The Only Natural Retinol Alternative That Actually Reverses Wrinkles, According to Experts
By: Alison Moodie
July 23, 2018
Claims that a skincare product “erases wrinkles” and “turns back time” are a dime-a-dozen in the beauty world. But there’s really only one ingredient that’s been clinically proven to smooth out skin, and that’s retinol. For all its miraculous effects (and it really is miraculous), retinol can irritate skin, and it isn’t safe for pregnant or breastfeeding moms. Retinol products also tend to contain fillers and preservatives, a no-no for those who prefer plant-based products.
Before you deepen your frown line in consternation, there’s a safe alternative: bakuchiol, a plant extract that’s been scientifically proven to mimic the effects of retinol. Ahead, everything you need to know about retinol’s benefits, why you may want to steer clear of it, and the best and worst clean-beauty retinol alternatives.
What are retinoids?
Retinoid is the blanket term used to describe skincare products that are a pure form of vitamin A. You can get prescription formulas like Retin-A from your doctor — these contain high amounts of retinoic acid, which purges old skin cells and causes new, healthy cells to form quickly. Over-the-counter products, known as retinols, are less potent, and first need to be converted by the body into retinoic acid. This extra step means retinols take longer to work compared to prescription products.
Retinol and wrinkles
Retinol causes skin cells to turn over fast and increases collagen — this is what creates that Benjamin-Button-effect, revealing plump, baby-smooth skin.
“As we age, the rate that our cells regenerate slows down and collagen manufacturing reduces,” says LA-based celebrity esthetician Gina Mari. “Vitamin A encourages cellular turnover in the skin, which softens the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, helps with hyperpigmentation, and is even helpful for acne-prone skin.”
Benefits of retinol
- Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
- Fades pigmentation and age spots
- Speeds up collagen production
- Smoothes rough skin patches
- Increases skin firmness and elasticity
- Treats pimples and acne
- Improves skin texture
- Shrinks pores
How to use retinol
You can start using retinol in your thirties, when most people start noticing the first signs of fine lines and wrinkles.
A pea-sized amount is all you need for your whole face. Start off slowly — every second or third night — so your skin can get used to it. You can then work your way up to applying it every night, followed by a moisturizer, says Debra Jaliman, MD, author of “Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.”
“If you have very sensitive skin you may want to use it every other night,” she says.
Always wear sunscreen when using retinol, since it makes your skin more sensitive to the sun.
Retinol, especially prescription formulas, can cause irritation. Common side effects include:
- Dry and flaky skin
Plant-based retinol alternatives
Commercial retinol isn’t for everyone. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid it — using retinol in high doses can harm your baby’s development. Or perhaps the idea of peeling, itchy skin just doesn’t appeal to you and you prefer natural, plant-based skincare products.
“Some consumers want to use ‘green’ products instead of chemical formulations,” says Mari. “When looking for a green product, less is more in terms of the ingredient list, so avoid ingredients such as sulfates and parabens.”
Retinol itself isn’t harmful, since it’s simply a pure form of vitamin A. However, conventional retinols typically contain preservatives that you may want to avoid. BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) — a synthetic antioxidant — is commonly used to stabilize retinol products. One study found that 0.5 to 1 grams of BHT caused liver damage in rats, when fed to them orally.
Most skincare products contain very small amounts of BHT — 0.01 to 0.1 percent. Such a tiny concentration won’t penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. Still, there’s very little transparency in the supply chain, and often retinol suppliers themselves aren’t aware that their raw material is preserved with BHT, leaving companies in the dark. So if you prefer clean products without the preservatives and parabens, you’re better off choosing a plant-based alternative.
Here are some natural retinol options:
“When it comes to a natural, plant-based retinol alternative, there is only one ingredient that has been extensively studied and proven to mimic the activity and benefits of retinol,” says cosmetic chemist Al-Nisa Ward, CEO and owner of consulting firm Cosmetic Science Innovations. “That ingredient is bakuchiol.”
Bakuchiol comes from the seeds and leaves of the psoralea corylifolia, or “babchi”, plant, traditionally used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to treat skin diseases. In one study, people that used bakuchiol twice a day for 12 weeks saw a significant improvement in fine lines and wrinkles, pigmentation, skin elasticity, and firmness. It also stimulated collagen production. And get this — bakuchiol did all this minus the dryness and flakiness typical of retinol.
“Bakuchiol has been shown to work in a similar pathway to retinol but without the irritation that can be associated with traditional retinol products,” says cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson of BeautyStat.com.
Try these bakuchiol-containing products:
- ClarityMD Clarifying Serum $22
- Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum $78
- Omorovicza Miracle Facial Oil $120
- REN Clean Skincare Bio Retinoid Anti-Ageing Cream $69
Other natural retinol alternatives
Since bakuchiol is the only ingredient that’s been scientifically shown to work in a similar way to retinol, you want to be skeptical of other ingredients that claim to do the same.
“It’s been circulating that ingredients like squalane, rosehip oil, and beta carotene also behave like retinols — this isn’t true,” says Ward.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid products containing these extracts — just don’t expect miracles.
“These ingredients definitely have skin benefits, some of which are the same as retinol, but they aren’t suitable retinol alternatives.”
Some companies are marketing beta-carotene — a type of carotenoid — as a natural retinol alternative. Carotenoids are the pigments that give plants their bright colors.
When you eat foods rich in beta-carotene, like carrots, your body converts it into vitamin A.
Research shows when you apply a product that contains beta-carotene — such as carrot seed oil and rosehip seed oil — to your skin, your body converts it into retinol molecules. Some studies, however, found the opposite — that your skin isn’t able to convert beta-carotene into vitamin A.
Beta-carotene acts as an antioxidant on the skin, protecting your skin from damaging free radicals. That’s a nice benefit, but it’s not nearly as powerful as anti-aging powerhouse retinol. Keep in mind that some brands might market their products as containing retinoic acid from rosehip. Technically, this is accurate, but rosehip doesn’t contain enough retinoic acid to compete with conventional retinol, says Ward.
Even so, Jaliman suggests rosehip oil to her pregnant patients as the best safe, plant-based retinol option. It might not be as effective as commercial retinol, but you’ll still get some smoothing, plumping effects.
“Rosehip seed oil is a great retinol alternative,” says Jaliman. “It’s high in beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E.”
Try cult-favorite Pai Skincare Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil $40.
Another way to plump skin and help prevent wrinkles is to use collagen — a structural protein that makes up nearly 80 percent of your skin. Collagen production starts to slow down in your mid-twenties, causing sagging skin and fine lines.
Taking collagen, either in pill or powder form, is a simple way to increase collagen in the skin. Studies show that collagen supplements makes skin more elastic, hydrates it, smoothes out wrinkles, and increases the density of fibroblasts — cells in connective tissue that produce protein.
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