Do Retinol Alternatives, Uh, Work? Everything You Need To Know
"Dupes" have officially taken over the beauty scene, though the trend goes way beyond a discounted foundation or drugstore sunscreen. Think slugging balms sans petroleum, squalane-infused stylers that mimic the look and feel of silicones, and today's topic: irritation-free retinol alternatives.
Nothing against the vitamin A derivative, of course—it's still the darling of dermatology, lauded for restoring collagen and smoothing fine lines. But retinol typically brings some bemoaned side effects, like redness, dryness, or even a temporary worsening of acne (dubbed the "retinol purge").
These alternative products claim to make your retinol woes disappear, but do they actually work as well as your favorite OTC option? Below, derms explain how to find an effective formula for your skin care goals.
How do retinol alternatives work?
Retinol is beloved for promoting cell turnover and stimulating collagen production. And just like the name suggests, retinol alternatives can provide similar perks—without gripes like irritation, flaking, or redness.
Yep, some botanicals have the power to fade dark spots, stimulate collagen production, and firm the skin. It's not just marketing jargon! "What's great about these 'phyto retinols' is that they offer the same results as retinol without the irritation associated with vitamin A derivatives," notes board-certified dermatologist Geeta Yadav, M.D., founder of FACET Dermatology.
And it's high time we have these effective options. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, more and more innovations hit the market. And, trust, these recent options are very good.
"I think people have been wanting retinol alternatives for a long time, and many chemists and companies are finally finding viable options," says board-certified dermatologist Anna Karp, D.O., about the uptick in retinol alternatives. "That, along with better technologies in formulating, have given us more great options."
What are the best options?
Of course, not every alt-retinol will work with every skin type. That said, it's worth testing out different formulas to find the one that suits your complexion's needs and goals:
- Bakuchiol: Arguably the most popular retinol alternative, bakuchiol comes from the babchi seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia plant and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. "Bakuchiol is referred to as a 'functional analog' of topical retinoids, causing the same gene expression and offering the same improvements to sun damage, including the look of wrinkles and hyperpigmentation1, as retinoids, without irritation," adds Yadav. "Other studies show it's also effective at combating acne2."
- Rambutan: Rambutan is an antioxidant-rich fruit that has been shown to promote healthy collagen levels. "It is a natural tyrosinase inhibitor3, meaning it helps reduce hyperpigmentation and also stimulates collagen production to smooth and firm the skin," Yadav says.
- Rosehip oil: This rich plant oil "contains small concentrations of all-trans retinoic acid4, though the amount isn't quantified and may be too small to see a visible result," says Karp. Regardless, rosehip oil is chock-full of vitamin C, which means it can help support collagen synthesis and fend off free radicals. It's also anti-inflammatory5, says Yadav.
- Sea fennel: While there isn't much research on sea fennel's retinol-like abilities in particular, the extract helps preserve a healthy skin barrier6, which researchers note can prevent signs of skin aging. Anecdotally, sea fennel is often called "nature's retinol," says Karp.
- Picão preto: This Brazilian herb (called Bidens pilosa) has also been found to have retinol-like effects on the skin7: It contains phytanic acid, Karp notes, which is what helps activate retinoid receptors in the skin. "The studies are limited with this ingredient, but it is found in some products, often mixed with bakuchiol," she adds.
Who should use retinol alternatives?
Short answer? Anyone who cannot tolerate even the most gentle of OTC retinoids or simply wants to forgo the vitamin A derivative.
"Those who have very reactive skin types or sensitive skin may not be able to tolerate retinol, but they will not have an issue with a retinol alternative ingredient," says Yadav. Those with sensitive skin or those who are pregnant may fare well with an alternative product—although we always recommend talking to your doctor before introducing any new ingredients to your routine, especially if you are pregnant.
But because alt-retinols are so effective these days, some may choose to use them in lieu of a standard retinol product. I'm speaking from experience here: I used to be quite wary of retinol alternatives, as I always found them to be quite meh. If I didn't have hypersensitive skin or wasn't pregnant, what was the point?
But recently, I fell in love with alt-retinols since they're super easy to incorporate into my routine. I don't have to worry about the bemoaned "retinoid reaction," or mixing them with other topicals and rendering them ineffective (whereas traditional retinol is notoriously unstable). In fact, you can even use these products during the day with no side effects—more on that in just a moment.
"Many patients are also concerned about the sun sensitivity they can experience while using retinol," says Karp. "Using a retinol alternative alleviates these concerns and allows you to get the collagen production without risk of irritation or further skin damage."
How to use them correctly
The best part about alt-retinols is that they generally play nice with other ingredients, so you'll often find a cocktail of high-powered botanicals along with the alt-retinol player. And you likely don't have to worry as much about sensitizing your skin by layering on multiple actives. In fact, "they can be combined with other active ingredients for more potent treatment, as well as be used any time day or night," says Yadav. Yes, even AHAs and BHAs!
You'll still want to follow the instructions on your specific product and see how your skin reacts (and that doesn't mean you can skip sunscreen during the day), but generally, Karp says you can use them with other exfoliating acids without irritation.
"There is a chance, however, that the actives may decrease the potency of each other," As a general skin care rule: You don't want to layer on multiple potent serums in one routine. Additionally, "I would avoid using benzoyl peroxide with any of these products due to very likely irritation," Karp says.
As for which alt-retinol to choose? Well, the good news is that there have never been more high-quality, effective options out there. There is no "better" or "worse" retinol alternative (bakuchiol doesn't trump rambutan, or vice versa); it's more about which active is most compatible with your skin type. "For example, pure rosehip oil is effective, but not everyone likes oily textures, Yadav explains.
All the more reason to get testing—here are some winners below:
Best retinol alternatives
Tatcha The Silk Serum
Indie Lee Retinol Alternative Cream
Ole Henriksen Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum
Kora Organics Plant Stem Cell Retinol Alternative Serum
Retinol alternatives promise all the glowy results with none of the irritation, and it's not just hype. The formula itself ultimately matters, as not every skin care product will work for every skin type, but you can totally find an alt-retinol that works just as well as the buzzy vitamin A derivative. Now, that doesn't mean you must hop off the retinol train for good—here, you can browse the best retinol serums for your skin type.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.