If You're Scared to Try Retinol, These 15 Products Are Great Gentle Alternatives

When it comes to the hierarchy of powerhouse skincare ingredients, retinol reigns supreme. Everyone from beauty editors to dermatologists swears by its transformational results. You see, unlike so many other buzzy ingredients that aim to reduce the signs of skin ageing, retinol is one of the few that is actually proven to work in scientific studies. 

Working to increase cell turnover and promote collagen and elastin production, retinol does everything from smoothing fine lines and texture to reducing the appearance of blemishes and pigmentation. But the truth is that retinol isn’t an ingredient for the faint-hearted. Any ingredient that works to increase cell turnover in the way that retinol does is sure to come with some caveats.


(Image credit: @ALEXISFOREMAN)

In short, retinol can prove irritating and isn’t a feasible option for many. "Traditional retinol can potentially cause irritation in the form of dryness, redness and flaking, especially in those with sensitive skin,” says Joyce Park, MD, BareMinerals global dermatology ambassador. Even those who have skin types deemed more tolerant should slowly build up their retinol usage to avoid upset. On top of this, retinol products should be avoided if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

So what’s the answer? Well, the bad news is that those who are pregnant, breastfeeding or have sensitive skin won’t be able to truly embrace the wonders of retinol. The good news, however, is that there are other options out there in the form of plant-based ingredients that deliver similar results (note that results are only similar, not identical) to retinol without any of the nasty irritation. These are the best retinol alternatives you should have on your radar.

Bidens Pilosa

Also known as blackjack, Spanish needle and picão preto, Bidens pilosa is a plant that is believed to give retinol-esque results when formulated in skincare products. While treating signs of ageing, it also helps to calm the skin and boost luminosity. "It’s a plant-based alternative that is much kinder to the skin. It can help with both ageing and existing signs of ageing, such as wrinkles and dullness of the skin,” says Park.

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Chances are you’ve already heard of this stuff. For the past few years, bakuchiol has been dubbed nature’s retinol by just about every skincare brand around. The truth is, however, that the two ingredients do have some key differences. While bakuchiol, like retinol, is thought to increase collagen production and boost cell turnover, it has a much gentler nature.

"Bakuchiol is a newcomer antioxidant, which is a perfect alternative to retinol for anti-ageing purposes because it is easier to tolerate by sensitive and reactive skin types,” says Anahita Mansouri, aesthetic doctor at Kat & Co. It is also deemed safe for use during pregnancy.

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Rose-Hip Oil

You’d be forgiven if you have previously disregarded rose-hip oil as just another unnecessary oily "hydrator.” Truthfully, most rose-hip oil products don’t market themselves as well as they could. Far from just your average glow-boosting oil, rose-hip oil is actually really quite powerful.

Skin expert Jane Scrivner explains, "Rose-hip oil is chock-full of vitamin C and is rich in beta carotene, which is an excellent source of trans-retinoic acid, a natural form of vitamin A. It encourages cell turnover and reparation, making it a wonderful and powerful alternative to retinol.”

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Next up, Makeup Artists Say These 6 Moisturisers Will Age You in Reverse

Freelance Beauty Editor

Shannon Lawlor is a renowned beauty journalist and has contributed to Who What Wear’s beauty content since 2020. As a leading beauty editor, expert and brand consultant, she has over eight years of experience working for some of the industry’s most esteemed titles, including Who What Wear (of course), Glamour UK, Stylist, Refinery29 and Fabulous.

Having also worked behind the scenes with some of the industry’s biggest brands and retailers, Shannon has a unique insight into what people really want from their beauty routines. Understanding that beauty lovers seek honest, open and responsible advice, she has it made her mission to demystify the intimidating world of beauty, taking a no-frills approach to the most relatable topics.

While Shannon is the first to admit she doesn’t hold the answer to every beauty question out there, she is dedicated to sharing her expert insights in a bid to help. As a self-proclaimed lazy girl, Shannon has an affinity for easy-to-use, foolproof beauty products and has made it her mission to scope out the best of the best.

When she’s not working, Shannon is likely soaking in the bath or giving no-holds-barred beauty reviews on Instagram from her bathroom floor.