Among the many skin-care ingredients on the shelves, few have attained the hero status of retinoids. That’s the umbrella term for all forms of vitamin A, which include prescription-strength tretinoin along with over-the-counter derivatives. The very word retinol stirs a certain reverence, given its proven efficacy in minimizing wrinkles, speeding cell turnover, and clearing up acne—and that’s despite a well-known drawback. “Retinoids are very irritating to the skin,” says New Jersey dermatologist Naana Boayke, MD. It’s a testament to retinol’s abilities that many users have the patience to tolerate the mild discomfort, which often appears as redness, dryness, and occasional flaky skin.
But for some, retinol is simply too harsh. Plus, the ingredient can pose a challenge in the summer, given that it increases sun sensitivity, thereby making skin particularly prone to redness and burns. (SPF is a must.) That’s where retinol alternatives can be advantageous. These new, up-and-coming actives tout results comparable to retinol, but without the telltale side effects.
“Mineral-, marine-, and plant-derived ingredients have been found to have retinol-like biological pathways,” says Marisa Plescia, a research scientist at clean retailer NakedPoppy. Those shared effects range from stimulated cellular renewal to collagen synthesis, she points out.
Chief among these gentler substitutes is bakuchiol, which is derived from the babchi seed. “It’s a ‘functional analog’ to retinol, meaning it has similar chemical, physical, biochemical, or pharmacological properties,” Plescia says, noting a study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Another promising ingredient is rambutan, which, she says, supports natural collagen synthesis through a mechanism similar to retinol and bakuchiol. “We are seeing this with other botanical sources, such as moth bean extract and certain algaes,” she adds.
They’ve proven so appealing that some products even pair actual retinol with retinol alternatives, such as Dr. Dennis Gross’s Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream, which offers a skin-renewing trio of rambutan, bakuchiol, and retinol. While the evidence behind retinol alternatives is still growing, there’s enough promise to make such a product worth incorporating into your routine.
Dermalogica Neck Fit Contour Serum
As the delicate neck and décolletage areas are particularly vulnerable to the effects of sunlight, this formula takes a strategic approach. Not only does it combine peptides and rambutan to smooth lines (a sign of the aptly named tech neck) and address discoloration, but it also features a dedicated Flex Lift Contour technology, which creates a mesh-like network on skin to lift and tighten.
Herbivore Botanicals Moon Fruit Serum
Herbivore isn’t new to the world of retinol alternatives, but this addition to its portfolio is a welcome one. The formula pairs bakuchiol with plant-based peptides that help to further firm skin, and simultaneously hydrates to give skin a touch of radiance. Its fruity scent has proven polarizing, but early reviews suggest that it’s worth it.
The Outset Restorative Niacinamide Night Cream
One of the mainstays of Scarlett Johansson’s new, minimalist-minded skin-care line, this velvety night cream pairs bakuchiol with a proprietary Hyaluroset complex—a plant-based alternative to hyaluronic acid that deeply hydrates skin—giving it the power of a serum and moisturizer in one.
Elemis Pro-Collagen Renewal Serum
As Plescia mentioned, marine ingredients can often replicate the effects of retinol—as is the case with this serum, which is anchored in red algae, alfalfa, and stevia extracts. It’s designed to target signs of sun damage in particular, such as uneven tone and fine lines.
Tula Skincare Wrinkle Treatment Drops Retinol Alternative Serum
Delivered in an appealing dry-oil texture, which leaves behind no greasy or slick feel, this serum combines bakuchiol, alfalfa sprouts, and stevia to spur cellular turnover. Meanwhile, probiotic and prebiotic extracts (a hallmark of the brand) bring balance to the skin barrier.
Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum
Powered by bakuchiol, this elegant serum is ideal for more sensitive types: The blend of sugarcane-derived squalane and niacinamide work in equal measure to soothe skin, keeping it calm and comfortable.
Ole Henriksen Wrinkle Blur Bakuchiol Eye Gel Crème
One of the first brands to debut bakuchiol in skin care, Ole Henriksen has come to showcase the ingredient across its offerings. In this lightweight eye cream in particular, it works alongside orchid-derived stem cells to firm and brighten around the eyes, minimizing both crows’ feet and dark circles at once.
True Botanicals Phyto-Retinol Vitamin A Booster Serum
Encased in vegan capsules to guarantee freshness (and therefore efficacy), this serum offers a blend of vitamin A–rich botanical extracts, such as buriti and carrot root oils, which skin then converts into retinoic acid upon application. In other words, the formula works in concert with the skin’s natural processes.
Keys Soulcare Skin Transformation Cream
Formulated with guidance from a dermatologist rooted in clean beauty, this staple in singer Alicia Keys’s skin-care line delivers radiant skin with a blend of bakuchiol and ceramides. In keeping with the brand’s ritual-minded ethos, it also contains malachite, a stone that signifies transformation.