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The best retinol alternatives, recommended by dermatologists

If you have sensitive skin or are pregnant or breastfeeding, skip the retinol and reach for one of these gentle alternatives.
Retinol alternatives are more gentle, making them ideal for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding and those with sensitive skin.
Retinol alternatives are more gentle, making them ideal for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding and those with sensitive skin.Kara Birnbaum / NBC News

Whether you’re a skin care buff or just getting started, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of retinol — research shows that the ingredient can help reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles, fight acne and fade dark spots. However, retinol isn’t for everyone. “Those with sensitive or rosacea-prone skin may want to avoid retinol products because there is a potential risk of irritation,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, experts also recommend avoiding using retinol products.

Luckily, there are a number of retinol alternatives that have similar positive effects. We spoke with board-certified dermatologists to get their product recommendations and learn more about how these alternative ingredients work.

SKIP AHEAD The best retinol alternatives | How to shop for retinol alternatives

Selected.Our top picks

How we picked the best retinol alternatives

Retinol alternatives are available in various forms — like serums, eye creams and moisturizers — all of which mimic the benefits of retinol, including minimizing fine lines, evening tone and texture and combating acne. When shopping for retinol alternatives, our experts recommend considering the following factors:

  • Ingredients: In retinol alternatives, you’ll often find formulas with active ingredients like bakuchiol, peptides, alpha hydroxy acids and azelaic acid. These help the skin the same way retinol does, but are generally gentler and less irritating than your typical retinoid. (We explain more about the retinoid family, below.)
  • Skin type: Retinoids are potent and potentially irritating. That’s why retinol alternatives are safest for those new to retinol, those who have sensitive skin or are pregnant or breastfeeding.

The best retinol alternatives

To help you find the best retinol alternatives on the market, we spoke with experts to get their recommendations and also included some highly rated options and Select staff favorites. We break down our list into serums, eye creams and moisturizers so you can find the retinol alternative that best fits into your skin care routine.

Herbivore Bakuchiol Serum

Both Garshick and Dr. Rebecca Marcus, a board-certified dermatologist, suggest incorporating products with bakuchiol, like this serum from Herbivore, into your routine. The bakuchiol reduces the appearance of fine lines, while the polyhydroxy acid (PHA) helps exfoliate the skin gently, according to the brand. To hydrate and protect the skin from environmental damage, it also has tremella mushroom and blueberry stem cells. For the best results, apply two to three drops of the serum on your clean and dry face. You can use this twice daily, once in the morning and at night, before putting on a moisturizer, according to Herbivore.

Naturium Azelaic Acid Serum

Azelaic acid is an acid derived from yeast and a common ingredient found in skin care formulas for those with sensitive skin, rosacea and acne, says Garshick. It works to  reduce bumps associated with rosacea as well as redness and inflammation. “It is creamy and lightweight, so it absorbs easily,” she says. The serum also has niacinamide, which can be soothing if you commonly experience day-to-day irritation or sensitivity, according to Garshick. You can apply one to two pea-sized drops in the morning before applying your face cream and sunscreen, and then again at night before applying your moisturizer, according to Naturium.

Drunk Elephant Protini Polypeptide Resurfacing Serum

This Drunk Elephant serum has peptides, which our experts recommend because they can encourage collagen production and reduce the appearance of fine lines. This serum also has snow mushroom extract that can add moisture back into the skin and protect from environmental aggressors and dehydration, while also providing a gentle, nonirritating exfoliation, according to Garshick. Aside from applying this on your face in the morning and at night, you can even use it on your chest and hands, she says.

Kora Organics Plant Stem Cell Retinol Alternative Serum

Select associate reporter Bianca Alvarez opts for this milky retinol alternative to protect and treat her sensitive and eczema-prone skin. The serum combines bakuchiol with other ingredients like alfalfa to smooth skin and reduce fine lines, acai stem cells to protect skin from environmental aggressors and rosehip oil to even skin tone, according to the brand. Alvarez pats two to three drops on her face, neck and decolletage at night, although you can use it in the morning, too. You can even pair this serum with the brand’s retinol alternative moisturizer or purchase it as a bundle for your skin care routine.

Colorescience Pep Up Serum

Suitable for all skin types, this formula has peptides to help minimize the appearance of fine lines and hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin, says Garshick. You can use this twice daily — once after cleansing your face in the morning before moisturizing and again at night, according to Colorescience.

Skinceuticals Retexturing Activator

This oil-free serum, which works for all skin types, comes recommended by Marcus. It has kombucha, hyaluronic acid and hydroxyethyl urea and aminosulfonic acid compounds, which gently exfoliate to brighten the skin, according to the brand. Using four to six drops, apply this twice a day to your face, neck and chest, according to Skinceuticals. 

Best retinol alternative eye creams

Olehenriksen Wrinkle Blur Bakuchiol Eye Gel Crème

If you want to minimize the appearance of fine lines and dark circles, consider this gel cream, which has a 4.4-star average rating from over 800 reviews at Sephora. This product keeps the active ingredients separate, but when you pump the product out, they come together to activate one another, according to Olehenriksen. It has the retinol alternative, bakuchiol, to target fine lines; at the same time, peptides, plant proteins and orchid stem cells even skin tone and improve the under-eye area’s elasticity, according to the brand. For the best results, apply a pump of the product and use your ring finger to evenly spread it across the entire eye area, according to Olehenriksen.

Ilia Bright Start Retinol Alternative Eye Cream

A personal favorite of Alvarez’s is this eye cream, which helps smooth the under-eye area over time and provides a cooling effect that helps with depuffing. The formula uses sea fennel extract as its retinol alternative along with avocado extract to brighten the skin, while caffeine and peptides work to depuff, according to the brand. Alvarez squeezes five drops of the cream under each eye and uses the cooling ceramic tip to massage the product into her skin. 

Caudalie Resveratrol-Lift Firming Eye Gel-Cream

Caudalie’s retinol alternative line includes this fragrance-free rich cream that firms and depuffs the under-eye area. It uses resveratrol, an antioxidant, to reduce the appearance of fine lines, hyaluronic acid to hydrate, as well as vegan collagen and peptides to firm and smooth the skin, according to the brand. You can pair this gel-cream, which has a 4.7-average star rating from over 250 reviews at Caudalie, with its matching serum and moisturizer

Best retinol alternative moisturizers

Charlotte Tilbury Magic Cream

Garshick recommends this moisturizer because it has a peptide complex that can reduce the appearance of fine lines and has antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E to brighten and improve overall skin tone. It also has hyaluronic acid to help hydrate your skin, according to the brand. “I love applying it at night so the rich texture can absorb into my skin while I sleep,” says Select SEO editor Nikki Brown. “When I wake up in the morning, it feels so supple and soft.” 

The Inkey List Bakuchiol Moisturizer

Aside from bakuchiol, this moisturizer has sacha inchi oil and squalane to help hydrate the skin, according to Garshick. It is gentle enough to use once or twice a day, and you can even use it in the morning because there is less concern with sun sensitivity, according to Garshick.

The Ordinary Azelaic Acid 10% Suspension

If you’re looking for pregnancy-safe skin care, consider this moisturizer from The Ordinary. It has azelaic acid, which is excellent for addressing redness and gently exfoliating skin, according to  Garshick. You can apply it twice a day, once in the morning before applying your sunscreen and once at night.

Andalou Age Defying Rejuvenating Plant-Based Retinol Alternative Cream

This gentle moisturizer, which has bakuchiol, is great for smoothing skin texture and reducing blemishes, according to Garshick. Like its retinol alternative eye cream, this facial cream combines bakuchiol, apple stem cells and grape stem cells. Reviewers say a little goes a long way and it doesn’t leave behind a greasy residue. Note this cream is a trial-sized bottle, so it will be on the smaller side. 

What are the benefits of retinol alternatives?

Retinol alternatives are great for anyone interested in entering the world of retinol slowly. With ingredients like bakuchiol and azelaic acid, you can reap the benefits of retinoids without taking a significant dive into potential irritation. Some of these benefits include reducing the appearance of fine lines, improving elasticity and promoting collagen production, according to experts.

How to shop for retinol alternatives

When it comes to looking for a retinol alternative, our experts say there are a few ingredients to look for that can replicate some of the positive effects of retinol and tend to work well for those who need a gentle option. Because retinol can do so many things, the key when shopping is to focus on the specific problem — whether it be brightening or reducing the appearance of fine lines —  you’re looking to solve. From there, you can choose the best retinol alternative.

What are the best retinol alternative ingredients?

Bakuchiol

“Bakuchiol is known to increase cell turnover,” says Marcus. “It has a similar mechanism of action as retinol, but without any irritation.” The ingredient is derived from plants and Marcus says it can also improve skin tone and texture and diminish fine lines and wrinkles.

Peptides

Peptides are chains of amino acids, and are considered building blocks of proteins like collagen, which keeps skin supple and plump. “When peptides are applied to the skin, they send a signal to the body to boost collagen production,” says Garshick. “When more collagen is produced it can help with sagging skin, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improve texture and elasticity.” The overall result: A more youthful appearance, according to Garshick.

Alpha hydroxy acids

“Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that is derived from sugar cane and is known for its exfoliating benefits, helping to get rid of dead skin cells and brighten the skin,” says Garshick. “It can also reduce discoloration and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.” Other commonly used alpha hydroxy acids in skin care formulas include mandelic acid and lactic acid, which offer similar benefits.

Azelaic acid

“This dicarboxylic acid is naturally derived from a yeast known as Malassezia furfur and is found in wheat, rye and barley — it is also part of the normal skin flora,” says Garshick. Dermatologists commonly recommend this to those with sensitive skin, rosacea, acne, or those who are unable to tolerate retinoids since it can reduce redness, improve breakouts, address discoloration and gently exfoliate the skin, according to Garshick. It can treat acne and rosacea because it reduces inflammation and discoloration since it inhibits tyrosinase, preventing the production of pigment and melanin, says Garshick. 

Meet our experts

At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Dr. Marisa Garshick is a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Cornell.
  • Dr. Rebecca Marcus is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in medical, surgical and cosmetic dermatology.

Why trust NBC Select?

Lulu Chang has over a decade of experience writing with work appearing in Business Insider, Well+Good, Bustle and more. For this story, she interviewed dermatologists and asked them for their top retinol alternative recommendations. 

Bianca Alvarez is an associate reporter covering skin care and hair care, who recently wrote stories on how to exfoliate, the best blackhead treatments and barrier repair creams. For this piece, she interviewed dermatologists and researched highly rated retinol alternatives on the market that met the guidance of our experts.

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