The Best Gentle Retinol Alternatives for a Skin Reboot

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.

VANITY FAIR

This “Face Altering” French Retinol Blows Other Anti-Aging Creams Out of the Water

When it comes to skincare heavy hitters, retinol is often the first and last thing out of savvy shoppers’ mouths. In a world where marketing lingo runs rampant and the majority of products are hit or miss, it’s reassuring to know that retinol, at least, has reversed signs of aging for decades. From there, the decision comes to which over-the-counter retinol cream is best, and French brand Avène’s found the sweet spot. 

As a successor to the brand’s beloved RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream, Avène one-upped itself with the RetrinAL Advanced Wrinkle Corrector. The former excels as an anti-aging moisturizer that smoothes skin with added vitamin E and peptides, while the latter is a targeted treatment you dab anywhere you’d like skin to look significantly more plump and firm.  

According to dozens of elated reviews, abracadabra, the Corrector grants that wish. Two weeks sees fine lines start to disappear, shoppers’ “deep nasolabial folds” receding in a “face altering” feat. “I saw results right away! I used this on certain parts of my face and put another retinol on the other parts to test its effectiveness, and by far this blew my other retinol out of the water,” a reviewer writes of the Corrector’s effects. 

Shop now: $56; aveneusa.com

Others say the formula’s diminished deep wrinkles around their mouth and forehead so much they’re now looking for other places to put the cream, an accomplishment if we’ve ever heard one. Even 54-year-olds with “deep lines between [their] eyebrows” say a couple nights of the treatment has made an enormous difference — so, to get the science behind exactly how the Corrector puts other treatments to shame, InStyle asked Sheila Farhang, board-certified dermatologist and YouTube creator, for her thoughts on the ingredients. 

Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives, and are considered one of the ‘gold standard’ ingredients for anti-aging,” Farhang says. “They increase cell turnover, thereby increasing collagen stimulation to help with fine lines and discoloration. Retinoids also ‘de-plug’ clogged pores, which is why it’s commonly used for acne as well.” Speaking to the Avène formula specifically, she notes that it uses retinaldehyde, which is the most potent over-the-counter retinoid — so if you’ve tried other retinol creams and haven’t seen a big difference, it would be your best next step. 

The stronger the retinoid, the higher the risk for redness, flaking, and irritation, so Farhang says you should always take it slow if it’s your first dance with the ingredient. Thankfully, Avène anticipated the potential sensitivity and added hyaluronic acid and thermal spring water, which she notes calm skin for “a win-win situation.” 

Fellow dermatologist and YouTube creator Dr. Alexis Stephens agrees with Farhang, writing that the addition of algae-derived collactintm also helps skin look younger and more radiant. “The beauty of this formulation is that the powerful retinaldehyde is alongside Avene’s thermal spring water, which is clinically proven to smooth, soften and calm the skin,” Stephens says of the safe-for-sensitive-skin treatment. “I recommend this product so often, I carry it at my private practice for my patients.” 

All of the above makes for a trauma-free experience, even for 49-year-old shoppers with “hyper-sensitive” skin. “Almost EVERYTHING gives me a bad reaction and/or breaks me out. Two and a half weeks in, and [I’m] seeing reduced neck wrinkles and pores shrunk to almost unnoticeable. I’m impressed.” As the French would say, voilà; in American English, whoomp! 

INSTYLE