5 Retinol Alternatives for Sensitive Skin You Need To Know

Courtesy, izé skincare.

Editor: Alexandria Taliaferro, @clapbacksandcontours

Skin Type: Combination

Skin Concerns: Texture, Hyperpigmentation

Retinoids, a group of uber-popular Vitamin A derivatives that are used in everything from over-the-counter skincare to dermatologic studies, have been the talk of the town for many years now. An excellent tool for anti-aging and collagen stimulation, retinol-based products are also great for treating acne and fading dark spots. In short, they’re seen by many as a universal solution to a plethora of skin concerns.

Why Retinol Alternative? Beyond the noticeable skin benefits, retinol formulas have a bit of a learning curve – they can be harsh on the skin depending on what percentage is being used, and can cause purging, redness, and dryness upon the first few weeks of use as your body adjusts to the strength of the formula.  Additionally, retinols can heighten sun sensitivity, making it easier for your skin to burn without proper UV protection, and can cause rashes and breakouts when combined with other strong chemicals with different pH balances. With that comes the issue of many retinol-based products being formulated with parabens – a group of low-cost synthetically engineered preservatives that are highly effective in preventing product spoilage in cosmetics and personal care products. Though, some studies have shown that when applied to the skin in high concentrations, parabens have the potential to accumulate internally and increase the spread of pre-existing cancer cells within the body. Although most brands utilize parabens in very small percentages, many people have decided to remove them from their skincare routines altogether to avoid any potential health hazards long term.

If you’re interested in retinols, but not ready to completely take the plunge, check out some of the gentler alternatives listed below! 

Ole Henriksen Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum  ($58)

One of the most popular retinol alternatives on the market today is bakuchiol, a vegan skin care ingredient found in the leaves and seeds of the Indian babchi plant. Though not as potent as a retinol, bakuchiol has been shown to perform similar functions: stimulating cell turnover, visibly reducing skin discoloration, and improving the appearance of fine lines and photodamage over time. The Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum by Ole Henriksen combines bakuchiol with other powerhouse ingredients including glycolic and lactic acids (two potent alpha-hydroxy acids known for effectively retexturizing the skin), edelweiss stem cells, and red algae (a skin barrier miracle worker) to instantly brighten and tighten the skin. In addition to being vegan-based, this serum is also paraben-, sulfate-, and phthalate-free, meaning you won’t have to worry about any potential carcinogens making their way into this skin-smoothing serum. All the benefits of traditional retinols with none of the risk! Not feeling the serum? No worries – Ole Henriksen also sells Glow Cycle in the form of a sleeping crème.

The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA Serum ($7)

Another great retinol alternative is mandelic acid, a super gentle alpha-hydroxy acid that improves skin texture and promotes cell turnover by gradually dissolving dead skin cells over time. Due to its large molecular structure, mandelic acid penetrates the skin at a much slower rate than other AHA’s, making it mild enough to be used on even the most sensitive of skin! And the best part? In addition to exfoliating, smoothing, and brightening, mandelic acid also strengthens the skin on a molecular level, allowing your skin to maintain its tone and brightness with continued use. The Ordinary’s Mandelic Acid 10% + HA Serum is a great option for newbies to the world of chemical exfoliation. The combination of mandelic and hyaluronic acids here ensures that your skin gets the boost it needs while maintaining its delicate moisture equilibrium – plus it won’t break the bank!

Joanna Vargas Dawn Face Masks ($75)

If you’re looking for a retinol-alternative treatment that requires a little less commitment, the Dawn Face Masks by Joanna Vargas are a great choice! Made with a blend of hyaluronic acid, mandelic acid, and ethyl ascorbic acid (a form of Vitamin C), this face mask brightens and smooths the skin to enhance your natural beauty. To get your coins' worth out of this mask, leave it on for as long as possible (sometimes I leave mine on for nearly an hour), then, just before bed, slather on any remaining serum from the mask packet onto your face, hands, and décolleté for an added complexion boost.


Sunday Riley  A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum ($85)

Winner of the 2020 NewBeauty Award, Sunday Riley’s A+ High Dose Retinol Serum combines a 5% retinoid ester blend with 1% liposomal-encapsulated retinol, 0.5% blue-green algae (a natural retinoid alternative), and Coenzyme Q10 (or CoQ10, a naturally occurring enzyme) to fight signs of aging and improve the look of congested, sun-damaged skin. While this High Dose Retinol Serum does contain… well, retinol… it’s cruelty-, sulfate-, paraben-, gluten-, soy-, phthalate-, and fragrance-free – in other words, this serum is formulated without any of the harsh preservatives or carrier agents discussed earlier. For those with sensitive skin, apply a few drops of a gentle, hydrating oil to your skin before applying this serum, then follow with a plush moisturizer. Use once or twice a week for best results.


The INKEY List Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Moisturizer  ($10)

The Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Moisturizer by The INKEY List is an effective product at an affordable price. Utilizing squalene and sacha inchi oil (a nourishing oil chock-full of omega-3s) along with its namesake bakuchiol, this retinol alternative moisturizer gently smooths away fine lines and wrinkles, brightens the skin, and mitigates texture. Due to its cream-like consistency, this moisturizer is a great source of lightweight hydration after applying your daily toners and serums and can be used both day and night for maximum benefit. The INKEY List is also a clean beauty company, meaning that all of their products are sulfate-, paraben-, and phthalate-free! What’s not to love?

Feature image, izé skincare.

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