2023 Is the Year of Retinol Alternatives

Experts break down five buzzy ingredient dupes.

2023 is the year of Retinol Alternatives This field is not editable for all sources.

Drunk Elephant/ Peach & Lily/ InStyle

The skincare benefits of retinol are numerous and well-known. From smoothing out fine lines to treating acne, it's a powerhouse ingredient for your skin. But with every benefit comes a downside, and retinol is no exception. It can be irritating, harsh, and too much for sensitive skin. No one wants to deal with extreme redness, even in the hopes of getting smooth skin (I mean, why trade in one skin concern for another one?), so it's no wonder why some people still steer clear of the active. Still, there are things you can do if your skin is sensitive to intense formulas. Case in point, it might be time to look toward retinol alternatives.

We're calling it now: 2023 is the year of retinol dupes. Now more than ever, brands are rethinking how the ingredient is used in the market. Whether it's pairing retinol with nourishing ingredients to combat irritation or finding plant alternatives that offer similar results, there are now plenty of ways to avoid dryness and irritation while still reaping the benefits.

"More people recognize the benefits of retinol for prevention and treatment of fine lines and wrinkles and desire to slow down the skin aging process; [they] are looking to incorporate retinol into their routine — even at a younger age," says board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology Marisa Garshick, MD.

"At the same time, people are more aware of the importance of the skin barrier and recognize we don’t want the skin to be irritated, red, and flaky. For this reason, those with sensitive skin — or those who cannot tolerate retinol — may opt for a retinol alternative, which may be more gentle and less irritating on the skin [and] allow for better tolerability. Additionally, some of these retinol alternatives can be considered by those who are pregnant since retinol can’t be used in pregnancy." 

Below, we break down five alternatives to retinol and the pros and cons of each. Read on to learn more.

Retinal (AKA Retinaldehyde)

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Peach & Lily

While technically not a true retinol alternative, many brands have found ways to deliver retinol's stronger vitamin A sister, retinal, to sensitive skin. As Dr. Garshick explains it, retinal (or more formally known as retinaldehyde) is a type of vitamin A derivative that is more potent than retinol and less irritating than the popular prescription retinoid tretinoin. Compared to retinol, retinal only requires one step to be converted to retinoid acid to give you all the anti-aging benefits.

"Retinaldehyde is a great option for someone who has been able to tolerate a retinol but isn’t seeing their desired results and wants to try something more potent, or for someone unable to tolerate a prescription retinoid," she says. "As a retinoid, it helps regulate skin cell turnover, prevent pores from becoming clogged as well as improve overall skin tone and texture while boosting collagen production."

Nkem Ugonabo, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at UnionDerm and assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, adds that it can be more irritating on sensitive skin than retinol because of its potency — that is, until now. She says that patients are fond of gentle retinal products like the Eau Thermale Avene RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream, which combines retinal and the brand's soothing thermal spring water to care for the skin.

Products like Peach and Lily's Retinal For All Renewing Serum, which pairs retinal with naturally-derived emollient ectoin, combat the irritation and inflammation you may encounter while using a strong retinoid. Nourishing ingredients like heartleaf and perilla leaf extract, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid also help support the skin barrier and make the retinal suitable for sensitive skin. Other products like Dr. Whitney Bowe's Retinal Night have a proprietary delivery system that stabilizes retinal and minimizes irritation while also improving texture and tone.

Plant Extracts

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When it comes to plant-based alternatives to retinol, bakuchiol is the gold standard. Dr. Ugonabo says that this plant-based ingredient has similar effects on the skin (such as stimulating skin cell turnover, improving skin tone and texture, and smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles). The key difference is that sensitive skin tolerates the ingredient more easily.

Dr. Garshick adds that bakuchiol is a solid option for someone looking to go the natural route with their retinoid. Alpyn Beauty's Melt Moisturizer With Bakuchiol And Squalane provides hydration to dry skin but also targets those signs of aging to get your smooth and bright skin. You can also go for gentle serums such as Versed's Press Restart Gentle Retinol Serum and Herbivore's Moon Fruit 1% Bakuchiol + Peptides Retinol Alternative Serum.

But other plant extracts have been found to have similar effects. Dr. Garshick explains that sea fennel supports the skin cell turnover process, which provides similar benefits to retinol. When used in Tatcha's The Silk Serum Wrinkle-Smoothing Retinol Alternative, the plant extract pairs with silk protein to plump the skin and improve the appearance of fine lines while also using cranberry extract to soothe any irritation.

AI-Found Ingredients

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Is this the ChatGPT of retinol? Not quite, but brands are starting to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to discover new ingredients that can do the same — if not a better — job reviving skin as retinol. Revela's Firboquin Essence uses an AI-found ingredient fibroquin, which Dr. Garshick explains has a collagen-boosting effect of improving skin's firmness and elasticity. You get all the benefits without any of the harsh side effects. But while effective, she says that more research needs to be done to understand better AI's advancements in finding retinol alternatives.


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Drunk Elephant

Peptides, AKA chains of amino acids, are the building blocks for the protein in our skin. Dr. Garshick explains that when peptides are applied topically, they signal the body to boost collagen production. This then helps firm and tighten sagging skin, smooth out fine lines and wrinkles, and improve uneven texture and elasticity — similar to how retinoids work to boost collagen production.

She adds that peptides are shorter chains than collagen, which are too large to penetrate the skin topically, making them an ideal skincare ingredient. Peptides are usually gentle enough for all skin types and can be used even if you're pregnant.

To get in on the benefits of peptides, Dr. Garshick recommends ReVive Moisturizing Renewal Serum Nightly Repair Booster, which contains a bio-renewal peptide complex that supports the skin's natural moisture barrier and smooths out the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. She also likes the Drunk Elephant Protini Polypeptide Resurfacing Serum, which uses peptides, snow mushroom extract, and lactic acid to boost moisture and radiance.

Azelaic Acid

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The Inkey List

Another ingredient to keep in mind as a retinol alternative is an azelaic acid. Dr. Garshick says that while it does not have the same mechanism as retinol, it can be helpful for those looking to reduce breakouts and hyperpigmentation without the harsh side effects. She explains that the ingredient has several skincare uses, but it mainly works to treat redness, clogged pores, and discoloration. It also gently exfoliates and is particularly applicable for pregnant women or those dealing with rosacea.

Dr. Garshick recommends Inkey List's SuperSolutions 10% Azelaic Serum Redness Relief Solution, which reduces redness and leaves the skin looking more even. An added bonus: It won’t leave the skin feeling irritated.

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