Retinol Alternatives: gentler products that still pack a punch!

Posted March 9, 2024 by Michelle Fox

Retinol is considered the gold standard for anti-aging skincare among many dermatologists but some may be looking for alternatives to this powerful ingredient. Those with conditions such as rosacea, eczema, or extremely senstive skin could feel unsure about trying something so potent. However, that does not mean that these same individuals aren't interested in addressing the visible signs of age such as fine lines and wrinkles, discoloration, rough patches, and dullness. Do they have alternatives to Retinol? Fortunately, the answer is yes! This blog will discuss five popular, powerful skincare ingredients that are gentler alternatives to Retinol but still pack a punch!

Episode #49: Retinol Alternatives: gentler products that still pack a punch!

For more information about Retinol, check out my previous blog on Skin Cycling. My Skin Cycling Routine - a live 4 night video series.

Retinol Alternatives: when Retinol is not an option

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Retinol Alternatives.

retinol alternatives

Retinol Alternatives: similar products that still pack a punch!

A Review of Retinol

First, let's go over all of the amazing benefits of Retinol. This age-fighting wonder is a vitamin A derivative that was once only available through a dermatologist or esthetician, but is now sold over-the-counter as part of an age-defying skincare regimen. Retinol is typically seen in strengths of .0012 to .3 but can be as high as 1.0 as of the publishing of this blog. It increases collagen production, exfoliates dead skin, and stimulates cell turn-over, which in turn:

retinol alternatives

Note: new regulations in the EU will limit the sale of over-the-counter retinol to a maximum of 0.05 percent concentration in body lotions and 0.3 percent in face and hand products. This is due to a concern that the total exposure of consumer to vitamin A from cosmetics, diet and nutritional supplements could exceed safe limits.  

But the question today isn't whether or not Retinol is powerful and effective. The question is whether there are alternative products (ingredients) for those who may find Retinol too strong for their skin type or their personal preferences. 

Top Contenders

While many state-of-the-art products are able to combat multiple visible signs of age, I decided to focus on these five ingredients as Retinol alternatives for the purpose of this blog: Polyhydroxy Acid; Glycolic Acid; Niacinamide, Resveratrol, and Vitamin C. I will explain how each is a viable option for those looking for a Retinol alternative.

For more information on these powerhouse ingredients, you may want to revisit my previous blogs:

Glycolic Acid or PHA - which chemical peel is right for you?

Is Niacinamide the "new hydroquinone" for more even skin tone?

What does Resveratrol do for skin?

retinol alternatives

PHA Polyhydroxy Acid

Polyhydroxy acid is a mild chemical exfoliant, which works to exfoliate dead skin cells from the surface. It is usually applied as a serum and left on your skin throughout the day. PHA is similar to Retinol in many ways, but these are the benefits it is known for.

Primary Benefits of PHA

Warning: if you choose to use PHA you cannot add Retinol to your skincare regimen. Using both simultaneously would be too harsh!

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid, like Retinol, is a vitamin A derivative. Similar to PHA, glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant usually referred to as a facial peel. Once only available in a dermatologist's office, now glycolic peels are gentle enough for home use. However, one must use caution and follow the packaging directions carefully. 

Primary Benefits of Glycolic Acid

retinol alternatives

Glycolic Acid is stronger than PHA. It is not left on the skin. A glycolic acid facial peel is applied for a limited amount of time and removed. And it is only used 2 to 3 times per week.  Of the five alternatives discussed, glycolic acid is probably going to give you the most dramatic results but may also be a little too harsh for extremely sensitive skin. This is what I would choose as an alternative to Retinol.

Popular products featuring these ingredients are: The Ordinary Glycolilc Acid Toning Solution and Neostrata Bionic Face Serum.


Niacinamide is known as a skin brightener. It can reduce hyperpigmentation and is considered a safe alternative to once recommended hydroquinone for lightening age spots and sun damage. But is it an adequate alternative for Retinol? Let's take a look.

Primary Benefits of Niacinamide

Niacinamide may be found as a concentrated serum or as a main ingredient in other skincare products such as moisturizers and night creams. It is extremely popular right now and should be easy to find either as you shop or as you check your own cabinets! Just make sure to check for expiration dates, since fresh product is always more effective! 


Resveratrol is another very popular age-fighting ingredient, and it is known to reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles and many other visible signs of age. This effective ingredient is found in many skincare programs. If you currently have an age-defying skincare set on your shelf, take a close look at the list of ingredients because Resveratrol is likely one of them! Simply choosing to commit to a skincare regimen that features Resveratrol as a main ingredient would be a great alternative to using Retinol in our Spring Skincare Challenge!

Primary Benefits of Resveratrol

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is extremely effective and has a wide range of benefits. However, it is highly acidic, so it's best to test a small area of any product containing vitamin C on your arm before applying it to your face to be extra cautious! Here are the main benefits of adding Vitamin C to your skincare program:

Primary Benefits of Vitamin C

Let's compare!

retinol alternatives

Wrap Up

The best way to determine which skincare supplement is the right Retinol alternative for you is to first narrow down your primary concern. Is it lightening dark spots? Or reducing fine lines and wrinkles? Or perhaps your main focus is getting rid of acne scars. Once you determine your need, then you can explore your options for the ingredient, and therefore the Retinol alternative, that is just right for you. Retinol may have Super Powers, but you are not without options if Retinol isn't the right choice for you. 

retinol alternatives

Join our 
Spring Skincare Challenge!

Products used during demonstration

Clinical Solutions 

Retinol 0.5 Set

PHA + AHA Resurfacer

Revealing Radiance Facial Peel

 Ferulic Acid & Niacinamide Brightener

C+Resveratrol Line-Reducer



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