All Your Options When Your Skin Rejects Retinol
Retinol is a multitasking miracle worker. While it’s widely known for its anti-aging abilities, this vitamin A derivative’s portfolio boasts many more skillsets, including improving skin tone and texture, minimizing breakouts, and fading the appearance of hyperpigmentation.
Essentially, retinol works by speeding up skin cell turnover, boosting collagen production, and restoring elasticity — all processes that promote clearer, smoother skin.
On the flip side, this active ingredient can cause irritation, redness, and dryness. While these side effects typically occur in sensitive skin types and those beginning their retinol journey with too high concentrations of the skincare ingredient, it’s not uncommon for anyone to experience undesirable side effects when using retinol. In addition to that, it’s also not safe when pregnant or breastfeeding.
If you’re particularly reactive to retinol, you don’t have to miss out on its slew of skincare benefits. Here are a few ingredients to try instead.
Bakuchiol is one of the most well-recognized retinol alternatives. An antioxidant derived from the seeds of the Babchi plant, bakuchiol is rich in vitamin A and has long been used in medicine to soothe rashes and heal cuts. In recent years, however, bakuchiol has transformed into a powerhouse skincare ingredient, popping up in everything from cleansers to moisturizers and serums.
Like retinol, it stimulates the regeneration of skin cells, boosts collagen production, evens out skin tone, minimizes the appearance of fine lines, and prevents the formation of breakouts.
“It acts on the same receptors as retinol and therefore shares most of the same skin benefits,” says board-certified dermatologist Blair Murphy-Rose, M.D. “Unlike retinol, however, bakuchiol has anti-inflammatory and mild antibacterial properties.”
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A popular chemical exfoliant, aka an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), glycolic acid is capable of treating everything from uneven skin texture to dark spots, breakouts, and even premature signs of aging. Glycolic acid mimics retinol’s effects of increased skin cell turnover and collagen stimulation, along with reduced discoloration. You’ll find it in skincare products such as exfoliating cleansers, serums, and toners.
Another fabulous skincare benefit of glycolic acid is its ability to brighten. If you’re dealing with dull, lackluster skin, rely on glycolic acid to buff away the dullness and reveal fresh, glowing skin underneath.
If you’ve got super sensitive skin, try swapping out glycolic for an even gentler AHA like lactic acid, which offers all the exfoliating benefits and none of the skin irritation. Always finish with SPF if you’re using it during the day.
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A potent antioxidant often found in serums, Vitamin C can be a great alternative to retinol to brighten, rejuvenate, and protect skin.
“Vitamin C is one of the most powerful antioxidants for the skin, helping to fight damage from your daily exposure to the sun and environmental pollutants. It’s also a powerful preventative, anti-aging ingredient,” says Dr. Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at NYC’s Union Square Laser Dermatology..
While it works differently to retinol, vitamin C helps brighten the skin, fade dark spots and pigmentation, and spurs collagen production to prevent fine lines and wrinkles. An added bonus of vitamin C that retinol doesn’t offer is the ability to fend off free radicals and prevent sun damage. Paired with sunscreen, it works even more effectively.
At present, no comparative studies of retinol and Vitamin C on the skin exist. That said, their benefits have both been proven in individual studies.
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Hyaluronic acid formulations are another option if retinoids aren’t working for you. This powerful humectant promises smoother skin texture thanks to its ability to seal in moisture. It also boosts natural collagen production, helping to plump out fine lines and wrinkles.
While hyaluronic acid is known mainly for its ability to deeply hydrate skin, studies show it can also improve skin texture for a fresher, fine line-free complexion.
You’ll find HA in many over-the-counter (OTC) topical products such as serums, eye creams, and night creams. It’s definitely worth incorporating into your daily skincare routine to alleviate dry skin, smooth out fine lines, and prompt improved skin texture.
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Much like retinol, niacinamide stimulates collagen to prompt a smoother, more youthful appearance. Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide is clinically proven to improve skin texture while minimizing the appearance of pores while being significantly gentler than retinol.
“Niacinamide will not cause irritated, flaky skin the way retinol often does,” says Dr. Murphy-Rose. “In fact, it's a multifunctional, skin-restoring ingredient that boosts the hydrating ability of other moisturizers when used in conjunction and helps to prevent moisture loss.”
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy (BHA) famous for its acne-fighting properties. You’ll commonly find it in cleansers, toners, scrubs, and acne treatments with the purpose of clearing up your pimples.
If you’re currently using over-the-counter retinol products to reduce acne, but you’re experiencing unpleasant side effects from this form of vitamin A, consider trying SA instead.
READY TO GIVE RETINOL A SECOND CHANCE?
If you’re not ready to let go of retinol just yet, there’s no reason at all why you can’t give things another shot. Just make sure that this time, you introduce it gradually into your skincare routine to avoid upsetting your skin.
Retinoids are broken down into four main categories: retinol, retinaldehyde, retinyl esters, and retinoic acid. You can get hold of the first three as over-the-counter skin care products while retinoic acid is only available in prescription form. FYI: prescription-strength retinol tends be a lot harsher than its OTC counterparts.
Start by choosing a retinol product containing a low concentration of the active ingredient — 0.5-1% is a great starting point. Next, introduce it gradually into your routine, applying it twice a week for the first month, moving up to once every two days for the following month, and then eventually using it once a day unless your skin can only tolerate it a few times a week.