Is it Time to Stop Using Retinol?
by Heather Smith on Jan 23, 2022
Many people are making the switch away from products containing Retin-A and other retinoids. They each have their own reasons, but they all share a desire to find a replacement to Retin-A that is effective.
Retinoids are potent chemicals used to treat both photo-aging and acne. They are clinically proven and, depending on the strength and type used, the results can be dramatic.
This article takes a look at why some people quit retinoids and how to make a decision that is right for your skin.
Why I Broke Up with Retinoids For Good
I'm a doctor, so of course I wanted to start out with a clinical, prescription-based, effective product (this was before my switch to natural skincare).
I should have known things might get a bit dicey when my dermatologist gave me a 'no-pain, no-gain' peptalk prior to starting.
This was many years ago, but I distinctly remember my skin falling off.
Ok, so maybe it wasn't quite that dramatic, but the irritation and barrier damage was intolerable. I almost didn't want to leave the house. Remember the Sex and the City chemical peel episode? That was me - retinol ruined my face (thankfully temporary).
After that I tried all sorts of variations and products - short contact tazorac, adapalene, retinaldehyde, retinol, encapsulated liposomes, slow release, etc. etc. etc. I started low (1-2x per week, low concentration) and tried to build up tolerance.
Every time it was the same thing - anxiety, constantly looking for early signs of damage, relaxing and thinking I was finally in the clear, then boom! Swollen eyes, painful tear ducts, skin redness, skin pain, and flaking. Oh, and the purging too 😭.
I'd quit, use simple oils for barrier repair, and wait to do it all over again.
Then two things happened:
- I started planning pregnancies
- I realized that my skin looked 1000x better during my barrier healing phase where all I used were gentle, natural oils.
So I broke up with retinoids forever!
What is Retin-A
It's crucial to understand what Retin-A (or retinoic acid) is. Also commonly known as Tretinoin, Retin-A is a topical prescription medication derived from vitamin A. It belongs to a family of skin care ingredients called retinoids.
The term retinoid is really an umbrella term for all vitamin A derivatives:
The reason there are so many versions is because there is a complex chemical pathway that occurs to take Vitamin A through the process of becoming retinoic acid.
A few distinctions and definitions:
Retinoid vs Retinol
Forget this one. There is no "versus" here. Retinol is a retinoid. The term retinoid is an umbrella classification for all vitamin A derivatives as illustrated in the photo above.
Tretinoin vs Retinol
This is another common question, but the two are as different as if you were comparing morphine to acetaminophen. Both tretinoin and retinol are retinoids and will have similar effects on the cells in your skin. However, potency, degree of effectiveness, and rate of response are all different. As are side effects. As are the manner of getting them (prescription vs over the counter).
In the spectrum of retinoids, from weakest to strongest, we have retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinaldehyde, and Retin-A (tretinoin). Retin-A is well-renowned for its potency and effectiveness in treating both acne and signs of aging, stimulating cell turnover, and promoting collagen production.
Comparatively, retinol is a non-prescription derivative of vitamin A, commonly used in over-the-counter skincare products. Retinol, while less potent than Retin-A, is also recognized for its anti-aging and anti-acne properties, but it often takes a longer duration to witness significant results.
Retinaldehyde is a direct precursor to Retin-A, acting faster than retinol but slower than Retin-A. It provides a middle ground in terms of strength and speed of results, which makes it a good Retin-A alternative for individuals seeking a compromise between the two.
However, not everyone wants to use a retinoid no matter what type. So let's dive into the reasons you might want to ditch all retinoids together!
4 Reasons to Ditch Retinoids
Skincare is very personal. Different things matter to each consumer. The colour, scent, texture matter more to some. The brand name and price matter more to others. The number of natural vs. synthetic ingredients matter more to other people.
There are plenty of reasons a consumer might prefer to quit retinol. The main reason people use it are either for the anti aging effects (reduced fine lines and wrinkles, stimulates collagen, repairs sun damage) or the anti-acne effects.
Retinoid intolerance is significant for many people. They have a long list of unpleasant side effects and cause many people a great deal of trouble.
Using a retinoid requires starting a low dose and gradually increasing over time until you (hopefully) eventually start to tolerate it. People experience sensitive skin, redness, dryness, skin barrier damage, inflammation, flaky skin, photosensitivity, and purging (increased acne in the early stages).
There are ways to minimize the negative experience with retinol, but many consumers have tried numerous times and just need a different option all together.
Another less common retinol intolerance that affects your tear ducts is called meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD). Caused by changes to the cells lining the gland gradually over time, the symptoms range from dry eyes to lid inflammation to corneal damage. This side effect is specific to retinoids and retinol dry eyes are part of what people call the retinol uglies.
Pushing through the side effects of starting retinol is often "worth it" to many consumers, especially those suffering from significant acne and using a retinoid as a prescribed medication.
It takes at least six months before the peak effects of retinol are visible. All skincare regimens take time to work, but other routines do not cause the same degree of side effects while you're waiting to get to the benefits.
Prescription oral retinoids are dangerous to a developing fetus. However, topical versions (even prescription strength) have not been shown to cause congenital disabilities or birth defects. Therefore, the FDA does not declare it unsafe in pregnancy and considers it class C.
Seeking a retinol alternative for pregnancy is one of the main reasons many women give for making the switch.
#3 Ingredient Preferences
Retinol is a synthetically formulated chemical that has a lot of side effects. Many consumers would rather use ingredients that are closer to nature. Brands that market natural options often name them things like bio retinol, phyto retinol, natural retinol, or retinoic nutrients.
It's no secret that we're big fans of the ingredient Bakuchiol as a natural retinol replacement. It's extracted directly from the seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia (babchi) plant and shows promising results in clinical studies.
When comparing Bakuchiol vs retinol, researchers found Bakuchiol was comparably effective. None of the retinol side effects, including dry eyes, were reported. The study compared them each at a concentration of 0.5%.
We've summarized the Bakuchiol research, and for those looking for a plant-based, natural option, pure concentrated bakuchiol is a star ingredient.
A lot of products that contain high levels of vitamin A and beta carotene are marketed as natural retinol alternatives. This includes ingredients that we love and use like carrot seed oil, buriti oil, and sea buckthorn oil.
It is important to know that topical vitamin A really doesn't turn into retinol when used on the skin (there are too many metabolic steps), but that doesn't mean they aren't amazing ingredients to use.
#4 Many Other Effective Ingredients Exist
Retinol isn't the only cosmetic active that works and many of the same desired effects can be achieved using a combination of other products and ingredients.
These ingredients, and others, can help you improve the tone and texture of your skin - without requiring you to go through the process of dealing with retinol.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
Acids exfoliate, promote cell turnover and skin renewal and will improve the appearance of the skin. Although they can also be irritating, you can try different strengths and types easily without having to wait months to see if they work for you. Glycolic acid is often the first choice, but people looking for a gentle regimen should look at others like lactic and mandelic acid.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps repair skin cells, improve tone/pigmentation, and improve collagen type and production.
Niacinamide is another skin-brightening agent that reduces pore size and also helps improve acne.
Peptides, Amino Acids, Growth Factors
Certain peptides and amino acids have good clinical evidence for stimulating collagen production and firming the skin. Some growth factors are also worth looking at, especially if you are doing collagen induction therapy.
Procedures like microneedling are complex. If you'd rather keep a simple, skinimalism routine, you could try starting out with only rosehip seed oil. Rosehip oil is one of the best face oils all around. While carrier oils will not give you dramatic results, it shouldn't be discounted as a good choice for those who want to keep their routine 100% pure and simple.
Designing a Retinol-Free Skincare Routine
So how do you know when to stop using retinol? This is a personal decision, but if you're like me you will definitely know when you've had enough.
The bottom line is that retinoids are not for everyone. There are many replacements that can be effective and help support your skin through the different stages of life.
You will take a different approach depending on if your goal is to treat acne or target the effects of aging.
If avoiding side effects and irritation is one of your main goals, you have to be careful not to overdo it with any routine, including one that's retinol free. If you introduce high-dose exfoliating acids, you can still end up in the situation with barrier damage.
No matter what ingredients you choose, start low and go slow. It's way easier to protect your skin barrier then to repair it after the damage is done.
What Do I Use Now?
Well, I've come a long way on this journey and I've founded a skincare brand in the meantime, so my advice is biased.
I've learned that even if you don't have sensitive skin, treating your skin barrier as though it's highly irritable is the best approach. Results will always come, you just have to be a bit more patient and wait a bit longer.
The 2 main actives I use are Bakuchiol and Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate. I use a mechanical exfoliating scrub 1x per week and a glycolic acid toner 1-2x per week.
My own personal routine is on a 6-day rotation:
Glycolic Acid Toner
Glycolic Acid Toner
Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate Serum
Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate Serum
Bakuchiol Oil Serum
Bakuchiol Oil Serum/Slugging
bareLUXE Skincare is dedicated to producing simple but effective natural products. Check out our award-winning Bakuchiol Serum, a natural alternative to retinol.
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Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443
Valérie Haydont, Bruno A. Bernard, Nicolas O. Fortunel, Age-related evolutions of the dermis: Clinical signs, fibroblast and extracellular matrix dynamics, Mechanisms of Ageing and Development, Volume 177, 2019, Pages 150-156, ISSN 0047-6374