Plant-based diets have been growing in popularity in recent years, with proponents citing gut health, better immunity, and higher energy levels as reasons to make the switch. Now, going vegan isn’t just restricted to your diet. Just like your favorite block of parmesan is now available in a dairy-free version, the beauty industry is embracing plant-based skin care ingredients as alternatives to popular actives. And, yes, while skin care products aren’t being ingested like food, topically, they can still have a negative effect on some (despite being effective at what they’re actually meant to do, whether it be eliminating fine lines or brightening up the skin). These side effects include itchiness, dryness, and redness.
When it comes to shifting to a plant-based skin care routine, there may be a few question marks lingering. What are the benefits of these skin care ingredients? Which ones should you look for, and what should you stay away from? Most importantly, will these alternatives offer the same skin care benefits as the ingredient they’re meant to replace? Below, dermatologists and a cosmetic chemist offer everything you need to know about popular skin care ingredients (including retinol, salicylic acid, vitamin C, and SPF) and their vegan alternatives (including bakuchiol, willow bark extract, camu camu, turmeric, and raspberry seed oil).
Why Use Plant-Based Skin Care Ingredients?
Many of today’s most efficacious ingredients were originally derived from plants — for example, glycolic acid is a natural byproduct created by fermentation of sugar cane, says Dr. Geeta Yadav, M.D, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Facet Dermatology. Still, there are several reasons why someone would skew toward plant-based skin care ingredients. For one, many active skin care ingredients, such as retinol and hydroquinone, are off limits for pregnant or nursing women, as they can absorb into the bloodstream and potentially cause harm. Plant-based skin care ingredients may also be more attractive to those who are opposed to animal testing or those looking to steer clear of ingredients containing animal byproducts (though being vegan and cruelty-free isn’t a hard and fast rule, so you should always confirm that there’s no animal testing involved in any step of the production process if that’s important to you).
Perhaps the most common reason why people go plant-based, though, is that it may be more suitable for their skin type. “Plant-based skin care can provide a more gentle alternative to those synthesized in a lab,” notes Dr. Elizabeth Geddes-Bruce, M.D., board-certified dermatologist of Westlake Dermatology. “While natural ingredients are not always more gentle (in fact, botanicals can sometimes be very irritating), there are select ones that are beneficial [to the skin] and pose less side effects.”
Plant-Based Ingredients To Look For In Skin Care
From retinol to vitamin C, here are the most common active ingredients you’ll find on your skin care labels, plus their plant-based alternatives.
Bakuchiol Vs. Retinol
“Retinol is one of the most well-studied and highly-recommended skin care ingredients at our disposal, doing everything from addressing and preventing signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation, to treating and preventing acne,” Dr. Yadav tells TZR. Though retinol comes with a laundry list of skin care benefits, it has its downsides. “Retinol may be too powerful and irritating for some, especially those with sensitized skin.” The ingredient also cannot be used safely by pregnant or nursing women, as vitamin A has the potential for causing birth defects, warns Dr. Yadav.
Enter bakuchiol, an Ayurvedic plant seed found in Asia that’s been found to have similar skin benefits to retinol. “Bakuchiol does not work exactly like retinol, but is similar to it and proven to have the same benefits all while being gentler on the skin,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. “If simply comparing performance, a stabilized retinol may still outperform bakuchiol, but if your skin can not tolerate retinol, bakuchiol is a better alternative.” Keep in mind that if you’re swapping retinol with bakuchiol, it’ll take more time and consistency to see results, adds Dr. Yadav.
Willow Bark Extract Vs. Salicylic Acid
For those prone to acne, salicylic acid may be a familiar ingredient. “Salicylic acid is an exfoliant that works within the pore to break down the dead skin cells and sebum that leads to the pore congestion that can cause breakouts,” says Dr. Yadav. For many, salicylic acid is too harsh on the skin, exacerbating redness and irritation all while potentially drying out the skin. That’s where willow bark extract comes in. “Willow bark extract is a natural source of the compound salicin, from which salicylic acid is derived (salicin is also similar to aspirin, which is the premise behind using a crushed up aspirin as a topical blemish reliever),” explains Dr. Yadav. Where the two ingredients differ is that salicylic acid is a regulated ingredient, meaning it is controlled by the FDA and considered a topical acne drug. Willow bark extract, on the other hand, is not an acne drug and also not as potent. “It can be efficacious, but it won’t provide results as significant as those offered by salicylic acid,” notes Dr. Yadav. Still, King recommends it as an appropriate ingredient for preventing acne.
Camu Camu & Turmeric Vs. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is regarded as the ultimate skin brightener, making it great for those with dry, dull complexions as well as those struggling with dark circles and hyperpigmentation. The problem? It’s also highly acidic and can cause irritation, stinging, and redness. Two ingredients, camu camu and turmeric, have been regarded as solid vitamin C alternatives. “Camu camu is an extract from the berries of a Brazilian fruit tree that is most well known for its high amounts of vitamin C,” notes Dr. Geddes-Bruce. “Its benefits on the skin include moisturizing and brightening by decreasing unwanted brown spots and pigmentation.”
Like vitamin C, turmeric comes with similar antioxidant benefits of vitamin C, but King adds that it’s also a great anti-inflammatory agent (unlike vitamin C). Additionally, Dr. Geddes-Bruce says that the ingredient contains curcumin, a highly potent antioxidant that’s been used topically for various skin conditions, from eczema to wrinkles, for many centuries.
Raspberry Seed Oil Vs. SPF
You’ve been told to slather on the SPF rain or shine, day in and day out, but several SPF formulas can be pore-clogging and breakout-inducing. One ingredient that’s been compared to SPF is raspberry seed oil, “a potent antioxidant known for its high concentrations of fatty acids as well as vitamins E and A,” says Dr. Geddes-Bruce. The ingredient is chock-full of skin care benefits. King says that it can reduce the effect of oxidative stress from the sun — it can also create a barrier to help lock moisture into the skin. More impressively, one study has shown that it can block some UV rays (specifically, that it offered good protection against UVB rays and minimal protection against UVA rays).
Still, while the ingredient may offer some degree of UV protection, the amount of SPF is so minimal and not nearly enough to serve as a replacement for a traditional sunscreen, says Dr. Geddes-Bruce. Dr. Yadav adds to this, noting that SPF is regulated by the FDA and rigorously tested to ensure it can substantiate its claims of protecting the skin from aging and preventing skin cancer. While raspberry seed oil is not regulated, you can still incorporate the ingredient into your skin care routine to keep the skin hydrated and ward off free radicals.