Why I Gave Up Retinol For “Alt Retinol”

I'm not pregnant (apologies to my parents, who are more than ready for grandchildren), but I was recently thinking about people who are — or, to be more specific, their skin-care routines. Regardless of their relationship to the gold standard of skin ingredients before conceiving, using retinol while carrying or breastfeeding can contribute to high levels of vitamin A in the body, potentially harming the fetus. Pregnant people, then, are one of the few demographics who cannot make a retinoid part of their regimen. For pretty much everyone else, the benefits (boosted collagen production, reduced fine lines and wrinkles, smaller-looking pores) outweigh the potential risks (skin irritation, dryness, flaking, increased sun sensitivity).
Not for me, though — at least, not at any concentration high enough to make a visible difference. Because I'm super sensitive to all things topical vitamin A, any use of it requires me to think too hard about skin care. (Skin cycling? Impossible; I always forget what day I'm on.) I have to be careful not to use it in conjunction with other active ingredients like exfoliating acids or else I'll disrupt my skin barrier and potentially develop a breakout or bout of perioral dermatitis. Plus, if I ever do choose to become pregnant, I'd like to have a skin-care routine that needs as few modifications as possible. (That's my anticipatory anxiety showing.)
Lately, I've become interested in a product category the skin-care industry is calling "alt retinols." These products are essentially retinol alternatives that offer the same benefits — increasing cell turnover to encourage collagen production, soften lines, even skin texture and tone, and more — without the aforementioned drawbacks.
One of my current favorites is the new Tatcha Silk Serum. The hero ingredients are sea fennel and cranberry extract, which were shown in clinical trials conducted by the brand to improve skin texture and skin hydration while reducing redness. This piqued my interest, as most retinols I've used have caused skin redness, rather than treated it. I've been using the liquid serum every night for a few weeks now after washing my face, before applying moisturizer and oil, and I'm impressed with the results. They're not drastic, but that's the point: If you're looking for sustainable change without setting off your skin, these subtle improvements can take weeks or even months.
One "alt retinol" ingredient that's become prevalent over the past few years is bakuchiol, an antioxidant extracted from the leaves and seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia plant. "I have seen patients with sensitivity to this ingredient, too, so I advise them to start using it slowly," says NYC-based dermatologist Anna Karp, DO, "but it is typically better tolerated than retinol and has shown a similar effect in clinical studies in terms of skin cell turnover and collagen increase." Dr. Karp also calls out a lesser-known botanical alternative: Bidens pilosa, a plant containing phytanic acid, which is said to 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 explains.
So should alt retinol follow the same usage guidance as retinol? Better; you don't have to take many of the same precautions as you would with retinol. "I would use Tatcha Silk Serum under sunscreen in the morning and reapply it at night with a cream moisturizer on top," offers Dr. Karp. "One of the great things about retinol alternatives is they can usually be used day and night, without causing irritation."
Of course, if you're currently using a retinol and things are going well, keep on keeping on. But for the retinol curious, alt retinol is a good option. "I think from the studies we have to date, retinol alternatives are as effective as retinol when used twice a day," says Dr. Karp. "Retinols have been researched for much longer, but it's exciting to see alternatives getting similar results in terms of collagen stimulation."
Shop the best "alt retinol" skin-care products below:
It's rare to find a retinol alternative that improves skin firmness and reduces redness, but in clinical trials, this serum showed that it does both. The milky texture feels hydrating on the skin, but is lightweight and fast-absorbing so it layers well with other products. Personally, I use it at night after cleansing and using Tatcha Essence, then follow with a heavier moisturizer. After a few weeks of use, my skin looks less dull without any broken capillaries or irritation (as is common with retinoids). The only note here is there are citrus peel oils in the formula, so if you're very sensitive to fragrance, this might not be for you.
In my quest to find a retinol alternative eye cream, I found this concentrate from U Beauty. Is it pricey? You bet — but the ingredient blend is unlike anything I've ever tried. It's hydrating without feeling heavy, and nightly use has helped reduce puffiness and dehydration lines. When examining the ingredients, I noticed organic stevia rebaudiana extract, a botanical ingredient that's said to reduce the look of fine lines, acting like a retinol without causing sensitivity. I use one pump every evening and press it under and around my eyes. I'm dreading the night I run out.
Ferulic acid is slept on: The antioxidant fights off free radicals that play a role in skin-aging concerns like sun spots and lines. The most popular skin-care product with ferulic acid as a star ingredient is hands down SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic, the beloved "hot-dog water" people with good skin pat on their face every morning. This Dr. Dennis Gross serum is a great alternative for people who are sensitive to vitamin C, but still want an active serum that's going to help with tone and texture. It has very low-dose retinol, plus bakuchiol, and ferulic acid for enhanced results with no irritation. You likely won't see results overnight, but the benefits will start to show over a few weeks of use.
While this is not a retinol or even technically an "alt retinol," I use it in place of where one of those products would go in my nighttime routine, with the same intended results: improved collagen production and even skin tone. Instead of vitamin A, this serum has a complex of growth factors and peptides, which promote cell turnover. As there's no retinol in this, it's safe for use if you're pregnant, and it's fragrance-free for those who are sensitive to that. Of course, this stuff is very, very expensive, but it will firm and plump your skin.
A rich, dense moisturizer is excellent to have in your routine because you can scoop out a small amount, rub it between your hands, and press it into your skin for instant hydration. This one has Bidens pilosa extract as a retinol alternative, plus plant-based ceramides that help plump the skin.
In moisturizer form, bakuchiol is less concentrated and buffered by ceramides, squalane, and glycerin, so your risk of irritation is lower than if you're using a dedicated serum. For a low-stakes foray into plant-based retinol, this lightweight gel moisturizer by The Inkey List — priced at $12.99, with 1% bakuchiol — is a great place to start.
Miranda Kerr, model and founder and CEO of skin-care brand Kora Organics, has three kids under the age of 13. While pregnant and breastfeeding with each, she found it challenging to find effective retinol alternatives, so she created one: an oil-moisturizer emulsion containing bakuchiol and alfalfa extracts that hydrates and absorbs quickly. The serum is one of the top-rated bakuchiol serums sold at Sephora.
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