If the adaptogen ashwagandha was the trending herb in the beauty and wellness world over the last few years, it is now the turn of babchi.

This Ayurvedic powerhouse has been “discovered" by beauty brands as the natural alternative to retinol. This is big news. Chemical retinoids are the biggest and most credible story in anti-ageing, with proven results (collagen boosting, anti-wrinkle, anti-pigmentation) in the beauty business. But they have visible side-effects—red patches, peeling skin and acute photosensitivity. They are contraindicated for pregnant women. To find a gentler, natural alternative that also sits perfectly with the growing trend of consumers seeking natural alternatives is like finding an anti-ageing El Dorado.

Global beauty brand Ole Henrikson, known for its premium skincare offerings, charges $55 (around 4,000) for its path-breaking GoodNight Glow Retin-ALT Overnight Cream with babchi. Hungarian luxury brand Omorovicza’s Miracle Facial Oil costs upwardsf $100 and it has natural retinol too.

This alternative has always been known—in Ayurvedic vaidyashalas, to be precise. Bakuchiol, or babchi, now being touted as natural/biomimetic retinol, has been well documented in Ayurveda. Known as a kushtanashini (destroyer of leprosy and skin disease) and raktashodhak (blood purifier), it is commonly prescribed for leucoderma/vitiligo and many skin diseases, including eczema and psoriasis, as well as for respiratory disorders and digestion.

“This plant is chemo-protective, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial in nature. The entire plant is used in Ayurveda but its seeds are especially potent. This herb is a natural source of natural phytochemicals like psoralen, which are specifically used for skin ailments," says Swapna Sawant Kadam, founder of Ayurmay Ayurvedic Heathcare and a practising ayurvaid.

That is a lot to take in but Ayurvedic doctors have always known about babchi’s medicinal and curative properties. Now at least 11 global high-end skin and beauty brands are on the babchi bandwagon (for a longer list, visit Glowsly.com). I would expect twice that number by the end of 2020.

Some, like Ole Henrikson, credit Ayurveda; some only mention it is an Indian and Chinese herb derivative.

Babchi may be good for wrinkles but is there an element of appropriation here, I ask Aneesh Sheth, co-founder of Dr Sheth’s, a line of skincare launched specifically to meet the needs of Indian skin.

“I wouldn’t say it’s appropriation. I think people want the results of a retinoid, but want something to be ‘safer’, since some retinoids can be irritating and most aren’t suited to pregnant women. The cosmetic industry is more interested in effective molecules as opposed to where they come from or what culture they found origins in," he says.

Babchi is easily and cheaply available in India—the plant is native to our part of the world. From Baidyanath’s Khadirarishtafor skin ailments to Patanjali’s Bakuchi Churna and Dehlvi Naturals’ Roghan Babchi, you can find it as oil, powder or tonic. It is known in Unani medicine as well as in traditional Chinese medicine.

The Ayurveda system does not isolate actives. It has its own system of classification and complex combinations with other herbs and organic materials that can change depending on the disease and the patient’s doshavata, pita, kapha are biological and disposition types. Babchi, for example, is considered hot, so if you have a pitta imbalance, it may not be the best for you.

In beauty, will the Ayurvedic indications and contraindications be left behind?

Babchi seeds should only be taken under medical guidance, as it is very strong if consumed alone and in the wrong dosage," says Kadam. “It should only be taken in a mixture of other herbs, with the advice of an Ayurvedic practitioner. Since it is strong, if the powder is directly applied to skin, especially for people with sensitive skin, it can cause blisters in some people, so it should not be used regularly. Excess use of babchi oil on the skin can cause skin discolouration."

In isolating the active babchi and using it in limited and safe concentrations for beauty, Western labs may have taken a valuable step on the anti-ageing arc. But they may have also raised the price of access. The Union government has just pushed back on an international company filing a patent for the active ingredient in ashwagandha. Now it may be the turn of babchi.

Sheth, however, thinks it is important to look at efficacy. “As a skincare brand," he says, “we are agnostic of disciplines like Ayurveda or Western medicine or such. We believe that it is not a mutually exclusive environment—there are ingredients that work that come from Ayurveda, some that come from Chinese medicine, and others that are Western—we should try and bring the best of all worlds together."

In 2020, this may be the most inclusive approach to take.

Geeta Rao writes on luxury and wellness.

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