have to put effort into converting — are quite strong, and available only through the doctor here in Australia.

We’ll call them retinoids here, although your doctor will probably refer to them by their brand name. Treatments containing other retinoids that our body has to convert to retinoic acid are available over the counter.

While we might be tempted to ask our doctor for the strongest skin treatment we can get, it’s worth remembering that retinoids are pretty powerful, even in low concentrations.

Treatments containing retinoic acid can be highly effective, but the strength of the medication can also cause the skin to become dry and flakey.

This is why our Software practitioners create formulations with clinical strength ingredients based on your personal skin needs and goals. Whether you're wanting to target ageing or acne, these formulas are made with your skin in mind.

For some people, retinoids are just too strong — or their doctor may decide that they're not the right choice for them.

So that’s where retinol comes in.


Retinol is the most common retinoid, and it’s available in many over-the-counter skincare products. Our bodies do need to convert retinol into retinoic acid, but they can do this very easily.

While treatments containing retinol aren’t technically as powerful as treatments containing retinoic acid, they can be less irritating to the skin.

To compare retinoids you get at the doctors with over-the-counter retinol, let’s look at some scientific studies:

  • This study, from the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, notes that retinol is generally considered to be 10 times less potent than a commonly-recommended retinoid. It tested 3 retinol-based products in comparison to 3  retinoid products, and no significant differences in efficacy were found. So although the retinoid was more powerful than the retinol, it was considered to have worked just as well.
  • Another study from the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology compared over-the-counter retinol to a commonly-recommended retinoid. Participants increased their dosage of each treatment over the course of the study, and the retinol was eventually found to be equivalent to, or even better than, the retinoid.

From the above studies, we can take away that we’re certainly not missing out on anything if we can’t get our hands on a retinoid.

This is why we created the Software Retinol Complex Oil — a gentle yet potent formula that works to treat wrinkles, protect the skin from environmental stressors, and stimulate cell renewal to shed dead skin cells, while also catering to those who want results without the use of medical-grade ingredients.

Derived from coconut, seed oils, and fruit oils, this age-defying hero reduces the appearance of fine lines and dark spots, and combats dryness. It improves skin elasticity and firmness for a glowing complexion, and it works for sensitive, dry, and oily skin types alike.

But, what if retinoids aren’t your thing at all? Luckily, there might just be another option.


Bakuchiol is an ingredient derived from the babchi plant. It hasn’t been as rigorously studied as retinoids, but it has been used extensively in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat skin inflammation.

Some are calling it a ‘natural retinoid’ or a retinoid replacement because it can have a very similar effect on our skin — minus photosensitivity and skin irritation.

  • A study in the British Journal of Science compared bakuchiol to retinol and found that they both decreased wrinkle surface area and hyperpigmentation. The study said bakuchiol was a ‘promising alternative’ to retinol that was better tolerated by the skin, with retinol users reporting more facial skin scaling and stinging.
  • In the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, a study was done to compare retinol and bakuchiol. It found that bakuchiol has similar effects to retinol ‘without usual retinol-therapy undesirable effects’, and that bakuchiol could function as an anti-ageing compound by behaving similarly to retinol. The natural ingredient was found to help stimulate collagen production and, as a result, improve firmness and elasticity.

Bakuchiol is available in different forms, from bakuchiol cream to serum, lotion, and more.

It’s a really versatile ingredient and a great choice for all skin types looking for some plant-powered benefits. However, as a natural alternative to retinoids, it can be particularly beneficial for those with sensitive skin.

And even better, it can be used alongside retinol. Some products even combine both bakuchiol and retinol in the same formula, which means you don’t have to pick between one or the other.

Bakuchiol vs retinol vs retinoids: Which one is right for you?

Whether you use bakuchiol, retinol, or see your doctor for a clinical-strength retinoid, remember that the best skin treatment is the one that works for your own, individual skin.

Buying the most potent skin treatment, or the one that everyone else seems to be using isn’t always a guarantee of success.

Instead, try products like Software’s custom treatment, which takes your current skin concerns, past history, and skin goals into account to create an effective formulation that is personalised just for you.

Be kind to your skin and take time to create the skincare routine that works for you. There are heaps of ingredients to try, so if at first, you don’t find something that’s right for you, give another a go.

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