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What Are Some Alternatives to Retinol?

We all know the benefits of retinol. Experts have been extolling the many positives of this vitamin A derivative, and those who use it religiously have experienced the incredible results. Retinol is like the holy grail of skincare ingredients: considered to be an effective anti-aging product, it helps minimize fine lines, reduce acne, and decrease hyperpigmentation. This is because retinol is proven to boost cell turnover, which means your skin regenerates faster by getting rid of aging cells, revealing smoother, clearer skin.

But some others have suffered at the hand of retinol, too. Especially in its more concentrated forms, retinol can cause irritation, peeling and dryness in those with more sensitive skin. Avoiding retinol and not getting to reap the benefits of the gold standard of anti-aging hardly seems fair, so what’s the alternative?

Give Me Anything Else But Retinol

Because retinol isn’t the best option for everyone—those who are breast-feeding or pregnant, for example, are advised against using retinol—experts have researched some excellent alternatives to retinol. So, good news for those who have issues tolerating the anti-aging product: you, too, get to enjoy the benefits of retinol without actually having to use it.

Below are some of the skincare world’s favourite retinol alternatives.

AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids)

Alpha hydroxy acids, commonly known as AHAs, are one of the most common retinol alternatives. This plant and animal-derived acid is often used to exfoliate dead skin cells, but it can also help promote collagen, correct discoloration, improve appearance of lines and wrinkles, and brighten complexion.

The most widely available AHAs on the market are citric acid, lactic acid, hydroxycaproic acid, hydroxycaprylic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and glycolic acid, though glycolic and lactic acids have been shown to be the most promising in terms of results and because of the fact that they’re less likely to cause irritation. 

Amino Acids/Peptides

Another one of the most common retinol alternatives are amino acids, which are also commonly referred to as peptides. There are many versions of peptides out there, including hexapeptides, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7, and copper peptides, which work to reduce the appearance of fine lines, promote cell turnover, and increase your skin’s firmness and elasticity, promote cell turnover, respectively.

Amino acids also protect your skin against free-radical damage, which, as we’ve discussed before, breaks down elastin and collagen. Amino acids/peptides are a popular alternative because they’re affordable, readily available, and users can experience its benefits within as little as two weeks.


Looking for a more natural, gentler alternative? Bakuchiol, a substance long used in Ayurvedic medicine and derived from the babchi seed, contains similar properties as retinol. Studies have shown that it can actually reduce signs of sun damage as well as retinol can, and also promote improvements in creasing, pigmentation, inflammation, and skin elasticity. Bakuchiol can activate the genes that “regulate collagen and elastic production [...] but doesn’t seem to irritate and redden skin the way retinol often does.” 


As a form of vitamin B3, niacinamide is actually an essential nutrient for your body. But when it’s applied topically, it’s shown to protect against UV damage—you know, the type that can cause skin cancers—redness and inflammation. As well, the substance can help reduce moisture loss in your skin and increase the natural lipids on your skin.

Niacinamide also helps to stimulate collagen, too, which is one of the primary reasons as to why retinol is used. 

Growth Factors

Another product that can help increase collagen and elastin production and improve tone and texture, growth factors—such as epidermal growth factor (EGF)—are molecules that stimulate a variety of cellular processes and promote wound healing. For those who find this alternative a little icky sounding, there are a number of plant-based engineered alternatives that have been thoroughly tested and have proven to be effective. As well, growth factors are friendly to those with sensitive skin, making it a worthy alternative for retinol.

A Final Note

Evidently, just because you have skin that’s on the sensitive side, doesn’t mean you have to give up the benefits that retinol has to offer. On the contrary, there are a number of alternatives that are safe and effective. 

With that said, whether or not you use retinol—but especially if you use retinol—it is crucial to pair it with sunscreen. We’ve waxed poetic about the importance of sunscreen before, but it’s especially important if you are using retinol because it leaves your skin more exposed and open to sun damage thanks to the high cell turnover rate, ultimately thinning your skin. This is also why it’s advised that you use retin products at night, as the sun will break them down in the daytime. 

With or without retinols, be sure to always use a minimum of SPF 30, while paying close attention to the retinoid-treated areas.