9 Retinol Alternatives to Try If You Have Sensitive Skin

As far as skincare ingredients go, there is no ingredient that has as much data to back up its claims as retinol. Available in prescription and over-the-counter form in various concentrations and under different names like retinol, retinoic acid, tretinoin, retinyl palmitate, retinyl linoleate and retinyl acetate, the beloved ingredient is used to tackle everything from acne to fine lines and wrinkles.

There one issue that some people run into when using retinol or retinoids is that they can cause irritation and aren’t always well-tolerated (especially if you have sensitive skin). Potential side effects include redness, dryness, and general irritation—not to mention they can't be used by those who are pregnant or breastfeeding due to the potential for birth defects.

If you fall into this camp, the good news is there are retinol alternatives you can try instead. We’ll walk you through some of the best options ahead.

We Asked an Expert: What Are the Main Benefits of Using Retinol?

1. Bakuchiol

Have you heard of bakuchiol? TL;DR: It’s nature’s answer to retinol. Bakuchiol is a plant-derived ingredient that works the same way a retinol does in helping new collagen formation and lessening the appearance of dark spots and fine lines. However, it does not decrease oil gland production, so it tends to cause less dryness. “Research shows that bakuchiol’s natural anti-inflammatory properties make retinol easier to tolerate and more effective by stabilizing its action on skin,” explains Bryan Barron, the director of skin care research for Paula’s Choice.

2. Peptides

Think of peptides as building blocks for new collagen and elastin fibers (aka those parts of our skin that are responsible for elasticity and bounce). When their production slows down, firmness, texture and overall radiance diminish and those dreaded fine lines begin to become more noticeable.

As Dr. Claire Chang, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York further explains, “There are several types of peptides used in skincare—all of which serve different functions. Signal peptides stimulate new collagen and elastin growth, while enzyme-inhibitor peptides block the enzymes that break down collagen in the first place. There are also carrier peptides, which deliver minerals to the skin and aid in wound healing and other enzymatic processes, whereas neutrotransmitter-inhibiting peptides may work similarly to Botox to reduce wrinkle formation.”

“[Peptides] have also been shown, in small studies, to reduce signs of aging and photodamage, including pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, as well as improve skin hydration,” Chang says. In short, peptides are a solid choice for the retinol-adverse crowd. 

3. Rosehip Oil

Rosehip oil (aka rosehip seed oil) is derived from the actual fruit of the rose plant. The oil’s reputation dates back to ancient times when Egyptians, Mayans and Native Americans used it for its healing properties. The potent ingredient is packed with antioxidants, vitamins A, C, and E, phenolic compounds, as well as fatty acids that help restore and rejuvenate the skin. Though it’s not a direct sub for retinol, it does offer many of the same benefits without the irritation thanks to the aforementioned fatty acids, which support your skin barrier.

4. Sea Buckthorn Oil

Sea buckthorn oil is often found in skincare products because it’s naturally rich in antioxidants, including carotenes, vitamins E and C, flavonoids and essential fatty acids. It’s also said to help fade any post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and can improve your overall skin tone and texture. If you’re acne-prone, you may want to skip this one though as it could clog pores (or take a closer look at the product formulation to make sure that it’s labeled as non-comedogenic like this one from Farmacy).

5. Azelaic Acid

Azelaic acid is an unsung hero for anyone with acne and sensitive skin because it’s both an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial ingredient. Dr. Michele Farber, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group explained that “Azelaic acid is a great multitasking ingredient that helps with acne and uneven pigment. It also has antibacterial properties to treat acne, unclogs pores and acts as a keratolytic and an exfoliant to help brighten skin.”

The ingredient has also been shown to block tyrosinase (aka the enzyme that’s responsible for producing melanin or pigment in your skin), which makes it an effective fighter against hyperpigmentation. TL;DR This is an especially good retinol alternative for those with acne-prone skin (and is safe to use during pregnancy and nursing, according to the American Academy of Dermatology).

6. Alpha Hydroxy Acids

“AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid and comes most commonly in the form of glycolic acid and lactic acid. Because AHAs are water-soluble, they don’t penetrate far into the skin. Meaning they’re more superficial and help remedy surface-level concerns like anti-aging, acne scarring and pigmentation issues,” shares Dr. Shari Sperling of Sperling Dermatology in Florham Park, New Jersey. AHAs also stimulate collagen production to help reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. In short: If you have dry, dull skin, AHAs are a great way to exfoliate the top layer of skin without further drying it out.

7. Niacinamide

You can think of it as the Meryl Streep of skincare—as in, it has range. It can be used to treat a number of things including acne, enlarged pores, excess oil and inflammation. As Dr. Anar Mikailov, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of KP Away previously explained to us, “Niacinamide, or nicotinamide, is a water-soluble vitamin that’s involved in cellular energy metabolism and DNA repair. When applied to your skin, niacinamide has unique properties that complement the sebaceous functions of your skin, which is critical for maintaining healthy moisture levels and barrier defense." And whereas retinol can be drying, niacinamide actually helps “stabilize the skin barrier function and reduces transepidermal water loss (TEWL),” which is why it’s often recommended as an alternative to retinol.

8. Growth Factors

Growth factors were first discovered in the 1950s by two scientists (which earned them a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986). Since then, epidermal growth factors (EGF) have cropped up in skincare products with purported benefits of increasing collagen and elastin levels in your skin and improving its overall tone and texture. Though it doesn’t have as much data as retinol does, it’s namedropped as a stand-in for those who are too sensitive for the vitamin A derivative as it yields similar effects without the irritation.

9. Vitamin C

Right up there with retinol for most recommended skincare ingredients is vitamin C, which derms often suggest as a pregnancy-safe option to retinol because it’s also a multi-tasking all-rounder.

As Dr. Whitney Bowe, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, previous shared with us, vitamin C serves three primary functions in your skincare routine: It acts as a powerful antioxidant, it helps with pigmentation and it can boost collagen production in skin.

On that note, Bowe says this is one area where it pays to spend a bit more because “Vitamin C is actually very expensive to formulate in a way that keeps the concentration high enough to produce results and stabilized, so it doesn’t cause irritation and retains its potency after it’s opened.” (Where you can save on skincare: Cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen.)

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Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...