Among the many skin-care ingredients on the shelves, few have attained the hero status of retinoids. That’s the umbrella term for all forms of vitamin A, which include prescription-strength tretinoin along with over-the-counter derivatives. The very word retinol stirs a certain reverence, given its proven efficacy in minimizing wrinkles, speeding cell turnover, and clearing up acne—and that’s despite a well-known drawback. “Retinoids are very irritating to the skin,” says New Jersey dermatologist Naana Boayke, MD. It’s a testament to retinol’s abilities that many users have the patience to tolerate the mild discomfort, which often appears as redness, dryness, and occasional flaky skin.
But for some, retinol is simply too harsh. Plus, the ingredient can pose a challenge in the summer, given that it increases sun sensitivity, thereby making skin particularly prone to redness and burns. (SPF is a must.) That’s where retinol alternatives can be advantageous. These new, up-and-coming actives tout results comparable to retinol, but without the telltale side effects.
“Mineral-, marine-, and plant-derived ingredients have been found to have retinol-like biological pathways,” says Marisa Plescia, a research scientist at clean retailer NakedPoppy. Those shared effects range from stimulated cellular renewal to collagen synthesis, she points out.
Chief among these gentler substitutes is bakuchiol, which is derived from the babchi seed. “It’s a ‘functional analog’ to retinol, meaning it has similar chemical, physical, biochemical, or pharmacological properties,” Plescia says, noting a study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Another promising ingredient is rambutan, which, she says, supports natural collagen synthesis through a mechanism similar to retinol and bakuchiol. “We are seeing this with other botanical sources, such as moth bean extract and certain algaes,” she adds.
They’ve proven so appealing that some products even pair actual retinol with retinol alternatives, such as Dr. Dennis Gross’s Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream, which offers a skin-renewing trio of rambutan, bakuchiol, and retinol. While the evidence behind retinol alternatives is still growing, there’s enough promise to make such a product worth incorporating for sun-drenched days ahead. Here, 14 formulas to consider for an easy-going skin reboot.