7 Natural Retinol Alternatives That Deserve a Spot on Your Shelf

5 min readMar 8, 2023


You can’t deny that retinoids are the king of skincare ingredients. They are the best of the best, adored by dermatologists for their long list of skin benefits. The vitamin A derivatives, of which retinol is just one, are incredibly versatile. They decrease excess pigmentation by inhibiting an enzyme needed to produce melanin, and they reduce fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating the production of collagen and elastin, according to dermatologist and board-certified expert Robin Gmyrk, MD.

Because they aid in pore cleansing and reduce inflammation, retinoids are also derms’ go-to for treating acne. Also, “Retinoids are also standouts because they have been extensively studied,” as Gmyrek put it, so they have a long and proven track record.

All these benefits, however, may come with some significant drawbacks for some people. Retinoids are infamous for their annoying possible side effects, which include redness, dryness, and general irritation — not to mention the fact that they shouldn’t be used by women who are pregnant or nursing due to the risk of birth defects, according to Gmyrek.

The good news is that there are natural retinol alternatives available. (Just so you know, we’re using the term “natural” in this context to refer to mostly plant-based substances as the term doesn’t really have a clear definition.) Continue reading for seven excellent natural retinol substitutes, as recommended by Gmyrek, cosmetic chemist Yehiel Amouyal, and expert on cosmetic ingredients Defne Arikan.

01 Bakuchiol

According to Arikan, bakuchiol “is likely the most well-known and well-studied alternative, having outcomes that are most similar to retinol. Although it is not a vitamin A derivative, it operates similarly to retinol by activating the same pathways to stimulate the synthesis of collagen and elastin, according to Gmyrek. It is derived from the leaves and seeds of the babchi plant. (She adds that it’s also very antioxidant-rich and has anti-inflammatory effects.)

What is bakuchiol’s main advantage over retinol? Sensitive skin types would benefit more from it. In fact, a side-by-side comparison study of the two revealed that both substances improved wrinkles, pigmentation, elasticity, and skin firmness — but the bakuchiol was more tolerable. Also, since it isn’t a vitamin A derivative, Gmyrek adds, persons who are pregnant or nursing can use it.

02 Rosehip Oil

According to Gmyrek, retinoic acid is present in rosehip oil in modest amounts, but it must first be transformed into retinoic acid in the skin for it to have any impact. To that end, “it’s fantastic for rejuvenating the skin, boosting collagen synthesis, and bringing radiance back to dull complexions,” claims Arikan. As rosehip oil is rich in the fatty acids necessary for keeping a healthy skin barrier and there is no research comparing it to retinol, Gmyrek adds that it can also help reduce apparent indications of aging by halting moisture loss.

03 Rambutan

There is quite a bit of information circulating online connecting the tropical fruit rambutan to retinol, but Gmyrek is quick to point out that there is no solid scientific evidence to back up claims that it increases the creation of collagen or elastin. (Just one study performed in mice and one small, industry-sponsored study that didn’t yield noteworthy results.) Yet, because of its high antioxidant concentration, rambutan can have significant anti-aging effects on the skin. Rambutan contains a variety of antioxidants that, according to Gmyrek, can slow down the aging process of the skin by scavenging free radicals, shielding it from oxidative damage, and reducing inflammation as well as the breakdown of collagen and elastic tissue.

04 Sea Buckthorn Oil

Amouyal claims that the pulp of sea buckthorn berries is a nutritious concentrate that is full of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. The high concentration of antioxidants in sea buckthorn oil, which includes carotenes, vitamins E and C, and flavonoids, is why it is frequently used in skincare, she explains. It is a particularly nutritious element due to its abundance in necessary fatty acids. Several studies have shown that sea buckthorn oil encourages collagen formation and aids in wound healing, despite the fact that the precise mechanism of action is uncertain, Gmyrek notes.

05 Carrot Seed Oil

Carrot seed oil, which comes from the seeds of wild carrots, is high in beta-carotene, a substance that can aid in cellular regeneration and is a precursor to vitamin A. According to Gmyrek, it’s also abundant in antioxidants (vitamins C and E as well as vitamin A, which the skin can transform into retinol), and a recent study did discover it to be excellent for skin rejuvenation.

06 Azelaic Acid

According to Gmyrek, “[Azelaic acid] occurs naturally in grains like wheat, barley, and rye and is also produced naturally on our skin by a yeast called Malassezia furfur, which is part of our normal skin flora. Although there isn’t any research directly comparing it to retinol, the advantages of the two compounds are very similar. Azelaic acid, for instance, is a popular acne treatment ingredient because it “kills the bacteria that infect pores, reduces irritation and redness, and exfoliates and inhibits the development of keratin, a natural protein that can lead to clogged pores,” according to Gmyrek. It is also used to treat melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation because it has been demonstrated to diminish pigment cells, she adds.

07 Niacinamide

This is slightly different than the other ingredients on this list, as it’s not a plant-derived ingredient but rather a form of vitamin B-3. Niacinamide offers many of the same benefits as retinol, namely reducing inflammation, increasing collagen production, treating acne, and decreasing unwanted or excess hyperpigmentation, says Gmyrek.

Where the two differ is when it comes to hydration: Whereas retinol is drying, niacinamide helps maintain hydration in the skin, notes Amouyal. For that reason it’s a good choice for all skin types and is sometimes even combined with retinol in certain formulations, he adds. “In my clinical experience, I believe niacinamide does a lot of what retinol does, and I recommend it for very sensitive-skinned patients,” says Gmyrek, though she does add that its results are not as impressive as those you get from retinol.

By Kriston Shah




Modern skincare should actually…care. About sustainability, inclusivity, and compassion. About the ingredients it uses and the partners it chooses.