Retinol, or vitamin A derivatives, has long been the only game in town for revealing smoother, wrinkle-free skin. However, one thing is for sure: For some skin types, retinol can negatively affect the dermis and disrupt the acid mantle if a person has damage or weakness already. “For many years, retinol has been touted as the gold standard when it comes to anti-aging due to its ability to increase cell turnover and stimulate collagen production,” explains Emily Parr, founder of skincare brand HoliFrog. “While it’s a major workhorse, it can also be tough to tolerate for those with super sensitive skin, rosacea or eczema.” For many with sensitive and reactive skin types (like this writer), retinol can cause inflammation and further sensitivity.
Recently, plant-derived alternatives like bakuchiol and moth bean extract have come on the scene, offering the ability to stimulate skin cell turnover at a rate that was formerly only afforded by retinol. “Bakuchiol activates many of the same genes and has many overlapping effects as vitamin A derivatives, but is much less irritating,” explains New York City dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman. “It’s also safe during pregnancy and nursing, where retinols and retinoids are not.” Dr. Engelman is a fan of these new actives in formulations including Indeed Labs Bakuchiol Reface Pads, ISDIN Melatonik Overnight Recovery Serum and Ambari Beauty PM Active12 Serum.
These plant-based ingredients (bakuchiol comes from the seeds and leaves of the babchi plant, and moth bean is extracted from a legume) offer the benefits of retinol without the unwanted side effects of dryness and irritation. “Ingredients like bakuchiol and moth bean are poised perfectly, as they address both anti-aging needs as well as sensitivity issues,” explains Parr, whose HoliFrog Halo AHA + BHA Evening Serum uses moth bean extract. “With the plant-based retinol alternatives, there is no concern in using products with either ingredient daily. Both are shown to both restore the skin, improve elasticity and diminish wrinkles.”
These alternative retinol simulators are also more stable than most forms of retinoids while doing the job of reducing hyperpigmentation and blemishes as well as improving the appearance of fine lines and pore size. They can also improve skin elasticity, firmness and radiance and offer a significant reduction in roughness and dryness. “I think anything plant-based that can be an alternative to something synthetic or medical-grade is always alluring to consumers,” says New York City aesthetician Sofie Pavitt. “The main concern with retinols is that, along with encouraging cell turnover, they come with a lot of irritation, and bakuchiol doesn’t seem to give this reaction in the same way.” However, she cautions that just because something is touted as a gentler ingredient, it doesn’t always make it so. “As with anything with active ingredients, anyone with sensitive skin should gently introduce a product into their routine, and one at a time, to make sure you do not get irritated.”
Click through the gallery above for our favorite alternative retinol products.