Your Guide to Clean Retinols & Most Effective Natural Retinol Alternatives

Your Guide to Clean Retinols & Most Effective Natural Retinol Alternatives

If you are the least bit interested in skincare, then I’m sure you’ve heard all about retinol and people singing its praises from the rooftops. But when it comes to organic skincare and retinol…what’s a girl to do? Is it natural and safe to use? Are there plant-based alternatives instead? Do they work as effectively? We’re gonna unpack allllllll of that in this post so buckle up!


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This post covers:

What are the Skincare Benefits of Retinol?

Let’s go over some basics first, especially if you’re new to retinol (a synthetic derivative of Vitamin A). It’s basically the gold standard for fighting wrinkles and keeping skin youthful. It’s been widely studied and proven to improve wrinkles, stimulate collagen, reduce hyperpigmentation, and slow the signs of aging. It triggers receptors in our skin that kickstart the cell renewal process.

(Side note: I stumbled across this meme and felt SO called out haha! I used to love The OC #sethcohenforever)

The OC Retinol Meme

Retinol was also approved in the 1970s for acne patients because it promotes cell turnover and prevents the clogging of pores. In fact, I had the pleasure of dealing with acne in high school and was put on prescription Retin-A Micro (tretinoin) by my dermatologist. It did help for a while, but it also made my skin SO dry, red, irritated, and flaky. Ah, fun times 😣

Related post: “My Skin Story: How I Naturally Cleared My Acne (+ a FREE Checklist & Face Mapping Guide!)”

Does “Clean” Retinol Exist? 🤔

When it comes to clean beauty and safe ingredients, how does retinol fit in the picture since it is synthetic? Well, we all have our own standards for ingredients and everyone’s definition of “clean” is different. There are many reasons why one might choose to avoid retinols:

  • Pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive (high doses of Vitamin A are NOT advised during these times)
  • Have extremely sensitive skin or a bad experience with retinol in the past (common side effects include dry, flaky, tight, red skin which happened to me!)
  • Retinol can only be lab synthesized and does not come from plants so some might simply prefer something natural
  • It can increase sun sensitivity so you need to be extra safe with exposure when using retinols
  • There are concerns with retinoid toxicity (for example, MADE SAFE is a certification that does not allow any forms of it in products due to concerns with photocarcinogenicity, developmental toxicity, and excess Vitamin A in the body)

It might surprise you to hear, but I am actually NOT totally against retinol. And this post is not meant to dissuade you from using clean retinols, but rather, to offer gentle replacements for those interested! I hope to do a separate deep dive on this topic in the future, but for now, it’s honestly just not an area I’ve fully explored yet myself. But I DO want to incorporate it soon because ya girl is already in her 30s and trying to maintain my youth 👵🏻

You might like: The Ultimate Green Beauty Ingredient Glossary + Pocket Guides

Clean Beauty Brands That Use Retinol:

Long story short, there are various types of retinol/retinoids and derivatives, and not all are the same. Some are safer than others (for instance, I always avoid retinyl palmitate which can be found in sunscreens and has been linked to tumor and lesion growth).

And there ARE clean beauty brands that formulate retinols with better supporting inactive ingredients and avoid harmful preservatives such as BHT. I have not tried these myself yet, but am familiar with the brands and have ingredients that I would personally use:

Clean Beauty Brands with Retinols

Clove + Hallow and Common Heir Clean Retinols
I own these two clean retinols but have not taken the plunge yet. Honestly, I’m just a little scared since my experience with Retin-A as a teenager was not great. But I’m gonna try soon! 🤞

Retinol is a marathon, not a sprint!

If you do go this route, remember to start slow and see how your skin tolerates retinol. Usually, it’s advised to begin with applying it 1 or 2 nights a week and work your way up. It can take a while to see results, too. Make sure to wear sunscreen on your face during the day while using it!

Best Plant-Based Alternatives to Retinol

Phew, okay, are you still with me? Let’s shift gears a bit and chat about gentler options that you can use instead. In recent years, there’s been a big interest in these alternatives (also known as phyto retinols or botanical retinols). And I actually have more first-hand experience with these compared to retinol itself.

Basically, there are plants extracts that have similar anti-aging, wrinkle-fighting, glowy skin properties as retinol, but without the side effects and can usually be tolerated by most people (even uber-sensitive skin) 🌱

Keep in mind, there’s not as much research behind some of them, so we can’t *really* say for sure that you’ll see the same results or make claims that they’re just as powerful 🤓

Dupe 1: Bakuchiol

Bakuchiol (Psoralea Corylifolia Seed Extract)

Pronounced bah-koo-chee-ol. You’ve likely heard of this one! It’s used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda and is the most popular and promising replacement for retinol in natural skincare, especially in recent years. ​​It comes from the seeds of the babchi plant and is native to India and Sri Lanka.

A study published in 2014 found bakuchiol to have retinol-like functionality despite having no structural resemblance to retinol. It was also found to stimulate collagen in cells! This study also showed that bakuchiol helped reduce acne and prevent breakouts.

Another study from the British Journal of Dermatology did a randomized double-blind trial where participants used either 0.5% bakuchiol cream or 0.5% retinol cream. The results actually found that bakuchiol reduced wrinkles and hyperpigmentation similarly to retinol! 😲 However, the retinol users had more discomfort and peeling.

But Is Bakuchiol Endangered?

I remember shortly after the bakuchiol craze started, I learned some shocking information about it potentially being an endangered species and overharvested due to its rising popularity (and low germination rate). That scared me because obviously, I would never want to contribute to that!

But after looking into it, it is indeed NOT listed as an endangered species by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). On top of that, the Indian government has laws in place to protect the plant and ensure it’s not overharvested (this is where bakuchiol grows wildly).

It’s always a good reminder to choose brands that use sustainable sourcing and ethical practices. Illegal harvesting and unsustainable sourcing are still a thing. Honua and Earthwise Beauty have in-depth articles about this if you’d like to learn more!

Clean products with Bakuchiol:

Clean skincare products with bakuchiol

Alpyn Bearberry & Vitamin C Glow Serum: Formerly known as their PlantGenius Survival Serum. Alpyn is incredibly thoughtful about sustainability and sourcing wildcrafted ingredients. This serum doubles as an illuminating primer because it has mica in it for a little shimmer. It has a light, fresh scent and a silky texture that sinks into skin immediately. I do feel like this serum makes my skin look bright, vibrant, toned, and plump. My pores seem less obvious too! ✨

Alpyn Beauty PlantGenius Line Filling Eye BalmAlpyn’s PlantGenius Line-Filling Eye Balm is also a fave of mine and uses bakuchiol. It’s kinda pricey but you only need a tiny dab each time and has a firming effect to keep crow’s feet under control. Their PlantGenius Melt Moisturizer also uses bakuchiol if you’re looking for a heavier lotion with more moisture, but I haven’t tried it yet!

BYBI 1% Bakuchiol + Olive Squalane Booster: I have not tried this, but it’s a little $10 booster serum if you simply want to add it to your existing skincare products.

Earthwise Beauty Black Locust Firming Concentrate: This was the first bakuchiol product I tried! Earthwise is super careful about sourcing and only uses about 1 lb. of bakuchiol extract per year and partners with a trusted supplier. This is primarily meant for mature skin types. It’s an oil-based concentrate and I do feel like it worked well for me. It has an earthy, herbal, mossy scent that I enjoy.

FitGlow Vita Rich Bakuchiol Crème: This is a major splurge but looks fantastic (I haven’t tried it). It also has hyaluronic acid and rosehip oil. You could pair it with their Night Bakuchiol Essence Toner as well. FitGlow even has a Bakuchiol Body Cream if you want to experience the benefits not just on your face!

Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Serum: Um I want to try this solely based on the purple color! It’s a gelly water-based serum. Herbivore also makes a Moon Fruit Retinol Alternative Serum which is a purple, milky serum and has 1% bakuchiol. Or the Moon Fruit Overnight Sleep Mask 💤

Dupe 2: Cockspur

Cockspur (Maclura Cochininchinensis Leaf)

I had never heard of this ingredient before coming across the One Love Organics serum below. But I am quite intrigued! OLO put two years of extensive research and development behind it, although I could not find any solid studies myself (to be frank I was a little nervous to do an internet search on it because of the name HAHA you never know what you’re gonna find these days). Cockspur is naturally rich in isoflavones and bioflavonoids and is supposed to offer comparable clarifying and youth-boosting outcomes to retinol while supporting the skin microbiome.

Clean products with cockspur:

One Love Organics Botanical A Bio-Retinol Serum: I really want to get my hands on this one soon! It’s a nighttime serum that’s formulated with three different acids so you also get a little exfoliation and clear away congestion.

Since this isn’t one I’ve tried, my friend Molly from the blog Maison Pur was willing to share her experience:

“This became a quick favorite of mine because of how gentle but effective it is! I’ve had no issues with irritation or it triggering my perioral dermatitis. I also love the lightweight feel! It makes it super easy to work into your routine since it pairs well with other serums or whatever moisturizer you use.”

One Love Organics Botanical A Bio-Retinol Serum
Photo courtesy of One Love Organics

Dupe 3: Moth Bean

Moth bean (Vigna Aconitifolia Seed Extract)

Despite the name, it’s derived from an Asian legume and does NOT come from moths 😂 It’s new to the scene and I’ve only seen it used in a couple of products, but it has been studied and shown to encourage cell turnover and reduce the appearance of fine lines. Plus it has antioxidant properties that help repair damaged skin and lighten sunspots.

Clean products with moth bean:

Graydon Phyto Clear Gel Cream: I have not tried this one, but it’s a creamy gel that uses both moth bean and bakuchiol. Double whammy!

Wabi-Sabi The Blessing 3-in-1 Reparative Hydraserum: This is one that I’ve incorporated consistently into a nighttime routine and truly love it! Wabi-Sabi uses no essential oils so the products are really gentle and particularly good for sensitive skin types. It’s gelly, lightweight, and hydrating (doesn’t really have a scent). The Blessing also uses resveratrol and prebiotics; it’ll work overnight to restore skin and make you wake up with a healthy glow. You can use code ORGANICALLYBECCA for a discount on your first purchase. Also available here at Credo.

“I love moth bean as an alternative to retinol for sensitive and reactive skin. Based on current research, it’s comparable to retinol. It has similar effects like encouraging skin-cell turnover and reducing fine lines, but without the nasty side effects (eg. dryness, flakiness, redness, irritation) of retinol.” -Elysse, founder of Wabi-Sabi Botanicals

Wabi-Sabi Botanicals The Blessing 3-in-1 Reparative Hydraserum

Dupe 4: Rambutan

Rambutan (Nephelium Lappaceum Leaf Extract)

Rambutan is probably the second most popular swap that I’ve seen used! It’s a funky-looking fruit native to Southeast Asia and has some promising research behind it. It doesn’t really have blemish-fighting components like retinol, but it does help with skin elasticity, rejuvenation, age spots, and minimizing fine lines. It would be especially ideal for dry skin types since it also boosts hydration in skin, which is the opposite effect of retinols which are drying! 💦

Clean products with rambutan:

Alpyn Wild Nettle & Niacinamide Firming Serum: I happily finished a bottle of this serum, it was so good! It made my skin feel really firm, hydrated, and plump. It’s silky smooth and soaks into skin quickly and does not pill underneath other skincare products. The scent is mild and the wild nettle helps hydrate, control oil production, and is a natural source of Vitamin C. Kendra K. Butler, the founder of Alpyn, says:

“Rambutan is a cutting-edge, effective ingredient that supports the natural production of collagen, increases skin elasticity, and reduces the appearance of wrinkles.”

Indie Lee Retinol Alternative Cream: Unfortunately my skin had a bad reaction to this cream! ⚠️ It made my skin super red and itchy so I had to stop using it (I don’t think it was necessarily the rambutan since I’ve tried other products with rambutan successfully without irritation). But I was really hopeful and excited to use it. It’s lightweight, not much of a smell, and has unique refillable packaging; the inside pops out and you can reuse the pump, and the refills are $10 cheaper. It has hundreds of rave reviews so perhaps it will work for you!

Indie Lee Rambutan Retinol Alternative Cream

Dupe 5: Rosehip

Rosehip (Rosa Canina Seed Oil)

Rosehip has often been referred to as nature’s retinol because it does contain naturally-occurring trans-retinoic acid (a form of Vitamin A). However, it’s much less potent than synthetic retinol and not equally as efficacious. But it does still offer similar benefits like firm and even skin tone (scar reduction) and slowing the signs of aging.

It tends to be a dry oil so it absorbs nicely without being overly greasy, and it does not have the fragrant rose smell since it comes from the seed and not the flower 🌹

Clean products with rosehip:

Pai Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil: This oil is amazing! It has both organic rosehip seed oil and rosehip fruit extract so the whole fruit is used. Both are extracted with the supercritical CO2 method which minimizes the risk of oxidation and produces the purest oil. I used this when I was trying to heal acne scars and get my skin back to balance and I do feel like it helped!

Sunday Standard Rosehip & Sea Buckthorn Restorative Oil: So dreamy! This is an organic nighttime oil that works its magic while you sleep with lots of repairing and rejuvenating perks. It’s really rich and luxe. You can use code ORGANICALLYBECCA for a discount on your first purchase.

Pai Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil

Related post: “Benefits of Using Organic Facial Oils (& Four Oils You’ll Wanna Try ASAP)

My Final Thoughts About Clean Retinols & Retinol Dupes

At the end of the day, I do think it’s possible to be mindful of using clean products AND using retinol from a brand that uses safer ingredients. It’s going to be the most powerful option if you’re looking for youthful, vibrant skin. That is if your skin can handle it!

And when we’re talking about natural retinol dupes, I am convinced that they do share similar benefits, but not as intensely. I think it’s good to be realistic about that. And if you’re looking for one that has the most research behind it, bakuchiol would be the way to go.

I think the dupe I’ve seen best results from myself was the Alpyn Bearberry & Vitamin C Glow Serum (bakuchiol). But I’m keeping my eye on the others, too!


You made it! Was this guide helpful? I’d love to hear about your experience with retinols or botanical retinols if you’re willing to share. Thanks so much for reading and you can drop any comments below.

Becca Signature

 

 

Your Guide to Clean Retinols & Most Effective Natural Retinol Alternatives

Written by: Becca

Becca is a blogger, wife, and dog mom living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Having seen firsthand the benefits of switching to a natural lifestyle herself, she's passionate about helping women make the switch to clean beauty products, organic skincare, and a holistic way of life (without the stress of being perfect about it!).

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