Retinoids are the Barbie of the beauty world.
Youthful perfection in spades but somewhat divisive because, while they’re joyful to play with for some, they’re plain irritating to others.
On the face of it, retinoids are full of shiny, sparkly promise (Reverse wrinkles! Fade spots! Plumper! Smoother!) but it can be a bumpy friendship to forge in the real world: All that glossy hope in a box can quickly morph into red, itchy, flaky exasperation (if you’ve seen the Barbie movie, you’ll know what happens if you play too hard – it gets ‘weird’).
“Retinoids and retinols are both derivatives of vitamin A and can lead to redness and dryness, especially when you first begin,” says dermatologist Dr Cara McDonald.
“Those with more sensitive skin types or problem skin prone to dermatitis or rosacea will have particular trouble with retinoids.” Trouble? No thank you. If your skin is reactive (or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding), then behold these fresh retinol alternatives: Bakuchiol and rambutan.
“Although we don’t have as much science behind these ingredients as retinoids, the emerging evidence suggests that they can be very effective anti-ageing ingredients with fewer side effects,” says Dr McDonald.
Bakuchiol (pronounced buh-koo-chee-ol) is an extract from the seeds of the babchi plant and has long been used in ayurvedic medicine in India.
While the studies done so far have been small, bakuchiol shows promising signs of being able to stimulate collagen-producing receptors without any irksome side effects.
Rambutan, a lychee-like fruit, is another new retinol alternative that even sensitive skins can tolerate. Antioxidants are extracted from the leaf to help keep skin bouncy and firm but, unlike retinol, it’s not known to increase sun sensitivity or cause skin to go red and flaky.
“This ingredient has been shown to have retinol-like performance in the way that it boosts structural proteins, such as collagen and elastin, and improves skin firmness,” says Dr McDonald.
“However, unlike retinol, rambutan is non-inflammatory and therefore gentle on the skin, making it an effective alternative for all skin types, including those that can’t tolerate retinol.”
Kora skincare uses alfalfa extract and REN offers another plant alternative via Bidens Pilosa, a common wildflower that is cold processed to extract the relevant molecule.
“It’s not related to vitamin A at all but it has similar results,” explains David Delport, Global Ambassador for REN Skincare.
“Think of it like this … every cell in your skin has walls and those walls have locks in them. It takes a chemical message to tell that cell what to do, that’s how the skin communicates. A retinoid has to go through multiple chemical changes in the skin before it’s activating that message via the cell and, in doing so, it releases alcohol, which a lot of people are sensitive to. The Bidens Pilosa extract can open the same lock in the cell as retinol. You get the same result without the sensitisation.”
That said, not everyone has issues with retinol and many complexions can be trained to cope with it, particularly if you start slowly (a pea-sized amount once a week). Oily or robust skin tends to be generally more resilient and have an easier time building the required tolerance – at the three-month mark, you might find you can even use it daily without irritation.
The rewards for those who achieve this are well documented.
“Retinol increases the rate of cell turnover, giving a healthier and more vibrant top layer to the skin, leading to improved texture,” says Dr McDonald.
“It also increases production of collagen and decreases the breakdown, leading to fewer fine lines and wrinkles.”
If you plan to dabble, keep strength in mind: In the world of over-the-counter retinoids, retinaldehyde is the strongest, followed by retinol, and then retinol ester.
The delivery mechanism also makes a difference – if the vitamin A is encapsulated in a quality protective barrier, that can help reduce irritation. You can also try a retinol ‘sandwich’ – applying moisturiser, then a pea-sized amount of your chosen retinoid, followed by more moisturiser.
But if you suffer any sensitivity, retinol can be a bit of an elephant/china shop situation – your skin barrier probably isn’t strong enough to handle that heavy a knock.
Rather than turbo-charging the speed at which your cells divide, the less irritating option is to build your skin’s resilience with retinol-like plant alternatives.
“Improving resilience is the most important thing you can do for the health of your skin,” says Dr Anne-Laure Bulteau, skin biologist at the Fresh research lab in France.
“Resilience means skin that can bounce back from what we call life stressors, such as lack of sleep, stress or poor diet, which all contribute to signs of ageing.”
When resilience dips low, so does the way your skin looks: The texture becomes rough, lines develop, pores grow bigger and things generally sag southward.
“The same way the body needs food, a skin cell needs fuel to function efficiently,” says Dr Bulteau, who says gentle retinol alternatives are a good option for all skin types.
“Providing your skin cells with fuel is an alternative way to increase the functionality of the skin’s bioenergetic systems. Skin can better produce the elements to stay resilient and will look smoother, with more glow.”
Within limits of course – whether you reach for retinol, rambutan or bakuchiol, none have the power to open a magic portal to youthfulness.
But they can make a difference to the healthy function of your skin. As Weird Barbie says, the choice is now yours.