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I don’t need to extol the benefits of retinol (though I’m always happy to). Most of us already know the Vitamin A derivative is the ingredient most often name-dropped and recommended for getting the kind of skin that will make you feel better about going makeup-free. The only caveat for a significant number of us is that it be a literal pain to use. So it should come as no surprise that retinol alternative products are swooping in to save the day (and our face).
Personally, I’ve never had a negative reaction to a retinol product, but I won’t deny the amount of uncomfortable tingling that occurs if you apply more than a dime-sized amount to your face. And for anyone with sensitive skin, that probably happens even when you’re using the recommended amount and limiting it to just a couple nights a week. Truly, nothing embodies “beauty is pain” better than this. So it’s no wonder people are trading in the real thing for what appears to be an equally effective substitute.
As of late, bakuchiol is undoubtedly the most popular ingredient to replace retinol in skincare routines. For one, it’s plant-based, which automatically makes the decision to switch over feel like a responsible one. More specifically, it’s derived from the seeds and leaves of psoralea corylifolia, better known as the babchi plant, which is native to India and Sri Lanka. It’s long been used in traditional Chinese medicine for healing wounds but is only just being harnessed for its ability to also to smooth out wrinkles and even tone down hyperpigmentation.
Word of mouth is great and all, but I can’t help but wonder if a toned-down version of retinol is ultimately as effective as the real thing. According to Peach & Lily founder and licensed aesthetician Alicia Yoon, most signs point to yes.
“Retinol is so well-researched. It’s an ingredient that is one of the most researched. Having said that, there’s definitely a lot more clinical studies on retinol right now, so it’s hard to know,” she says. “In 10 years or so, those things (alternatives) will probably have a lot of funding and research behind it too.” In short, the amount of testing and clinical studies done so far probably aren’t accurate or complete enough to deliver a verdict.
Until then, whether we want to gamble with bakuchiol or another alternative will largely depend on the experiences of others. The upside according to Yoon is that the majority of people sharing their experiences are seeing great results and shouldn’t be overlooked. “I find for me personally, the anecdotal reviews from people who are really trying the product every day consistently and approaching it the right way are useful. That says volumes.” And whether you’re using retinol or bakuchiol, the same application rules apply to both.
“When it comes to retinol, proceed very thoughtfully and with a lot of caution because you don’t want to ever over-do it. It’s so important to ensure that you’re not mixing too many other acids and things like that,” says Yoon. “For some skin types, there’s definitely a phase that you have to get through before you start to see the real benefits. Bakuchiol or some of these other alternative ingredients—if you’re not wanting to go through that or even risk it—it could be a great thing to try out.” This is an especially smart decision if you’re a first-time retinol user and have an important event, like a wedding, on the horizon.
“Start at the lowest amount and see how your skin reacts. It is tempting because you want results like tomorrow, so you go for the extreme. Skincare takes consistency and over time, you see bigger results anyway because your skin doesn’t go through that stressed-out period that takes you a few steps back,” says Yoon. Should you want to start with something super gentle, here are the most popular retinol alternatives.
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Pro-Collagen Renewal Serum
If your skin is sensitive to retinol, you’ve got to try out this renewal serum that works just as hard as retinol but is much more gentle. Its ingredients consist of Stevia extract, brown algae and red microalgae which each have similar benefits to retinol. These combine to reduce the appearance of fine lines, boost firmness, hydrate and protect your skin. Per a user trial, an impressive 97 percent of users say this serum provides “all the anti-aging benefits of retinol without over-drying or irritation.”
CLEARSTEM HYDRAGLOW Stem Cell Moisturizer
Enriched with bakuchiol, squalane and stem cells, this moisturizer trains your skin to boost collagen production overnight. It’ll leave your skin plump, healthy and youthful. Plus, the formula excludes any toxins that might damage skin or clog pores.
Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum
6.5 percent of this retinol serum is a mix of retinol esters and retinol alternative ingredients that foster gentler application.
The Inkey List Bakuchiol Moisturizer
If you’d rather cut the serums (and steps) from your nightly routine, try out this daily moisturizer that’s infused with bakuchiol and squalane.
Versed Press Start Gentle Retinol Serum
This is another mix-and-match formula made up of encapsulated retinol and botanical alternatives to ease irritation without sacrificing visible results.
Herbivore Botanicals Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Serum
Herbivore’s skin-smoothing serum
is another best-selling bakuchiol product, also enriched with Tremella Mushroom for moisture retention and polyhydroxy acids, the gentlest of all chemical acids, for exfoliation.
bareMinerals Ageless 10% Phyto-Retinol Night Concentrate
This lightweight lotion reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
thanks to the plant-powered phyto-retinol included in the formula. The formula is non-comedogenic and suitable for all skin types, ages and tones.
Alpyn Beauty PlantGenius Melt Moisturizer
Get yourself a multitasking hydrator like this one that moisturizes (ceramides and squalane), brightens (vitamin C) and diminishes fine lines (bakuchiol).
Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum
Try this lightweight, highly hydrating serum in between your cleanser and moisturizer for noticeable results minus irritation.
REN Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Cream
In addition to bakuchiol, this moisturizer also includes a derivative of Brazilian Organic White Beggar’s Tick Flower, which also improves skin texture.
Ole Henriksen Goodnight Glow Bakuchiol Sleeping Crème
This night cream is made with bakuchiol to boost your skin’s natural repair process as you sleep.
Algenist Concentrated Reconstructing Serum
Before slathering on your moisturizer, get into this oil-free serum
, made with alguronic acid, a totally underrated and microalgae-based alternative to retinol.
Bakuchiol + Olive Squalane Oil Booster
This inexpensive booster—infused with bakuchiol and olive oil—should be mixed with your moisturizer and serum to improve the texture of your skin while you sleep.
Lancer Advanced Retinol Treatment
This unique formula includes an exclusive blend of actual retinol, bakuchiol and a soy complex that slowly releases into the skin.
Omorovicza Miracle Facial Oil
If you prefer fighting oil with oil, this luxurious option will do just that, in addition to tackling fine lines.