Ask any skin expert what the number-one ingredient you should be using in your routine after a good sunscreen, and they are most likely going to say retinol. Retinol increases skin cell turnover, stimulates collagen synthesis, and resurfaces and exfoliates skin, but even with using the gradual-introduction trick or mixing it into a moisturizer, it can still be too harsh for some to use. For some, dry, patchy, flaky, red, and irritated skin never seems to improve, and the result is a skin texture that is worse than when you started.
“It’s so common and as much as we try to accommodate and formulate retinol in a way that we think we can get the skin adjusted to it, sometimes it’s just not happening,” says Davie, FL dermatologist Lesley Clark-Loeser, MD. “The good news is that we have alternatives today, and if you’re like me and in the 40-plus age group and you know you need to do something, there are other ingredients that can help achieve these same skin benefits.”
Rochester, NY dermatologist Lesley Loss, MD says glycolic acid is like retinol in that it is an exfoliating ingredient that will increase cell turnover to improve skin texture. “It’s a gentler option for sensitive skin. I love using Farmhouse Fresh masks with glycolic, like their Pudding Apeel Tapioca + Rice Active Fruit Glycolic Mask ($26) to get the benefits without the harsh side effects of retinol.”
Another popular alternative to retinol is plant-based bakuchiol which is a go-to for those with sensitive skin. “Bakuchiol is a plant extract that is said to function similarly to retinol through retinol-like regulation of gene expression to improve smoothness, radiance, clarity and overall appearance while increasing moisturization,” notes Nanuet, NY dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD, who says her favorite is ISDIN Melatonik Serum ($160) that includes melatonin, bakuchiol and vitamin C.
Like retinol, niacinimide helps smooth skin and decrease the appearance of pores, but without the harshness. “Niacinimide boosts the hydrating ability of moisturizer, so look for it as an ingredient in moisturizer if you’re looking for hydration, or as an ingredient in an anti-aging serum,” says Dr. Loss.
“What we’re looking to do with retinoids is not only make skin healthier, but also treat dryness, dullness, thinness and wrinkling—and oftentimes that is correlating with the fact that our estrogen is starting to take a dive,” adds Dr. Clark-Loeser. “You’re trying to recreate that environment of younger, healthier skin, so with more moisture, all those things do improve. I like Biopelle Emepelle Serum ($175), it’s very gentle and utilizes MEP technology, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and vitamins C and E, and ferulic acid.”
“Like retinol, vitamin C boosts collagen, and has the added benefit of antioxidants to fight aging,” notes Dr. Loss, who adds a word of caution on using the vitamin in conjunction with a product containing glycolic acid. “These two will cancel each other out,” she says. Farmacy’s Very Cherry Bright ($62) has a 15% vitamin C concentration derived from acerola cherry extract.
If you don’t have a ton of sun damage and can skip the cell turnover, Dr. Waldorf says peptides are a good choice. “Advanced peptides work to replace damaged elastin and collagen with new to restore elasticity and reduce fine lines and wrinkles and support superficial fat to maintain volume. I like the Alastin Restorative Skin Complex with TriHex Technology ($195), which has additional peptides and antioxidants including niacinamide,” she says.
“Resveratrol is an excellent alternative to retinoids,” adds Southlake, TX dermatologist Janine Hopkins, MD. “This potent antioxidant was found to be just as effective as in a Harvard study. It lacks the irritation but has the same benefits as retinoid to do for anti-aging.” The perfect nighttime antioxidant treatment, PCA Skin Reservatrol Restorative Complex ($117) contains key ingredients reservatrol and niacinamide.
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