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Is it Time to Find a Retinol Alternative?

Is it Time to Find a Retinol Alternative?

Retinoids are potent and effective chemicals used to treat both photo-aging and acne. They are clinically proven to be effective and, depending on the strength and type used, the results can be dramatic. This article takes a look at why some people choose a retinol alternative and how to make a decision that is right for your skin.

Your skin is the largest organ in your body. It is complex and functions to protect you from the external environment (UV radiation). Other essential functions are regulating your immune system, controlling body temperature (sweating), activating your senses, and performing chemical synthesis (vitamin D).

The outer layer, the epidermis, contains 3 main types of cells:

  • 90% Keratinocytes: for producing keratin (a protein that makes up your skin, nails, and hair)
  • Melanocytes: for producing pigment
  • Langerhans cells: for helping to activate your immune system. 

The outermost layer of the epidermis is called the stratum corneum. It is continuously shedding old cells called squamous cells.

The dermis is the second layer. It contains blood vessels, nerves, sweat glands, hair follicles, oil glands, and proteins. Many substances fill the area around the cells, including collagen, elastin, water, and hyaluronic acid.

Finally, the 3rd layer – subcutaneous – contains mostly fat and connective tissue that acts as scaffolding. 

layers of the skin comparing young and aged

As we age, the cells in our skin begin to deplete in both number and effectiveness. As a result, our natural repair systems work less efficiently. How our skin ages has a lot to do with the external environment: sun exposure, smoking, and pollution are examples. There is also influence from our genetics and hormones.

Skin aging is divided into categories like 'chronologic' and 'photo-related. The reason is that the effects of excessive UV radiation exposure are different than just getting older. 

  • Biologic/Chronologic aging results in thinning, reduction in cell numbers, and a saggy appearance
  • Photo-aging results in thickening, excessive or abnormal production of elastin/collagen, and a leathery appearance  

Anti-aging skincare products all target some component of the typical structures and processes of the skin discussed above. The results are increasing collagen production, improving the type/quality of collagen produced, removing thickened layers of stratum corneum, altering pigment production from melanocytes, increasing hyaluronic acid and water levels, etc. These functions are all cellular/physiologic, and cosmetics cannot claim the results – only drugs can. We discussed cosmetics claims and marketing in this blog post. Basically what it means is that a cosmetic product can make claims only about how your skin should look after using it.

Pro-Age Philosophy

Vilification of age-related skin changes, predominantly targeted against women, has resulted in a massive industry with unrealistic and inappropriate expectations. As a result, there has been an explosion in youth-seeking treatments and procedures that are neither necessary nor effective. 

Prevention of skin damage and focusing on good health will go a long way. The primary focus should be using adequate SPF, not being a smoker, and getting enough water and sleep. In combination with an easy minimalistic skincare routine, those things will help you glow at every age. 

If you're unhappy with the condition, health, or appearance of your skin, you can target specific concerns with effective products. Reducing the effects of excessive sun exposure, improving acne, improving tone, strengthening the skin barrier, plumping up water content, and removing built-up dead cells are all ways to improve the health and glow of your skin. 

4 Reasons to Consider a Retinol Alternative

Skincare is very personal. Different things matter to each consumer. The colour, scent, texture matter more to some. The brand name and price matter more to others. The INCI list and number of natural vs. synthetic ingredients matter more to other people. So, there are plenty of reasons a consumer might prefer to use a retinol alternative. 

Retinol Intolerance

Retinol intolerance is significant for many people. Retinoids have a long list of unpleasant side effects and cause many people a great deal of trouble. Using retinol requires starting a low dose and gradually increasing over time until you tolerate it. People experience significant redness, dryness, barrier damage, inflammation, flaking, photosensitivity, and purging (increased acne in the early stages). There are ways to minimize the negative experience with retinol, but many consumers have tried numerous times and just need a different option all together. 
Another less common retinol intolerance that affects your tear ducts is called meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD). Caused by changes to the cells lining the gland gradually over time, the symptoms range from dry eyes to lid inflammation to corneal damage. 
Pushing through the side effects of starting retinol is often "worth it" to many consumers, especially those suffering from significant acne and using a retinoid as a prescribed medication. However, many people prefer to use a retinol alternative rather than endure a lengthy period of unpleasant side effects. It takes at least six months before the peak effects of retinol are visible. This isn't unique to retinoids, all skincare regimens take time to work, but other routines do not cause the same degree of side effects while you're waiting to get to the peak effectiveness.

Retinol in Pregnancy

Prescription oral retinoids are dangerous to a developing fetus. However, topical versions (even prescription strength) have not been shown to cause congenital disabilities. Therefore, the FDA does not declare it unsafe in pregnancy and considers it class C. An important distinction is that other types of retinoids, like retinol, are not the same and the safety data isn't as well understood.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends avoiding topical retinoids in the first trimester of pregnancy. This is a cautious approach since cosmetics are not necessary to the mother. They are not essential medications. A peace-of-mind decision to avoid it during pregnancy is best.

Preference for Natural Botanical Ingredients

Retinol is a synthetically formulated chemical that has a lot of side effects. Many consumers do not prefer that type of ingredient. Brands that develop botanical retinol alternative products often name them things like bio-retinol, phytol-retinolnatural retinoland retinoic nutrients. We've even seen non-toxic retinol used on a product label. These are all unregulated terms, and when used on an ingredient label, it's confusing whether you're buying a retinol-containing product or a retinol alternative.
It's no secret that we're big fans of Bakuchiol as a botanical retinol alternative. It's extracted directly from the seeds of the Psoralea Corylifolia (babchi) plant and shows promising results in clinical studies. When comparing Bakuchiol vs retinol, researchers found Bakuchiol was comparably effective. None of the retinol side effects, including dry eyes, were reported. The study compared Bakuchiol vs retinol each at a concentration of 0.5%. Retinol vs Bakuchiol is a debate that will continue because the Bakuchiol research is insufficient to be conclusive. More studies need to be done, which is challenging for natural and botanical ingredients because of the costs associated. However, for those looking for a natural retinol alternative, Bakuchiol is a rising star. The links above will provide a comprehensive guide to buying Bakuchiol products. We've also written a condensed Bakuchiol FAQ


Many Other Effective Ingredients Exist

Retinol isn't the only cosmetic active that works. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) exfoliate, promote cell turnover and skin renewal and will improve the appearance of the skin. Although they can also be irritating, you can try different strengths and types easily without having to wait months to see if they work for you. Glycolic acid is often the first choice, but people looking for a gentle regimen should look at others like lactic and mandelic acid. 
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps repair skin cells, improve tone/pigmentation, and improve collagen type and production. Niacinamide is another skin-brightening agent that reduces pore size and also helps improve acne.
These ingredients, and others, can help you improve the tone and texture of your skin - without requiring you to go through the process of dealing with retinol.

If you want a simple, pure skinimalism routine, you could try starting out with only rosehip seed oil. Rosehip oil benefits for the skin are numerous and it is excellent for the face. While carrier oils will not give you dramatic results like an active performance botanical, it shouldn't be discounted as a good choice for those who want to keep their routine 100% pure and simple. 


The bottom line is that retinoids are not for everyone. There are many retinol alternative regimens that can be effective and help support your skin through the different stages of life. Using a combination of ingredients like vitamin C and alpha-hydroxy acids or trying natural, botanical retinol alternatives, like Bakuchiol, are all excellent approaches for those who cannot or do not want to use retinoids.


bareLUXE Skincare works to educate consumers about Green Beauty, sustainability, and skincare industry marketing. Our products contain natural Performance Botanicals that work and we want to change the skincare packaging industry one plastic jar at a time.

Green Beauty Elevated


  1. Mukherjee S, Date A, Patravale V, Korting HC, Roeder A, Weindl G. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. 2006;1(4):327-348. doi:10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327. 
  2. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443
  3. Valérie Haydont, Bruno A. Bernard, Nicolas O. Fortunel, Age-related evolutions of the dermis: Clinical signs, fibroblast and extracellular matrix dynamics, Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, Volume 177, 2019, Pages 150-156, ISSN 0047-6374


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