Retinol alternatives: what can you use if your skin hates retinol?

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  • All the benefits, none of the irritation

    Retinol was the second most Googled skincare ingredient last year, with a whopping 915,500 searches. Interest and appreciation for this wonder ingredient shows no signs of wavering. And with good cause, it is arguably the best thing to include in your skincare routine if you want to fight the signs of ageing. However, it can cause irritation, redness and flaking. You also shouldn’t use it when pregnant or breastfeeding. Which explains why a slew of retinol alternatives have hit the market.

    ‘Retinol causes an increase in skin cell turnover,’ explains Dr Rabia Malik, an Aesthetic Doctor. ‘This process means that new skin cells come to the surface of the skin – sometimes before they are fully ready – this can lead to irritation in the form of redness, dryness or flakiness.’ We can all relate to this. We’ve all been told that retinol (alongside the best facial sunscreen and vitamin C serums) is the undisputed anti-aging ingredient. But we’re also told to introduce it slowly into our skincare routines.

    So if you’re particularly reactive to it, have sensitive skin, pregnant or breastfeeding, chances are you’re looking for something else.

    What can you use instead of retinol?

    There are a couple of ingredients that have similar effects on the skin as retinol.


    Bakuchiol is the most notable retinol alternative. You’ve probably seen it everywhere. It comes from the seeds of the Babchi plant and stimulates the regeneration of skin cells. Much like retinol, it stimulates collagen production, evens out skin tones, improves the appearance of fine lines and reduces inflammation.

    Amino acids

    Also known as peptides. These are known to reduce the signs of ageing and protect against free-radical damage. ‘Amino acid complexes that have been shown in studies to stimulate collagen and reduce the appearance of lines within as little as two weeks,’ explains Dr Malik.


    Niacinamide stimulates collagen, and the skin tolerates it much more than retinol.

    Rose seed oil

    Rose seed oil is used in Seed To Skin’s Midnight Miracle Face Oil. Founder Jeanette Thottrup believes that it’s one of the best alternatives to retinol: ‘It is full of natural vitamin A and which promotes rapid skin cell turnover and regeneration without drying or making the skin flake.’

    Rosehip oil

    Rosehip is another one you might consider, however the results aren’t as dramatic or quick. It contains vitamins C, E and A and reduces hyperpigmentation and age lines. It doesn’t dry the skin our or compromise the skin barrier.

    Bidens pilosa and stevia plant

    Used in Liz Earle’s new Alt-Retinol range, James Wong the brand’s Ethnobotanist told us that they help to smooth fine lines and wrinkles. Their user trails found that 90% of women agreed that it gave them the benefits they’d expect from retinol, but without the irritation.

    Phyto-retinol or Picão Preto plant

    This plant-based retinol alternative can be found in the BareMinerals Ageless range. It supports skin’s natural collagen, smoothes the look of lines and wrinkles and improves the appearance oh photodamage.

    Padina pavonica, red microalgae, alfalfa and stevia

    You find this combo in the Elemis Pro-Collagen Renewal Serum, which delivers on retinol-like benefits – reducing the appearance of wrinkles and improving firmness – without the irritation.

    Marie Claire’s edit of the best retinol alternatives

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