From bidens pilosa to bakuchiol, these are the gentler retinol alternatives you need to know
You've likely heard of bakuchiol , the gentler plant-based alternative to retinol , but did you know the ingredient is part of a wider family of alt-retinols (sometimes called bio-retinols or plant retinols)?
These plant-based heroes, which come from sources such as asteraceae, the sister plant of the daisy and in the case of bakuchiol, the Indian babchi plant, among others. They're ideal for people with sensitive skin who want the retinol benefits (improved fine lines, texture and tone, plus soothed acne) without the drawbacks of irritation and sensitivity often found with the vitamin A ingredient.
Don't be worried that alt-retinols provide lesser results than retinol itself. A study from the British Association of Dermatologists showed that bakuchiol is just as potent when it comes to decreasing wrinkles and surface pigmentation. The study found that using a 0.5 per cent bakuchiol twice a day delivered the same results as using retinol once a day. Liz Earle Skincare conducted user trials of bidens pilosa, the alt-retinol used in their Superskin Alt-Retinol range and found that 90 per cent of women agreed it gave them the benefits they’d expect from retinol, but without the irritation.
Glossier and Ren have also recently launched moisturisers (and serum and oil, in Ren's case) containing alt-retinol and it's a trend that's growing particularly among natural brands who may have shied away from retinol as a synthetic ingredient.
Reasons to use alt-retinols
1. They don't irritate the skin
"Alt-retinol gives you similar benefits to retinol without the drawbacks," says brand founder and formulator Laura Rudoe, who uses bidens pilosa and bakuchiol in her skincare range Adaptology. "They have a similar action to retinol but they do not cause irritation and sun sensitivity," she says.
2. You can use them in the daytime
Most traditional retinol skincare advises against daytime use, not only because it increases sun sensitivity but because retinol, unless expertly encapsulated (there are some good daytime retinols such as Medik8 R-Retinoate Youth Activating Day and Night Cream, £136) degrades in sunlight, making it ineffective.
"We recommend retinoids are only used at night as they are unstable and risk being rendered ineffective when exposed to UV light," Dr Sam Bunting explains. In contrast, she explains that bakuchiol has a different chemical structure, meaning it’s stable when exposed to UV. Because it can be used morning and night, alt-retinol is easy to slip into your routine and to use consistently, which is when the benefits really begin.
3. You can use them when you're pregnant
Retinol isn't recommended for use during pregnancy, but alt-retinols are safe. They can also be used during breastfeeding. "Sometimes in life there are moments where you don’t want to use retinoids. Alt-retinols mean you don't have to compromise on results," says Ren's global brand ambassador David Delport.
4. They're plant-based
Retinol is a synthetic ingredient, so people who prefer organic or natural products will love these plant-based retinol alternatives.
5. They can up your retinol game calm spots
Combining retinol with an alt-retinol increases the effects without adding extra sensitivity and some brands are now formulating with both, such as Dr Dennis Gross Skincare's Advanced Retinol and Ferulic Texture Renewal Serum , £74, and Paula's Choice Clinical 0.3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment , £45.90. The two work synergistically for amped up results.
When it comes to acne, bakuchiol has anti-inflammatory qualities that trump retinol, says Dr Sam Bunting, who formulates with bakuchiol in her Dr Sam's Flawless Nightly Serum, £39 (which also has retinol) and her Flawless Brightly Serum, £44 a day cream with vitamin C. "It may be a more potent anti-inflammatory agent than retinol, so it's useful for calming inflamed spots."
The best alt-retinols to try now
The budget-friendly one: Glossier Universal Pro-Retinol, £30
Glossier's first-ever retinol launched in August this year to much excitement from the beauty community. Rather than traditional retinol, the brand introduced us to 'retinyl sunflowerate', which combines retinol with sunflower seed fatty acids to make it less irritating. Other ingredients include stevia (a natural retinol alternative) and humectant powerhouses mondo root grass and glycerin, which are in the mix to help your skin hold onto water and minimise the downsides of retinol, such as dryness and peeling. They smooth the appearance and nourish at the same time, acting as a nice buffer to the retinyl sunflowerate, so it's better tolerated.
Results from a four-week consumer study of Universal Pro-Retinol say that 81 per cent of testers (they don't tell us how many) said their dark spots looked faded, while more than 80 per cent said their skin looked more lifted, and even in texture while everyone said their skin looked more radiant and less dull, felt softer and smoother.
The formula feels thick and cocooning, much bouncier and thicker than other retinol we've used, more like a moisturiser in texture so we can see why it would be well tolerated by all skin types.
The full skincare regime: REN Clean Skincare Bio Retinoid Youth Cream , £52
Another newly launched alt-retinol, this cream arrived alongside the Bio Retinoid Youth Concentrate Oil , £52, and the Bio Retinoid Youth Serum, £62. It has a silky, ribbony texture when it slides out of the pump. It uses bidens polosa to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, but also has ceramides to strengthen the skin barrier and niacinamide to brighten the skin. The bidens pilosa Ren uses is sustainably sourced from Brazil and a consumer study by Ren of 92 people said their skin was visibly firmer after 28 days of using the cream. It smells soft and powdery and leaves your skin feeling velvety soft as soon as you apply it.
Liz Earle's bio-retinol offering was created in response to customers who were interested in the idea of retinol but were worried about the irritating side effect, the brand's ethnobotanist Sarah Carr told us. The formula gets its retinol powers from bidens pilosa and is designed to be used overnight. It's the texture of soft button when you apply it and it gives the skin an immediate orange glow before sinking in. It did tingle on our testers' skin a bit, but not uncomfortably so. Alongside alt-retinol, this also has shea butter for nourishing.
This combines alt-retinol bidens pilosa from the asteraceae plant with hyaluronic acid for a hydrating drink for thirsty skin. Adaptology's founder Laura Rudoe explains that she loves to formulate with it because of its clinically proven credentials. In studies it has been shown reduces pigmentation by 36 per cent and improve skin density by 25 per cent, plus it stimulates the production of collagen and elastin for youthful, bright-looking skin.
The one for experienced retinol users: Dr Dennis Gross Skincare Advanced Retinol and Ferulic Texture Renewal Serum, £74
Dr Dennis Gross' offering combines retinol and alt-retinol bakuchiol as a way to increase the retinol strength without added sensitivity. They call this combo ‘advanced retinol’. You can use this both day and night but be sure to follow with SPF in the day. It's combined with ferulic acid, which gives it that slightly smoky smell that you’ll be familiar with if you're a fan of Skinceuticals CE Ferulic , £95. The ferulic acid counteracts the sensitivity from retinol as well as being a powerful antioxidant, so this is quite the high performed for your money! Being a serum, this has a light texture that sinks in easily. It also comes in an eye serum , £70, and an overnight treatment , £86, if you want to really commit to the range.
The brightening one: Evolve Beauty Bio-Retinol + C Booster, £25.10
This blends bakuchiol with vitamin C for a powerhouse of brightening ingredients for lessening pigmentation, supporting collagen production and improving signs of ageing in the skin. GTG's editorial director Victoria tried this in our Get The Gloss Beauty and Wellness Awards this year and was seriously impressed with the price point and variety of ingredients.
The bestseller: Balance Me Bakuchiol Smoothing Serum, £28.80
Launched in 2020 this quickly become one of Balance Me's best sellers. It has one per cent bakuchiol, a bio-retinol that has the same skin-renewing properties as a one per cent retinol, yet is also calming, safe in pregnancy, doesn’t cause sensitivity, is stable enough to wear in the day (unlike many retinoids) and is just right for unpredictable perimenopausal skin. Plus it has the silkiest texture and is a joy to use.
Alt-retinol vs retinol: our verdict
Alt-retinols can stand up to retinol for results, we know that bakuchiol 0.5 per cent used twice a day gives the same results as 0.5 per cent retinol used once a day and because it doesn't cause sensitivity it's easier to stick with for most people day and night.
In the case of retinol, you can gradually increase the strength to prescription level under the supervision of a doctor for stronger age-proofing and acne-clearing results. Alt-retinols are yet to be studied to see if more is more. Speaking about bakuchiol, dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting says: "It's a newer ingredient so there isn’t as much research behind it as there is retinol - yet. It’s helpful in a range of 0.5 to one per cent. There is a dose range for all active ingredients - once you exceed the optimum dose, you run the risk of more side effects without any additional benefits."
For everyday use, if you are pregnant or prefer natural ingredients, alt-retinols are a great bet, especially if sensitivity means you struggle to use retinol consistently. But for stronger results when it comes to skin renewal, retinol has the edge.