14 Best Retinol Alternatives and Bakuchiol Serums for a Smooth Skin Reboot

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Of the many skincare ingredients on the shelves, few have achieved retinoid hero status. It is the umbrella term for all forms of vitamin A, which include prescription tretinoin as well as over-the-counter derivatives. The very word retinol commands a certain reverence, given its proven effectiveness in minimizing wrinkles, accelerating cell turnover and eliminating acne, despite a well-known drawback. “Retinoids are very irritating to the skin,” says a New Jersey dermatologist Naana Boayke, MARYLAND. It’s a testament to retinol’s abilities that many users have the patience to tolerate mild discomfort, which often manifests as redness, dryness, and occasional flaky skin.

But for some, retinol is just too harsh. Additionally, the ingredient can pose a challenge in the summer, as it increases sensitivity to the sun, making the skin particularly prone to redness and burning. (SPF is a must.) This is where retinol alternatives can be advantageous. These promising new actives boast comparable results to retinol, but without the telltale side effects.

“Ingredients of mineral, marine, and plant origin have been found to have biological pathways similar to retinol,” says Marisa Plescia, a research scientist at clean retailer NakedPoppy. These shared effects range from stimulated cell renewal to collagen synthesis, she points out.

Bakuchiol, derived from the babchi seed, is the primary of these milder substitutes. “It is a ‘functional analogue’ of retinol, meaning it has similar chemical, physical, biochemical or pharmacological properties,” says Plescia, noting a study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Sciences. Another promising ingredient is rambutan, which she says supports natural collagen synthesis through a mechanism similar to retinol and bakuchiol. “We see this with other botanical sources, such as butterfly bean extract and certain algae,” she adds.

They’ve proven so appealing that some products even combine real retinol with retinol alternatives, like Dr. Dennis Gross’ Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream, which offers a trio of rambutan, bakuchiol, and retinol to renew the skin. As the evidence behind retinol alternatives continues to grow, there is enough promise that such a product is worth incorporating for the sunny days ahead. Here, 14 formulas to consider for an easy skin reboot.


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