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Dermat-approved substitute ingredients if retinol doesn’t suit your skin

Think all the benefits without any of the skin irritation!

If the world of skincare had its own version of the Olympic Games, retinol would finish on the podium every time. It’s one of the most hard-working, versatile, and beloved ingredients with a myriad of benefits which have been proven time and time again. From reducing fine lines and wrinkles and decreasing excess pigmentation, to stimulating the production of collagen and elastin which keeps the skin looking younger, this group of vitamin A derivatives can pretty much do it all. 

However, like every good thing in life, even retinol has its flaws and limitations. Dr Geoffrey Vaz, MBBS MD Dermatology, says, “In addition to all its positives, retinol also presents some side effects in certain individuals. This can vary from dryness, erythema, increased sun sensitivity, rebound hyperpigmentation, skin frosting etc.”   

Downsides of Retinol

Dr Vaz explains that since retinol increases cell turnover, it brings new skin cells to the surface prematurely, eventually leading to redness, irritation, flaking, or rebound pigmentation. He says, “When retinol gets in touch with certain receptors in the skin, it gets converted to retinol acid, which is responsible for improving the signs of ageing. But it can be too much too soon for certain individuals due to the high skin turnover time. Owing to excessive peeling, hypersensitivity, and occasionally increase in breakouts, many individuals give up even before they achieve what they have set out to.”  


If you have a love-hate relationship with retinol, we have good news for you. The all-rounder, overachieving product has brilliant substitutes that offer the same benefits and are safe to use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding (which retinol is not).  


One of the most well-researched alternatives to retinol, Bakuchiol might not be a Vitamin A derivative but as Dr Vaz puts it, it has a pseudo-retinol effect. Like retinol, it stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, keeping the skin looking younger and radiant. 

Dr Vaz says, “Bakuchiol helps improve skin elasticity, prevents skin sagging, reduces fine lines, and works on open pores. It also reduces the signs of sun damage and is enriched with anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-bacterial properties.” 


Various types of peptides such as copper peptides, hexa peptides and palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7 are extremely effective anti-ageing ingredients. They promote collagen synthesis at a genetic level which helps to maintain and rejuvenate skin internally. Not only that, peptides have the potential to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and improve skin elasticity. 

According to Dr Vaz, copper peptides work with anti-oxidant enzymes in the skin to protect collagen and fight reactive oxygen species like free radicals which can damage cells. 


A form of vitamin B3, niacinamide brings a lot of the same benefits to the table as retinol, only without all the irritation and redness. It’s a gentle vitamin with anti-inflammatory properties that protects the skin against UV damage while retaining its moisture to calm it down. Dr Vaz explains, “On a molecular level, retinol penetrates only the outer layer of the skin while niacinamide, which is made with soy-based ingredients, penetrates deeper into the skin.”  

Niacinamide helps to keep your skin hydrated, build keratin, rebuild healthier cells, and fight signs of ageing, rosacea, acne and hyperpigmentation. 


Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) 

When it comes to anti-ageing, we know active ingredients are our friends. And retinol and AHAs are at the top of that food chain. While both AHAs and retinol have similar anti-ageing properties, they work differently. For instance, AHAs are exfoliators, while retinol is not, which makes AHAs are a great alternative to retinol. 

AHAs, including glycolic Acid (from sugarcane), lactic acid (milk), mandelic scid (bitter almonds) and malic acid (apples and pears) are geniuses at micro-exfoliation. According to Dr Vaz, they get rid of dead cells, make fine lines disappear, and encourage new cells to come to the surface, giving your skin a younger, healthier appearance.