There's no denying that in the world of skincare ingredients, retinoids reign supreme. They're the cream of the crop (pun intended), beloved by dermatologists for their ability to deliver a laundry list of benefits for the skin. This group of vitamin A derivatives—of which retinol is one over-the-counter version—can pretty much do it all. "They reduce fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating the production of collagen and elastin, prompt cells on the surface to slough off leading to brighter skin and a more even tone, and decrease excess pigmentation by inhibiting an enzyme needed to produce melanin," says board-certified dermatologist Robin Gmyrek, MD.
Retinoids are also beloved by derms for treating acne, thanks to their ability to help keep pores clear and their anti-inflammatory effects. And on top of all of that, they have a long and well-proven track record: "Retinoids are also standouts because they have been extensively studied," Gmyrek adds.
Meet the Expert
For some people, however, all these pros can come with some serious cons. Retinoids are notorious for their irksome potential side effects, including redness, dryness, and general irritation—not to mention they can't be used by those who are pregnant or breastfeeding due to the potential for birth defects, explains Gmyrek.
The good news is, you do have other options: natural retinol alternatives. (FYI, since the term "natural" doesn't really have a set definition, we're using it in this context to refer to primarily plant-based ingredients.) Keep reading for 7 stellar natural retinol alternatives, straight from Gmyrek, cosmetic ingredient specialist Defne Arikan, and cosmetic chemist Yehiel Amouyal.
Bakuchiol "is perhaps the most well-known and well-studied alternative, with results that are most similar to retinol," says Arikan. It comes from the leaves and seeds of the babchi plant and, while it isn't a vitamin A derivative, functions similarly by working on the same pathways as retinol when it comes to stimulating the production of collagen and elastin, Gmyrek notes. (She adds that it's also very antioxidant-rich and has anti-inflammatory effects.)
The major advantage bakuchiol has over retinol? It's more suitable for sensitive skin types. In fact, in a head-to-head study comparing the two, both ingredients were shown to improve wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, and skin firmness—but the bakuchiol was better tolerated. Plus, since it's not a vitamin A derivative, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding can use it, says Gmyrek.
Rosehip oil contains small amounts of retinoic acid, says Gmyrek, who notes that retinol must be converted into retinoic acid in the skin before it has any effect. To that point, "it's excellent for regenerating the skin, increasing collagen production, and restoring radiance to dull complexions," says Arikan. And while there's no research comparing it to retinol, because it is rich in the fatty acids that are essential for maintaining a healthy skin barrier, rosehip oil can also help improve visible signs of aging by preventing moisture loss, notes Gmyrek.
There's a fair amount of information floating around on the Internet comparing rambutan, a tropical fruit, to retinol, though Gmyrek is quick to note that there is no good scientific data to support claims of it improving collagen or elastin production. (Just one study performed in mice and one small, industry-sponsored study that didn't yield noteworthy results.) Still, rambutan can have solid anti-aging effects on the skin due to its high antioxidant content. "Rambutan has an array of antioxidants that can decrease skin aging by neutralizing free radicals, protecting the skin against oxidative damage and decreasing inflammation and the destruction of collagen and elastic tissue," Gmyrek explains.
Carrot Seed Oil
Derived from the seeds of wild carrots, carrot seed oil is rich in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A that research shows can help with cellular regeneration, says Amouyal. Additionally, it's also rich in antioxidants (vitamins C and E, as well as vitamin A, which can be converted into retinol in the skin) says Gmyrek, who adds that a recent study did find it to be effective for skin rejuvenation.
Sea Buckthorn Oil
"The pulp of sea buckthorn berries is a nutritional concentrate rich in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients," says Amouyal. More specifically, sea buckthorn oil is often used in skincare, largely for, again, its high concentration of antioxidants, including carotenes, vitamins E and C, and flavonoids, she says. It's also rich in essential fatty acids, making it an exceptionally nourishing ingredient. And while the exact mechanism of action is unclear, there have been a few studies showing that sea buckthorn oil promotes collagen production and is helpful in wound healing, Gmyrek points out.
"[Azelaic acid] occurs naturally in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye and is also created on our skin naturally by a yeast—Malassezia furfur—which is part of our normal skin flora," explains Gmyrek. While there's no research comparing it directly to retinol, there's a lot of overlap between the benefits of the two ingredients. For example, azelaic acid is also a choice acne-fighting ingredient: "It kills the bacteria that infect pores, decreases inflammation and redness, and exfoliates and decreases the production of keratin, a natural substance that can lead to clogged pores," says Gmyrek. On top of that, it's been shown to reduce pigment cells, which is why it's used for the treatment of melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, she adds.
This is slightly different than the other ingredients on this list, as it's not a plant-derived ingredient but rather a form of vitamin B-3. Niacinamide offers many of the same benefits as retinol, namely reducing inflammation, increasing collagen production, treating acne, and decreasing unwanted or excess hyperpigmentation, says Gmyrek.
Where the two differ is when it comes to hydration: Whereas retinol is drying, niacinamide helps maintain hydration in the skin, notes Amouyal. For that reason it's a good choice for all skin types and is sometimes even combined with retinol in certain formulations, he adds. "In my clinical experience, I believe niacinamide does a lot of what retinol does, and I recommend it for very sensitive-skinned patients," says Gmyrek, though she does add that its results are not as impressive as those you get from retinol.
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Dhaliwal S, Rybak I, Ellis SR, et al. Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoageing. Br J Dermatol. 2019;180(2):289-296.
Singh S, Lohani A, Mishra AK, Verma A. Formulation and evaluation of carrot seed oil-based cosmetic emulsions. J Cosmet Laser Ther. 2019;21(2):99-107.
Koskovac M, Cupara S, Kipic M, et al. Sea buckthorn oil—a valuable source for cosmeceuticals. Cosmetics. 2017;4(4):40.