The skin perfecting benefits of retinol can’t be denied. Considered the gold standard of anti-aging, retinol (in its many forms) helps skin behave younger by speeding up the turnover of older, aging cells. Due to its powerful rejuvenating ability, retinol is often the go-to for improving wrinkles, dark spots, uneven texture and even acne.
However, retinol is not without its drawbacks. Retinol’s most potent forms can cause peeling, irritation and increased sensitivity, making it an ingredient that may need to be approached with caution. If you consistently experience these issues with various strengths of retinol, you may need to consider an alternative. We’re breaking down what to look for in a retinol alternative, plus the best products to try instead.
Who should steer clear of retinol?
A derivative of vitamin A, retinol comes in a variety of forms and concentrations. Prescription-strength retinols, like tretinoin and Retin-A, usually yield results in about six weeks, but they often present the most irritation. A multitude of over-the-counter retinols feature varying strengths and formulations and also include emollient ingredients to minimize peeling. These retinol formulations tend to show results in about eight weeks.
Retinol is one of the most clinically tested skin care ingredients with decades of scientifically backed research. At differing strengths, most skin types (even sensitive) can find a retinol that works for them. Board-certified dermatologist and LovelySkin CEO Dr. Joel Schlessinger advises:
“Retinol is a great addition to just about any person's regimen after they reach the age of 20. It helps prevent acne breakouts and helps guard against premature aging. The big question is whether to adapt a retinol for your regimen or use a prescription-strength form of Retin-A. The answer to this often is whether you want the higher strength of the prescription regimen (which can be accessed via our telehealth option) or the ease of using a retinol.
Whatever the case, it is a good thing to try retinol if you wish and acclimate slowly to it if you have any concerns about sensitivity. If there are 'hot spots' from it, often the FixMySkin 1% Hydrocortisone Healing Balm can ease these temporary challenges.”
It’s important to note that there are cases in which retinol flat out should be avoided. For some, their skin never fully acclimates to retinol, and the irritation persists. Additionally, pregnant and nursing women are advised to skip retinol entirely.
Do retinol alternatives work?
Retinol has earned its glowing reputation as the gold standard in skin rejuvenation. There simply isn’t anything that works quite as well as vitamin A. Most of the time, with the newer, kinder, gentler retinols (Dr. Schlessinger loves the PCA Skin Retinol Treatment for Sensitive Skin), most people can find a retinol that will work. This even goes for rosacea-prone individuals! However, if you choose to skip retinol altogether, alternative ingredients may provide some benefits with potentially less irritation.
If you prefer to use natural, plant-based alternatives, bakuchiol, which is found in the seeds of the babchi plant, shows some of the same benefits of retinol. Namely, it helps decrease collagen breakdown and reduce melanin synthesis, the key culprit behind dark spots and uneven skin tone.
A 2018 study in the British Journal of Dermatology found that using .05% bakuchiol twice a day produced comparable results as using .05% retinol once a day. Bakuchiol is vegan, (some retinols are derived from animal products), and has high anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties. However, it is important to note plant-based ingredients can still cause irritation or reactions in certain skin types.
Top Retinol Alternatives if You Want to Skip Retinol:
If you want the same benefits of retinol, but none of the irritation, try this dermatologist-developed exfoliating gel. It’s powered by 11% amino-based filaggrin antioxidants, also known as afaLUXE™. This breakthrough, exfoliating ingredient supports collagen production, minimizes pores, fine lines and wrinkles and improves acne, all with virtually no irritation, making it ideal for all skin types.
Much like retinol, this powerful rejuvenating treatment works its magic while you sleep. Resveratrol, a potent antioxidant derived from grapes, protects skin cells from oxidative stress, helping them function normally. Ideal for all skin types, this treatment reveals a noticeable improvement in fine lines, wrinkles, elasticity and texture.
This retinol alternative cream uses plant-based actives to firm, contour and lift aging skin. Bakuchiol and antioxidant-rich spirulina, derived from algae, address signs of aging and loss of firmness while leaving skin hydrated and healthy. Lightweight yet nourishing, this cream keeps skin feeling comfortable with chia seed oil and shea butter.
This organic anti-aging treatment uses their proprietary Natural Retinol Alternative, which contains chicory root and tara tree, to target fine lines and loss of firmness while protecting against future signs of aging. Vitamin-rich bamboo cares for dry skin and coconut oil balances the complexion for a more even tone. Considered a mild anti-aging treatment, this organic product is appropriate for all skin types.
This two-phase, warming mask uses antioxidant-rich blue green algae to address rough texture, wrinkles, dark spots and loss of elasticity. This comforting treatment begins as a warming mask and transforms into a nourishing moisturizer, moisturizing skin while you sleep. B vitamins and amino acids work in tandem to firm and brighten skin for a fresher-looking complexion.
Experience a few of the benefits of retinol in a more soothing formula with this milky, nourishing nighttime serum. Ideal for those with dull or blemish-prone complexions, this treatment uses fermented pumpkin enzymes and a vegan, biomimetic epidermal growth factor to exfoliate dead skin and fill in fine lines. Neroli soothes the skin and senses for a truly pampering experience.
Have a question about retinol for our resident expert, Dr. Joel Schlessinger? Leave us a comment below!