Retinoids, and their OTC counterparts, retinols — which are both forms of vitamin A — are unparalleled when it comes to boosting collagen and elastin production, reducing breakouts and clogged pores, and promoting smoother, firmer, clearer skin. Unfortunately, topical vitamin A can exacerbate dryness and irritate sensitive skin types, and should also be avoided by pregnant people. So if you can’t use retinol, consider one of the retinol alternatives featured ahead. According to the dermatologists Bustle spoke to for this article, the best retinol alternatives contain active ingredients that achieve similar skin care goals, but without the potentially harsh side effects. Retinol alternatives come in all kinds of vehicles, including cleansers, toners, and serums, so it’ll be easy to find something that complements your existing skin care routine.
Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D., is a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. She also serves as an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell - New York Presbyterian Medical Center.
Dr. Shari Sperling, D.O., is a New Jersey-based board-certified dermatologist and owner of Sperling Dermatology, where she specializes in medical, cosmetic, laser, and surgical dermatology for adults and children.
Dr. Ramya Garlapati, M.D., is a Los Angeles-based board-certified dermatologist, certified makeup artist, and skin care expert.
How To Pick The Right Retinol Alternative, According To Your Skin Concerns
Smoothing & Firming: If you’re in the market for something that will boost collagen and elastin production, and encourage smoother, firmer skin, look for products that contain peptides. “When peptides are applied to the skin, they signal that healing or recovery must occur. This helps to boost natural collagen production,” explains Dr. Garshick. Additionally, Dr. Garlapati recommends using AHAs (like glycolic acid), which have “exfoliating properties that increase [skin] cell turnover and stimulate collagen synthesis.”
Clearing Breakouts: If you’re hoping to quell active breakouts and prevent future acne flareups, Dr. Garlapati recommends using BHAs, such as salicylic acid, which she says “are great for individuals with oily or acne prone skin as they are antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and oil soluble which allows them to penetrate deep into pores [and unclog] them.” As an even gentler alternative, Dr. Garshick recommends using products with tea tree extract. According to Dr. Garshick, the botanical ingredient “helps eliminate excess oil, buildup, and dirt to prevent and treat breakouts, [and is] a great retinol alternative for someone with acne-prone skin.”
Sensitive Skin-Safe: Dr. Garlapati says bakuchiol is a superb retinol alternative for people with sensitive skin, since the plant extract functions similarly to retinol, but without the risk of causing increased dryness or irritation. Dr. Sperling also mentions rambutan as another great retinol alternative, since it’s “gentler on the skin and is rich in antioxidants including vitamin C.” You can also use a vitamin C serum to provide antioxidant protection, boost your skin’s radiance, and promote collagen production, much like a retinol serum would.
Pregnancy-Safe: “Azelaic acid is a great retinol alternative that is pregnancy-safe, as it helps to address breakouts and hyperpigmentation, both of which are common during pregnancy,” says Dr. Garshick. And, since it’s “found as part of the normal skin flora,” it’s generally well-tolerated by most skin types. Dr. Garshick notes that the acid works to calm redness, improve breakouts, and reduce unwanted discoloration, similarly to a retinoid.
Shop The Best Retinol Alternatives
In a hurry? Here are the best retinol alternatives:
- The Overall Best Retinol Alternative: Herbivore Botanicals Moon Fruit Retinol Alternative Serum
- Best All-in-One Serum: ISDIN Melatonik Overnight Recovery Serum
- Best Neck Serum: Dermalogica Neck Fit Contour Serum
- Best Azelaic Acid Serum: Naturium Azelaic Topical Acid 10%
- Best Hyaluronic Acid Serum: La Roche-Posay Hyalu B5 Pure Hyaluronic Acid
- Best Glycolic Acid Serum: Glytone Enhance Brightening Complex
- Best Vitamin C Serum: CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum
1. The Overall Best Retinol Alternative
Bakuchiol is the gold standard of retinol alternatives, and the Herbivore Botanicals Moon Fruit Retinol Alternative Serum is packed with a potent 1% concentration of the ingredient (and it’s more affordable than the bakuchiol serum below). The formula also includes peptides, another ingredient dermatologists recommend for boosting collagen and elastin production. This serum can slot into your current skin care routine to deliver a one-two punch of skin-smoothing benefits from schisandra berry extract, as well as antioxidant protection from a superfood blend that includes vitamin C-rich orange.
Key Ingredients: Bakuchiol, Peptides, Schisandra Berry Extract Cruelty-Free: Yes Size: 1 oz.
2. Best All-in-One Serum
Dr. Garlapati says that the ISDIN Melatonik Overnight Recovery Serum is one of her favorite retinol alternatives because “it contains melatonin and vitamin C, which are potent antioxidants.” Along with protecting skin against free radical damage, this serum also contains the powerhouse ingredient bakuchiol, which dermatologists say is a gentler alternative to retinol for people with sensitive skin. This is a particularly great serum for nighttime use, as it works to repair any oxidative stress your skin may have experienced throughout the day, and it also provides up to eight hours of hydration for supple, healthy skin when you wake up.
Key Ingredients: Melatonin, Vitamin C, Bakuchiol Cruelty-Free: No Size: 1 oz.
3. Best Neck Serum
Skin care doesn’t stop at the jawline — incorporating an active-rich neck cream into your routine can help improve elasticity in your neck and décolletage areas, too. Dr. Garshick recommends reaching for the Dermalogica Neck Fit Contour Serum, since it contains both peptides and rambutan extract, which, according to Dr. Garshick, “provides lifting and tightening [benefits], while also smoothing the skin, serving as a retinol alternative.” Plus, the roll-on format makes application quite enjoyable, especially as you wind down after a long day.
Key Ingredients: Peptides, Rambutan Cruelty-Free: Yes Size: 1.7 oz.
4. Best Azelaic Acid Serum
Looking to replace your favorite retinoid with a pregnancy-safe option? All the dermatologists I consulted recommend using azelaic acid. The Naturium Azelaic Topical Acid 10% contains a high percentage of the ingredient, which Dr. Garshick says “helps to even skin tone and reduce blemishes in those who cannot tolerate or shouldn’t use a retinol, as in pregnancy and those with sensitive skin.” In addition, this serum offers a dose of both caffeine and niacinamide, which both provide antioxidant protection and tightening effects, and the latter also helps to minimize the appearance of unwanted scarring.
Key Ingredients: Azelaic Acid, Caffeine, Niacinamide Cruelty-Free: Yes Size: 1 oz.
5. Best Hyaluronic Acid Serum
Dr. Sperling recommends hyaluronic acid as a retinol alternative, since it works to plump up skin without causing dryness (quite the opposite, in fact; as a powerful humectant, a single gram is capable of holding six liters of water). A fan-favorite on Amazon, the La Roche-Posay Hyalu B5 Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum also contains vitamin B5, which works to strengthen the skin’s natural protective barrier, as well as calming centella asiatica extract and the brand’s proprietary prebiotic thermal water, which is loaded with good-for-skin nutrients.
Key Ingredients: Hyaluronic Acid, Vitamin B5, Centella Asiatica, Prebiotic Thermal Water Cruelty-Free: No Size: 1.01 oz.
6. Best Glycolic Acid Serum
Dr. Garshick speaks highly of the Glytone Enhance Brightening Complex, since it combines two dermatologist-approved retinol alternatives — 12% azelaic acid and 3% glycolic acid — that can “address [unwanted] dark spots and uneven skin tone, while also improving overall texture.” She notes that this formula is pregnancy-safe, but as it’s “easy to use” and works so well, “it’s a great option [for everyone], pregnant or not.”
Key Ingredients: Glycolic acid, Azelaic Acid Cruelty-Free: No Size: 1 oz.
7. Best Vitamin C Serum
Thanks to its ability to stimulate skin cell turnover, retinol can make your skin look brighter (i.e. clearer) and glowier, but if most retinoids tend to feel irritating on your skin, Dr. Garshick recommends using a vitamin C serum instead. You can’t go wrong with the CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C Serum, a drugstore staple with over 20,000 five-star Amazon ratings to back it up. In addition to 10% vitamin C, it contains hyaluronic acid, vitamin B5, and ceramides to lock in hydration, making it a particularly great choice for people with dry or sensitive skin.
Key Ingredients: Vitamin C, Hyaluronic Acid, Vitamin B5, Ceramides Cruelty-Free: No Size: 1 oz.
8. Best Splurge-Worthy Retinol Alternative
Dr. Sperling mentions that the SkinMedica TNS Advanced+ Serum is her personal favorite, since it contains two potent ingredients that mimic retinol’s collagen and elastin-boosting effects: Peptides and growth factors. This serum also contains green micro algae, which the brand says helps amp up collagen and elastin in the skin, along with marine extracts that help the skin renew itself.
Key Ingredients: Peptides, Growth Factors, Micro Algae Cruelty-Free: Yes Size: 1 oz.
9. Best Exfoliating Toner For Sensitive Skin
If you’re not in the market to add another serum to your routine, yet are looking for something that will slough off dead skin cells like a retinol can, try out the Tatcha Texture Tonic. A personal favorite, the formula contains AHAs to gently exfoliate, as well as niacinamide to brighten unwanted hyperpigmentation. (Niacinamide is also well-tolerated by most skin types). This toner also contains mugwort to minimize redness and soothe irritation, so it’s gentle enough to use both morning and night.
Key Ingredients: AHAs, Niacinamide, Mugwort Cruelty-Free: Yes Size: 5 oz.
10. Best AHA/BHA Toner
If you’re interested in retinoids for their breakout-banishing abilities, Dr. Garshick speaks highly of using a combination of AHAs and BHAs to diminish acne and reveal the glow that’s hiding underneath all those dead skin cells. The COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner contains glycolic acid (an AHA) to dissolve dead skin cells on the surface of your skin, as well as betaine salicylate (a BHA), which dives deeper into the pores to clear out excess sebum and dead skin (a buildup of which can cause blackheads and acne). The formula’s low pH level prevents skin from drying out, while mineral water adds a dose of soothing and hydrating effects. Still, you’ll want to layer a nice, soothing moisturizer on top — as is the case when you use any type of chemical exfoliant.
Key Ingredients: Glycolic Acid, Betaine Salicylate Cruelty-Free: Yes Size: 5.07 oz.
Dr. Marisa Garshick, board-certified dermatologist
Dr. Shari Sperling, D.O., board-certified dermatologist
Dr. Ramya Garlapati, M.D., board-certified dermatologist