The Best Retinol Alternative & 6 More Anti-Aging Ingredients For Sensitive Skin

Straight from dermatologists.

When it comes to skin care ingredients that can effectively tackle multiple concerns at once, nothing compares to retinol. It can treat acne, boost collagen production, protect your complexion from environmental aggressors, and reduce the appearance of fine lines — it’s truly a powerhouse. But as with all good things, it’s not perfect; there are some downsides to the hero ingredient.

Dr. Jessica Labadie, M.D., a board-certified and fellowship-trained cosmetic, surgical, and general dermatologist at Mount Sinai Health System and assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells Bustle that retinol can easily cause irritation such as redness and dryness if it’s not used properly or if you happen to have sensitive skin, have rosacea, or are pregnant. That’s where turning to retinol alternatives may come in handy.

While Labadie advises that it’s possible for any new skin care ingredient to cause irritation and it is always best to see your own dermatologist for personalized expertise, she explains that there are alternative anti-agers that have been shown to deliver retinol-like benefits.

Below, Labadie and Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology, break down the best retinol alternatives.

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According to Garshick, bakuchiol — the most popular retinol alternative — is derived from the seeds of babchi plants and is known for its ability to stimulate skin cell turnover and improve tone, texture, fine lines, and wrinkles. She explains that it is a good option for those with sensitive skin because it is less irritating than retinol while providing similar benefits. She adds that it is also a great option for someone looking for a natural alternative to a retinoid or retinol.

She recommends a product like this moisturizer from INKEY List. “Containing the plant-derived bakuchiol, this moisturizer helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while also helping to even out the skin tone,” she says. “It is formulated with Sacha inchi oil and squalane to also help hydrate and nourish the skin.”



The benefits of niacinamide are many, but one, in particular, makes it a great alternative to retinol. Studies show that niacinamide, which Labadie says is a form of vitamin B3, has the ability to even out your complexion’s tone and improve any signs of aging. She adds that it can also protect against ultraviolet damage, which causes the skin to age more quickly.

She suggests The Ordinary’s serum. It contains 10 percent niacinamide as well as zinc to strengthen the skin barrier and smooth out uneven texture.



Made of amino acids, peptides are the building blocks of the proteins in our skin. Garshick explains that collagen is too large to penetrate the skin topically — but peptides are small enough to do what collagen can’t. Once applied, they send a signal to the body to boost collagen production and help improve the appearance of fine lines, smooth out uneven texture, strengthen elasticity, and firm your skin just like retinol does.

She adds that they are safe to use on even the most sensitive skin, making them a great option for those whose skin can’t tolerate retinol. Her recommendation? Drunk Elephant’s Protini, a serum that uses peptides to firm skin and snow mushroom extract to boost moisture. It also boasts lactic acid that packs brightening benefits, antioxidants to protect skin from environmental aggressors, and plant-based oils to soothe irritation.



Retinol, which is a derivative of vitamin A, is known to have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants, Labadie explains, help fend off oxidative damage and stress from environmental stressors that break down collagen and cause signs of aging. Ingredients such as vitamins C and E, resveratrol, and niacinamide are well-known antioxidants that you can easily incorporate into your skin care routine.

She recommends a product like the SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic, a multitasking vitamin C serum that neutralizes damaging free radicals while brightening and reducing the appearance of fine lines and sagging skin.


Growth Factors

Labadie says that when used topically, growth factors (which are proteins in the skin that allow it to repair itself) can increase collagen and elastin in the skin, improving its thickness and texture. (Studies have backed that skin care with growth factors can have rejuvenating benefits.)

Labadie’s pick is SkinMedica’s TNS Advanced+. Along with growth factors, it contains glycerin, shea butter, and grape and apple extract.


Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Garshick lists alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic, mandelic, and lactic acid as alternatives to retinol for their exfoliating properties. AHAs help get rid of dead skin cells to brighten the skin, improve discoloration, and reduce the appearance of fine lines.

For a more gentle exfoliation, she says that those with very sensitive skin can look to mandelic and lactic acid for the same benefits. Something like Mele’s Even Tone tonic, she says, leaves the skin radiant thanks to lactic acid that evens out hyperpigmentation.


Azelaic Acid

Both dermatologists list azelaic acid as an alternative ingredient to retinol. Naturally derived from a yeast known as Malassezia furfur, azelaic acid is found in wheat, rye, and barley and it has many different uses. Garshick says it reduces redness, treats breakouts and discoloration, and gently exfoliates the skin. She adds that it is pregnancy-safe, which retinol is not.

She likes this serum from Naturium as it works to reduce bumps associated with rosacea, redness, and inflammation. “This creamy and lightweight emulsion absorbs easily and also contains niacinamide, so it is soothing and won’t leave the skin feeling irritated.”


Dr. Jessica Labadie, M.D., board-certified, fellowship-trained cosmetic, surgical, and general dermatologist at Mount Sinai Health System and assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology.


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