With our lineups of products and well-practiced techniques, it's no crazy stretch to call skin care one of our favorite sports. In this game, for the longest time, retinol has been the clear MVP, touted for the way it tackles everything from pimples to hyperpigmentation. Its hall-of-fame status has years of research to back it. "It goes back before my time — before I was even born," says Vancouver-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Monica Li.
But lately, skincare brands have been recruiting new stars to rival retinol. Following in the steps of 2020 'it' ingredient bakuchiol, bidens pilosa is the latest plant-based retinol alternative promising to deliver all of retinol's big benefits — without the familiar drawbacks like peeling and redness.
The key word here is "alternative." These naturally-derived ingredients aren't actually retinol, nor do they have a similar chemical composition. Whereas most retinol is made synthetically in a lab, bidens pilosa is extracted from a plant. That makes it an option for natural skin-care devotees. Plus, unlike real retinol, it's considered safe for use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding (be sure to speak to your doctor first). But for all its buzz, can bidens pilosa deliver those same all-star results?
What is bidens pilosa?
The plant itself is actually a weed that grows in tropical and subtropical regions, and is sometimes referred to as black-jack or, in Portuguese, picão preto. You can find its extract across bareMinerals’ new Ageless Phyto-Retinol collection, as well as Goop Beauty’s GoopGenes All-In-One Nourishing Face Cream and Eye Cream, and Juice Beauty’s Stem Cellular Anti-Wrinkle Retinol Overnight Serum, the latter which aims to deliver dual benefits by pairing traditional retinol with bidens pilosa extract — a way to potentially ramp up results without increasing irritation.
The newest bidens pilosa potion to hit shelves is also, in a way, one of the oldest. Late September, REN Clean Skincare added Youth Serum to its Bio Retinoid line, which has starred bidens pilosa since its launch back in 2011. The brand sustainably sources the ingredient from a supplier outside São Paulo, where it's hand-harvested then extracted.
What are the benefits of bidens pilosa?
"Though now people are trying to see if bidens pilosa can be part of a skin-care product, traditionally in many non–Western cultures, it's eaten for its expected health benefits,” says Dr. Li. "Early, early data suggests that it may have antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory effects."
Camille Poggi, REN's scientific education manager, explains that bidens-pilosa extract contains something called phytanic acid, which can activate the same receptor in your skin that retinol does. "Once this receptor is activated, it increases the production of collagen and elastin — everything that makes the skin firmer — and also reduces inflammation in skin and controls pigmentation." But unlike retinol, it does all this without irritation. "It's opening the lock, but with a different key," says Poggi.
These benefits are major for anyone with super sensitive skin who can't tolerate retinol, especially those with eczema or rosacea. Dr. Li recommends a patch test though, noting that plant-based ingredients in general can still cause irritation. If your skin tolerates it well, you don’t necessarily need the long and slow introduction typical of retinol. Another differentiator: You can use the ingredient morning, night, or both — and even in combination with traditional retinol, if you want. "There’s no contraindication because it targets the same pathway but not with the same molecule, so it won’t overwhelm the skin," says Poggi.
What do the studies say about bidens pilosa?
So far, studies are slim, says Dr. Li. Researchers in a 2015 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine applied bidens pilosa directly to cells taken from excess eyelid skin removed during plastic surgery. "It’s very lab-based and very early research but, from a high level, that research suggests that bidens pilosa may enhance the skin environment that supports the integrity of collagen and elastin fibers," explains Dr. Li. Those are the skin-plumping proteins that start to slack off as we age, so keeping them in check could mean serious skin benefits. "And we know that as we get older, the quantity and quality of collagen and elastin fibers decline."
It’s a good step forward, says Dr. Li, but petri-dish experiments don’t necessarily tell the whole story, as even the study's authors note, calling for further research. "It’s really difficult to say if the preliminary results in a lab setting can be extrapolated to real-world settings, because if it's in a skin-care product, that's very different than if you study the ingredient alone on skin cells and cultures."
In the meantime, brands are doing their own homework. For REN’s new Bio serum, the brand did a four-week clinical study and reportedly measured an 18.2% decrease in wrinkle depth by the end. Considering we're talking millimeters, it is a slight difference, but 86% of participants said they thought their skin looked younger.
For Dr. Li, like all newish ingredients, there needs to be more research before she’ll recommend bidens pilosa to her patients: "I just let them that know the evidence is not conclusive or is altogether not available, but ultimately it’s up to the patient to decide."
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