Retinol’s popularity has only continued to grow in the past few years with no signs of slowing down. And for good reason! Of the actives out there, it comes with quite a resume of data behind it for reducing wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and even a little acne assistance.
However, with that popularity comes a lot of confusion. Choosing the right retinol product can already be complicated, but on top of that, there’s a whole slew of “retinol alternatives” available on the market. In fact, if you were to do a quick google search, you can find quite a few ingredients on the interwebs linked to being a “retinol alternative” that really made us raise our eyebrows.
So let’s do a quick refresher on retinol, why we give it a “gold standard” stamp of approval, why a whole “retinol alternative” product category has sprouted, and how to navigate the growing, murky land of “retinol alternatives”.
A Quick Retinol Primer: What does it do for your skin?
Retinol is part of a family of vitamin A ingredients called “retinoids”. These ingredients all convert to ultimately form retinoic acid (tretinoin) which directly interacts with the retinoid receptors in our skin cells (fibroblasts, keratinocytes, dermal endothelial cells, etc.). In turn, the stimulated cells produce more collagen, fibronectin, and elastin, ultimately leading to skin benefits such as the reduction of fine lines & wrinkles and even hyperpigmentation.
Like all good things in the skincare world, these come with a few tradeoffs. Classic retinoids such as tretinoin, retinal, and retinol are notoriously unstable and difficult for chemists to work with. On top of that, they can cause classic retinization symptoms like redness, shedding, and prolonged irritation. These side effects are not ideal for some (*cough* Gloria *cough*). Because of this, the industry has done a lot to optimize these fussy ingredients and even look into retinol alternatives. Here’s how we would break down the landscape: improving on retinol itself (often through encapsulation), exploring new age retinoids, and finding ingredients from nature that may have retinol-esque skin benefits.
How the Skincare Industry is Optimizing Retinol
Microencapsulation has been around for a long time, but you probably have only just heard about it in the past decade. This method still uses retinol, just wrapped in protective microcapsules that are meant to protect the retinoid from degradation while also protecting your skin from retinization until the retinoid is delivered to the intended skin site of action (read - significantly less irritation).
While this can definitely help significantly mitigate initial unwanted side effects, this method doesn’t altogether remove all the side effects. Initial ramp-up while keeping an eye on how skin reacts for a few weeks is still recommended. Additionally what’s difficult (even for us chemists) is that not every encapsulation method is created equal. It can be difficult to assess which encapsulated retinol can really perform and which ones don’t measure up. In fact, finding the right encapsulated retinol alone took us months when we created our Double Play.
*Chemist Pro Tip: This category can get confusing with actual active percentages. For example, a product could have 5% of the encapsulated complex, but only 0.1% of actual retinol. So if you hear of a >1% retinol product, chances are that’s the % of the encapsulated complex, and the actual retinol amount will be significantly less. Always use actual retinol percentage to gauge product strength.
Retinol Alternative Category#1: New Retinoids
Other than supplying the classic retinoids like retinol and retinal, many ingredient manufacturers are hard at work trying to find the next best retinoid. A good example of this is what you might know as Granactive retinoid - hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR). Newer molecules like HPR are synthesized with the intent to minimize as much of the side effects as possible and improve ingredient stability. Of the retinol alternatives, this category would come with the best insurance policy in terms of performance since they are still “retinoid” molecules despite having much less data compared to the original retinoid family.
*Chemist Pro Tip: Even though they are supposed to be more gentle, they are still retinoids that (in theory) work on skin similarly to classic retinol. Still proceed with caution and acclimate skin, especially if you have a history of retinol skin irritation.
Retinol…Adjacent Category #2: Bakuchiol
Bakuchiol can be considered as a retinol “adjacent” alternative. We say adjacent since this molecule structurally isn’t related to Vitamin A, however, 0.5% bakuchiol has been clinically benched against a 0.5% retinol and shown to perform on par for wrinkle reduction and hyperpigmentation. We should mention here that in that famous study, bakuchiol was used twice a day vs. retinol used once a day. Though the data is relatively sparse, we consider having direct comparative data against retinol a great starting point and already miles ahead of our friends in category 3.
*Chemist Pro Tip: Curious about the science behind bakuchiol? Checkout our full blog post on bakuchiol here for more!
Retinol…Claimed Category #3: It’s a retinol alternative because we said so!
Bakuchiol is hailed as the plant-derived retinol alternative. Given its popularity, it’s not surprising a hodge podge of other plant extracts are trying to hop on the bandwagon. Here’s a snapshot of other ingredients that have been claimed as “retinol alternatives”. While some of these may come with hyperpigmentation or wrinkle-fighting data, none of these have been linked to interacting with our cells’ retinol receptors or have been directly benched against retinol.
This is why we don’t see any of these coming close to a 1:1 comparison with retinol. And for ingredients like Vitamin C, we know that it operates via a completely different mechanism compared to retinol. Hence why we would not consider any of these guys truly part of the “Retinol Alternative” space.
*Chemists Pro Tip: Should any products using these ingredients catch your eye, we recommend looking for some sort of clinical proof to understand how the product would perform for your skin. But take the retinol comparison claims with a hefty spoonful of salt.
How to shop for Retinol Alternatives
If you’ve reached the end of your patience with retinol and just “can’t deal”, we get it! Shedding, redness, and dryness can be very inconvenient to deal with. (Victoria especially hates trying to wear foundation while she’s got a case of the sheds) If you’re on the hunt to find a retinol replacement, we recommend starting with the new retinoids. If you’re not sure, scan the ingredient list and look for names like: hydroxypinacolone and retinyl propionate.
If none of them seem to be cutting it for you, then it’s time to take a look at bakuchiol. Look for a 0.5% bakuchiol product to reap the wrinkle-fighting and skin-brightening benefits. One thing we want to point out is that although bakuchiol gets touted as the most gentle alternative, percentages still matter here. In the famous clinical study that benched against 0.5% retinol, bakuchiol was found to cause as much redness as a 0.5% retinol. So definitely keep in mind that bakuchiol isn’t completely side effect free!
If none of the above worked for you, you can absolutely still build a wonderful retinol-free routine right for you. We just wouldn’t necessarily rely on category 3 ingredients to replace retinol by any means.
After making it to the end of this blog, you might realize that there’s actually only a handful of retinol alternatives out there. You are correct! We would really only consider ingredients that are actual vitamin A derivatives or ingredients that have been directly benched against retinol as a true “retinol alternative”.
Long story short, if you’re new to the retinol hype train, we would still consider a low dose 0.1%-0.3% encapsulated retinol a great place to get started before these new age “retinol alternatives”. One of the biggest issues with retinol users is simply using too much, too quickly. Trust us when we say that even we feel the pressure to use more. However, you don’t need a lot to get those retinol benefits. Just 0.1-0.3% encapsulated retinol every other day can help brighten skin and tackle fine lines.
Finally, if you’re looking for alternatives, start your hunt in new age retinolids or ingredients with direct evidence compared to traditional retinol. In all other cases, keep an eye out for clinical evidence on the products!
Additional Chemist Thoughts
Retinol and retinoids have been a lifelong staple for me when you’re combatting acne. For what it’s worth, I’ve always felt that the onboarding period is much longer than most communicate. Onboarding any OTC retinoids have always been a 3-6 month process before my skin felt truly comfortable and well-acclimated. So it definitely takes some patience but it’s definitely worth the effort!
I have dry skin and shed like a snake if I go too crazy with retinol. I have experienced a certain degree of irritation from true retinol alts like granactive retinol and even bakuchiol. So definitely don’t forget to acclimate skin and ramp up gradually even on the “gentler” retinol! K
- Retinol is a tried-and-true anti-aging classic with major downsides in terms of stability and skin irritation. There are new ingredient technologies to improve these issues such as microencapsulation of retinol
- Newer retinoids are positioned to be gentler alternatives. These can be great for those with retinol sensitivity - but still proceed with caution.
- There are many ingredients and random extracts being claimed as retinol alternatives without any real comparison or data to back it up. Look for clinicals on products containing these ingredients to understand skin benefit.
- Alternatives could still have side effects. Patch test, acclimate skin slowly, and always sunscreen!
More Reading (Down the Rabbit Hole We Go!):
- Retinol: The Tried-and-True Way of Putting off Botox
- The Chemists' Guide to Fighting Off Wrinkles
- Tackling Unwanted Dark Spots and Pigmentation - Part 1
- Bellemère G, Stamatas G, N, Bruère V, Bertin C, Issachar N, Oddos T: Antiaging Action of Retinol: From Molecular to Clinical. Skin Pharmacol Physiol 2009;22:200-209. doi: 10.1159/000231525
- Tucker-Samaras S, Zedayko T, Cole C, Miller D, Wallo W, Leyden JJ. A stabilized 0.1% retinol facial moisturizer improves the appearance of photodamaged skin in an eight-week, double-blind, vehicle-controlled study. J Drugs Dermatol. 2009 Oct;8(10):932-6. PMID: 19852122.
- Antiaging effects of retinoid hydroxypinacolone retinoate on skin models, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Volume 79, Issue 3, AB44