The Secret Magic of Retinol in Your Grooming Arsenal


You might have heard a lot about retinol’s use in skincare; and that’s because it works. There are millions of studies over several decades to support dermatologists’ assertions that it can help prevent everything from acne to wrinkles to even skin cancer. It’s quite the magic bullet for anything that could be messing up your mug.

So why then is there all this hullabaloo around retinol alternatives? Why even look for something else when we already have an ingredient that is literally proven to slow the aging process?

One reason is that retinol is strong. So strong that it comes with a few disclaimers. Often, when using retinol, there’s an adjustment period, usually around four weeks, during which your skin can look worse before it looks better. This adjustment period usually comes with pimples, redness, and even dry, flaking skin. And because retinol is so strong, it’s not suitable for all skin types. If you have sensitive skin, it may make things worse. Typically you should only use retinol at night and you must follow with sunscreen the next day. Not only does the retinol-caused sensitivity make you more susceptible to sun damage, but it is also photosensitive and doesn’t do its job when exposed to sunlight.

In natural skincare circles, there is another reason retinol gets a bad rap. Retinol is a form of vitamin A and it’s traditionally obtained from animals; vegans who shy away from anything animal-based will steer clear. These days, most retinol doesn’t actually come from animals, but is instead cooked up in a lab. These synthetic versions (usually called retinoids) are animal-free, but many clean and natural beauty enthusiasts avoid them because they’re synthetic.

You can thank the natural beauty explosion for the recent influx of “vegan retinoids” and “retinol alternatives.” As our appetite for clean, natural ingredients grow, so does our desire to find things that recreate the effects of tried and true skincare ingredients without synthetics. The benefit of a natural retinol-like ingredient, according to people who believe in them, is that it offers similar anti-aging effects without synthetics and is typically more gentle, therefore theoretically better suited to sensitive skin.

However, calling something a “natural retinol” is misleading. Retinol and retinoids are in a specific class of ingredients derived from vitamin A. Many of the new plant-based retinol alternatives are just that: alternatives. They may claim to work in a similar way to address signs of aging and other issues, but they usually do not contain actual retinol. Retinol can actually increase collagen production in our skin, for instance, whereas none of the alternatives has been proven to do that.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

Some say that beta-carotene, which is most commonly found in vegetables such as carrots, has a retinol-like effect. However, to get any benefits, your body has to convert it to vitamin A, a process that is hard to benefit from when the vitamin A is applied topically.

Recently, there’s been a bit of buzz around an ingredient called bakuchiol, a derivative of the East Asian babchi plant. Recent studies have shown that the ingredient is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent that acts similarly to retinol when applied topically. In fact, one recent study even showed that it was just as effective at preventing wrinkles than retinol itself and was less irritating to boot. It’s great news for the natural beauty world (and is also why you’ve probably seen a lot of bakuchiol products pop up recently). Keep in mind, however, that while research is promising, a handful of studies on bakuchiol doesn’t hold up against the millions performed on retinol.

Ultimately, there isn’t much of a downside to trying a retinol alternative if you’re curious, particularly if you’re not all that much concerned with aging. While you may see results, expect them to appear slower than if you were using straight-up retinol. If you’re okay waiting a bit longer, more power to you.