New and natural retinol alternative Bakuchiol has burst onto our skincare radar in a powerful way.
Works as good as retinol some say.
Is safe for sensitive skin others say.
Can be used during pregnancy (!!!) experts say.
But can it?
Is bakuchiol pregnancy safe?
Can you use bakuchiol while pregnant without worry about well-known retinoid side effects aka birth defects?
This is serious stuff.
And although a quick Google search will tell you “yes bakuchiol can be used safely during pregnancy”;
Because if new and natural bakuchiol works in a similar way to retinol i.e. it gets involved in the same biology pathways/turns on the same biology pathways – then would it also have the same side effects?
For example retinol is known to speed up your skin cell turnover aka make your skin exfoliate quicker.
Every product which does this has the potential to;
- Irritate your skin
- Cause redness
- Cause peeling
- Cause dehydration
Because if you exfoliate your skin away too quickly – you get the same side effects, regardless of what the active ingredient is.
Think of it like a light switch.
If you come home from the best night out with friends, it doesn’t matter whether you or your friend flick the switch – the result is the same. Light. Taadaa!
(psst – for any fellow science geeks reading along – a drug can be teratogenic/toxic because of how it interacts with your body or what your body breaks it down into – so even if a molecule acts in the same way – it doesn’t always mean it would have the same side effects… but then there was a 2nd check which sparked a bit of extra doubt…)
The 2nd doubt in my mind is sparked by something called a chemical safety data sheet.
You know how flat pack furniture from IKEA ALWAYS comes with a how-to-put-me-together guide?
Well my friend, all chemicals – even water (!) come with their own how-to-use-me-safely guide.
AKA a material safety data sheet or MSDS for short.
Take a look at this company’s safety data sheet for retinol.
Oh and keep in mind that question – is retinol safe to use during pregnancy when reading;
Did you see the bit in red?
In the EU retinol is classified as a;
- Category 1B reproductive toxin
- Which may cause damage to the unborn child
This my friend is why retinol is not advised for use during pregnancy.
Although keep reading to learn if this could ever be an in-real-life effect. More about this super soon.
Now back to the key question at hand – and this time another example.
This one is a retinoid. A retinoid called Granactive retinoid. The Ordinary made it famous.
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Would you use this retinoid if you were pregnant? Take a peek at this and get your thinking cap on;
Did you see the hazard statement “H360 – May damage fertility or the unborn child”?
You are super savvy my friend.
What does this mean? Is Granactive retinoid safe to use during pregnancy?
I bet you’ve got the answer already eh.
No – Granactive retinoid is not advised as safe to use during pregnancy.
(keep that word advised in mind – I’ve got more to say about this soon – the super interesting bit. P.s. you might be changing your mind about retinoids like Granactive retinoid VERY soon)
What About Bakuchiol? Is Bakuchiol Pregnancy Safe?
After I got asked on this Instagram post – Is bakuchiol safe to use during pregnancy? I thought I’d dig a little deeper.
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I bet you can guess what I did eh.
I Google searched for Bakuchiol + MSDS. One of the first results is from a company called Cayman Chemicals.
Quick check on Cayman Chemicals? Aka are they legit? Based in the US, founded in 1980 and with a revenue of 47 million USD they seem it. In their own words, “We manufacture high quality biochemicals.”
Here’s the bit of the MSDS you need to pay attention to;
Did you see it?
This bakuchiol safety data sheet from Cayman Chemicals tells us – bakuchiol may have reproductive effects and teratogenic effects.
Psst; teratogenic is the science word for birth defects or an active which can ‘disrupt the development of a foetus or embryo’.
So bakuchiol isn’t safe to use during pregnancy?
While this finding raised my eyebrows and is why I’m here with you right now, investigating this further – it didn’t make me assume bakuchiol is not safe to use during pregnancy.
That’s because if you take a peek at any other bakuchiol safety data sheets – they do not mention reproductive hazards or teratogenic changes.
Every company has a team of toxicologists or product safety experts who will pull together their own safety data sheets. Plus – every country has slightly different regulations.
For example – did you know – if you tried to sell a can of EU Coca-Cola in California – due to California’s different regulations (specifically one called PROP 65) you’d need to label that can of Coca-Cola – “warning may cause cancer”.
California is known to have crazy high restrictions for any chemical which may be linked to negative health outcomes.
Extra fun fact you should know; While many online sources use quotes from dermatologists to support claims that bakuchiol is safe to use during pregnancy – dermatologists aren’t truly who you should be asking. A toxicologist or toxicology scientist is. Dermatologists are like doctors – they treat the skin with medications and creams. They’re not traditionally trained in skincare formulation or the toxicology of skincare actives.
I’m an example. I’m a scientist and skincare formulator. Think of me like a skincare chef – however – I don’t work in toxicology.
While I have a solid understanding about the safety of individual skincare actives – any skincare formulation I create by EU law must be safety assessed by an independent toxicologist.
Right – so – before we dig into the question – is bakuchiol safe to use during pregnancy. Let’s circle back to that first assumption we made.
Does bakuchiol turn on the same light switches as retinol?
Because if it doesn’t – then we could be worrying about using bakuchiol during pregnancy for no reason.
Is Bakuchiol the Same As Retinol?
Does bakuchiol turn on the same skin cells/genes as retinol could be activating in your skin right now?
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Step 1 – bakuchiol is being found to have all of the same benefits as retinol;
- Helps to prevent sun ageing
- Helps treat acne and rosacea
- Brightens skin tone aka treating uneven skin tone
Step 2 – does bakuchiol work in the same way as retinol?
In 2014 a study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science looked at which genes bakuchiol turns on vs which genes retinol turns on.
Aka which skin light switches are switched on?
There are 2 key findings of this study;
- Bakuchiol does turn on a similar set of genes to retinol
- Bakuchiol doesn’t turn on retinoic acid receptor beta-1 or retinoic acid receptor gamma-1 (RARB & RARG) – don’t worry if this sounds mega techy – just think of them like light switch names
This is significant because many retinoids are suspected reproductive hazards aka are not advised as being safe to use during pregnancy – and binding with RARB & RARG/turning on these funky light switches is part of what makes most of them an anti-ageing retinoid.
Clue #1 that bakuchiol may not have the same side effects as retinol.
The same study also tells us, bakuchiol;
- Turns up genes which help your cells absorb retinol and use it – meaning bakuchiol might act like retinol because it makes the retinol your body already has MORE available to your skin cells.
- Both bakuchiol and retinol turn up the light switch (yes we have dimming switches now (!)) which stops your body from degrading elastase and collagen aka skin proteins which keeps your skin bouncy and wrinkle free.
The bottom line; bakuchiol works in similar ways, switching on similar light switches to retinol – with one key difference. Bakuchiol doesn’t touch retinoic acid receptors (beta-1 and gamma-1). It could be looking up for bakuchiol safety.
Where do we go from here? How can we understand if bakuchiol is pregnancy safe?
For this my friend, we’re going to borrow from a regulatory team called REACH aka Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals. Try saying that after a glass of vino eh.
Here in the EU, since 2006 – every skincare active which is used or imported (in specific quantities) into the EU must be REACH registered.
Think of REACH like a safety checking team.
You can search the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) for REACH data of individual skincare actives.
Hooray. Do you see where we’re going with this? You are so savvy my friend.
Shall we start with an active we know it’s advised you don’t use during pregnancy?
This is what you will find when you search the ECHA database for retinol;
Psst; don’t worry about the techy sounding talk. I’m translating for you after.
Retinol produced more than 70 types of malformations in rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs, pigs, and monkeys. The type and incidence depend on doses, stages of pregnancy and on species and strains used (CIR 1987). However, a series of developmental toxicity studies in cynomolgus monkeys have been identified as suitable for substantiating classification decisions and performing a quantitiative assessment and derivation of no effect levels. These data are also used via read across for the structural analogues retinyl acetate, retinol and retinyl propionate.Toxicological Information for Retinol from European Chemicals Agency registration dossier - accessed 3 Feb 2020
In animals – which I know it’s horrible to think once upon a time – so much cosmetic testing was done on (don’t worry this has changed now) – retinol dosing shows lots of bad changes during pregnancy. However a specific breed of monkey was found to be closest to humans for looking at if retinol is safe during pregnancy. This same data can be used to work out if other retinoids would be safe to use during pregnancy.
Treatment with retinyl palmitate during gastrulation and early organogenesis resulted in adverse developmental effects manifested as dose-related increases in abortions and malformations in the cynomolgus monkeys. Malformations were observed in typical retinoid target tissues in the embryo, including the craniofacial region, heart, and thymus.
Quick word explainers;
Gastrulation = early stage embryo development i.e. when a baby’s first being made.
Organogenesis = when your baby’s organs are being made.
Craniofacial – bones of your skull and face.
Thymus – found in your chest, part of your lymph system.
Psst; these are just a few snippets – the summary of test data goes on to show very similar outcomes for other types of retinoids.
Double note; this data is for oral dosing aka taking vitamin A by mouth. More about if it’s relevant to skincare super soon.
Bottom line; toxicology data on retinoids shows it is not safe to take extra retinol/high dose retinol supplements during pregnancy.
Psst; If you want a look at which other anti-ageing actives could be a fab choice during your pregnancy – download my free 5 Best Anti-Ageing Active cheatsheet here.
Now what about bakuchiol?
Is bakuchiol safe during pregnancy?
Time to dig into the ECHA database again.
Here’s what we find this time;
Go to the same page for bakuchiol, follow the tab labelled toxicology information. Go to the sub tab which reads toxicity to reproduction and there is no data.
If you go on to look at the health hazards tab on the ECHA database, it tells you;
Insufficient evidence for classification.
Hmm, so what’s going on here. How can we tell if Bakuchiol in pregnancy is A-OK if there’s no data for us to decide from?
If the ingredient in question is imported from 1-10 tonnes a year – less safety testing is needed or another way to phrase this – less safety test data needs to be declared to REACH.
The REACH registration for bakuchiol tell us 0 – 10 tonnes of bakuchiol are imported per year.
Meaning bakuchiol requires less REACH registered safety data.
Ingredients fitting into this box;
- Do NOT require “Screening for reproductive/developmental toxicity”
- Do NOT require gene mutation studies in “mammalian cells” i.e. cells which are more like ours – gene mutations aka mutagenicity can often lead to teratogenicity
- But they DO require “In vitro (i.e. in a test tube) gene mutation in bacteria” studies
Which has its pros and cons.
Bacterial cells can give us scientists a fantastic indication of whether a skincare active like bakuchiol could be toxic or mutagenic or teratogenic.
However – you guessed it my friend, bacterial cells are not human cells. Sometimes this test can give a false positive and sometimes it can give a false negative.
It’s a good test but it’s not full-proof.
The REACH registered safety data for bakuchiol tells us;
Yes – there has been a genetic toxicity test completed.
And yes – this genetic toxicity test was completed on bacteria cells – salmonella bacteria cells to be specific – have you heard of salmonella? It gives the worst food poisoning (!)
What does this test data tell us?
Is bakuchiol genotoxic i.e. toxic to our genetics/chromosomes/DNA (in bacteria cells)? Negative.
Is bakuchiol cytotoxic i.e. toxic to our cells (in bacteria cells)? No.
It’s looking up for bakuchiol. Indication studies raise no alarm bells.
Interesting side point;
Did you know salicylic acid is generally advised as safe to use during pregnancy in skincare?
You might be shocked to find out that salicylic acid is listed as “Danger! Suspected of damaging the unborn child.”
Crazy right – keep this in mind – we’re about to chat more about it soon. First though…
Is Bakuchiol Safe For Use During Pregnancy?
Does bakuchiol turn on the exact same light switches as retinol?
We know the answer to this question is no. We also know bakuchiol does turn on some similar genes to retinol.
There’s potential bakuchiol could be safe for use during pregnancy – however readily available data does not definitively prove it.
There’s one more extremely important to know fact.
All animal studies which have shown retinol or retinoids to be unsafe for use during pregnancy are ‘oral dosing’ studies. Aka these studies are based on you taking a supplement/medication or drug form of vitamin A.
An example of this is Accutane.
This my friend is huge.
Imagine eating spinach. Now imagine mashing spinach up and having a spinach face mask.
When you eat spinach your body’s absorbing a heck load more spinach.
The same is absolutely true for skincare vs. supplements or medications.
Your skin’s sole job is to keep you safe from your environment.
To lock out nasties.
And to lock in the goodies… plus your internal organs 😉
How Safe Is Skincare During Pregnancy?
How much spinach from your skin is ever going to be getting into your blood stream and to your newborn child?
There’s a lot of hurdles in the way.
There’s dead skin cells.
Your skin is one heck of a barrier – can skincare really be harmful to use during pregnancy?
How much of a moisturiser, serum or cream could ever get to your unborn baby through your skin?
Take a peek at this study;
Ever used a pain relief gel like Voltarol or Ibuleve?
Well this study published in the Journal of Pain Research in 2012 shows how much of a similar drug active is absorbed through skin. Plus how much is then found in blood.
(note – this is animal skin which is commonly used in drug testing)
Super interestingly they also compare the pain relief patch to a pain relief pill.
Here’s the juicy bit;
When applied to skin – 19, 200 ng/g is found in skin.
(nanograms – to put that in perspective – 1 grain of salt is about 58, 000 ng)
879 ng/g is found in muscles around the area of the patch. This is over 21 times less than in skin.
…and wait for it;
3.49 ng/ml is found in blood.
That’s over 5, 500 times less than is found in skin.
Flip, reverse it – and if you swallowed a 50mg tablet of this drug/medicine, you’ll find about;
9, 640 ng/ml in your blood stream.
Over 2,700 times more than if you used skincare containing it.
Bottom line; only tiny amounts of most skincare will EVER end up in your blood stream.
This is why skincare actives like salicylic acid are a grey area and many recommend them as OK to use during pregnancy.
Only tiny amounts are every absorbed through skin.
Specifically for salicylic acid a paper titled – Safety of Skin Care Products During Pregnancy, tells us;
A number of large studies have been published in which researchers examined the outcomes of women who had taken low-dose acetylsalicylic acid during pregnancy and there was no increase in the baseline risk of adverse events, such as major malformations, preterm birth, or low birth weight. No studies have been conducted in pregnancy on topical use; however, as such a relatively small proportion is absorbed through the skin, it is unlikely to pose any risk to a developing baby.Can Fam Physician. 2011 Jun; 57(6): 665–667.
Human translation – researchers have seen no harm to an unborn baby in women taking low dose tablets of salicylic acid. No studies have been completed on skin but as so little is absorbed through skin – it’s super unlikely they will be any risk to your yet to be born baby.
The poison is in the dose my friend.
Everything can be a poison – even chocolate. Yikes right.
And it gets deeper than this;
Are Retinoids Safe to Use During Pregnancy?
THE most potent retinoid you can use on your skin is called tretinoin. It’s used for acne and anti-ageing.
And it’s prescription only in most countries.
It’s advised you don’t use tretinoin during pregnancy for risk of birth defects.
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Keep in mind – much less tretinoin is absorbed through your skin than if you took Accutane aka a tablet of isotretinoin.
Take a look at this study summary published in the Lancet in 1993;
We identified 215 women who delivered live or stillborn infants at Group Health Cooperative hospitals and who were exposed to topical tretinoin early in pregnancy, and 430 age-matched nonexposed women who delivered live or stillborn infants at the same hospitals. The prevalence of major anomalies among babies born to the exposed women was 1.9% and among babies born to the nonexposed women was 2.6%. The relative risk estimate for having a baby with a major congenital anomaly for exposed versus nonexposed women was 0.7 (95% CI 0.2-2.3). We conclude that topical tretinoin is not associated with an increased risk for major congenital disorders.Lancet. 1993;341(8854):1181–1182.
Human translation – in this study applying tretinoin to your skin during early pregnancy was not found to be linked with major birth defects.
But what about minor birth defects? They matter too! I’ve got your back my friend.
Another topical tretinoin vs. birth defects review study which was published in 2005 looks at if topical tretinoin used in the 1st trimester of pregnancy could cause minor birth defects. This study finds;
First-trimester topical tretinoin exposure in this study was not associated with an increased risk of any adverse pregnancy outcome evaluated. Specifically, there was no indication that topical tretinoin is associated with an increased risk for minor malformations that are consistent with the retinoic acid embryopathy.Am J Med Genet A, 136 (2), 117-21, 2005 Jul 15
Human translation – in this study applying tretinoin to your skin during early pregnancy (one of the most important stages for your baby’s development) was not found to be linked with minor birth defects.
Even more interesting eh.
Is Bakuchiol Pregnancy Safe?
What do you think my friend? With the evidence I’ve laid out for you here, would you use bakuchiol during pregnancy?
Pieces of evidence to note;
- Different light switches are getting turned on – aka bakuchiol does not turn on retinoic acid receptors i.e. bakuchiol does not have the key/shape/molecular structure that lets retinoids love bond with RARs (retinoic acid receptors).
- There’s no evidence bakuchiol is not safe to use during pregnancy.
- Bacteria studies show bakuchiol does not cause damage to genetics i.e. indication tests show us bakuchiol should not be able to cause birth defects
- Even drugs which are known to cause birth defects in oral medications may be prescribed for skin use during pregnancy.
- Remember the spinach face mask my friend – so little of what you put on your skin will EVER get into your blood.
- There’s some evidence even the strongest retinoids could be OK to use in early pregnancy.
Would I use bakuchiol during pregnancy?
Yes I would. I would also likely alternate bakuchiol with other anti-ageing actives which have no known links to birth defects. This would make any risk that exists even lower.
Is bakuchiol pregnancy safe? My friend, I hope you understand that I cannot answer this question for you with a black and white yes or no. I cannot give you medical advice but I can lay the facts out for you – and I hope that’s what you’ve got by reading along with me here.
And if you’re in any doubt grab a copy of my free 5 Best Anti-Ageing Actives Download to clue yourself up on some other actives which could be ‘THE ones’ for you during pregnancy.
P.s. I know how baffling skincare can be and how when it comes to pregnancy – you want zero risk. If you want to be extra cautious, come get a skincare review with me here. Be sure to put in the notes that you want this to be a pregnancy skincare review. I’ve got your back my friend.
What’s your decision my friend? Will you be using bakuchiol during pregnancy? Are you a yes or a no? Come tell me in the comments below…
Psst – please do share this on to anyone you know who’s pregnant – you can use those buttons below.
Cheryl Woodman is a scientist & award winning skincare formulator who’s more friend next door than bow tie wearing professor. As creator of Honesty For Your Skin her aim is to help you care for your skin in the best ways possible. She’s founder of the natural & fragrance free skincare brand Honesty while also hosting 1 to 1 skincare coaching to help you get your best skin yet. Find out more here.