Retinol Alternatives

Written by: Dr. Leslie Baumann



Time to read 11 min

There are times when you should not use retinol and you need other options. In this article I discuss what I use as a retinol substitute in my patients who cannot use retinol because they are pregnant or have sensitive skin issues such as rosacea or eczema. These retinol alternatives are chosen based on whether the underlying skin concern is aging, hyperpigmentation, melasma, or acne.

To get a custom skincare routine and shop using your Baumann Skin Type, take our skincare routine quiz.

Substitutes for Retinol

Below I discuss natural alternatives to retinol and what to use to substitute for retinol.

Never use retinol if you are:

  • Burning
  • Itchy
  • Peeling
  • Pregnant
  • Stinging
  • Recovering from a burn or wound
  • Having a rosacea flare
Alternatives to retinol

Retinol Alternatives for Sensitive Skin

If you have sensitive skin- you may have had problems tolerating retinol in the past. Do not worry! In my 25+ years as a dermatologist, I have seen this a lot. I can help you find alternatives, but i really need to know more about your sensitive skin and what it needs. Please take my skin type quiz that I give my patients. You will be able to shop for good retinol alternatives that won't irritate your sensitive skin. 

Substitutes for Retinol in Rosacea

It is difficult to start retinol when you have rosacea. For this reason, when I design custom skincare routines for my rosacea patients, I use retinol substitutes for the first month, or I calm the skin with a soothing routine. After one month on a soothing routine, I will introduce a low strength retinol every third night on top of moisturizer.

If you take our skincare routine quiz and find you have rosacea, you will notice that your night routine does not have retinol. Around 30 days after you purchase your beginning routine, you will receive an email that tells you that you can try adding a low strength retinol if you skin is not peeling, burning or stinging.

Acne Treatments To Use Instead of Retinol

When it comes to managing acne, there are several effective alternatives to retinol that can help address the various factors contributing to breakouts. In addition to salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and niacinamide, prescription medications and other targeted ingredients can play a crucial role in treating acne.

For hormone-related acne, prescription medications like Winlevi (clascoterone) can be highly effective. Winlevi is a topical cream that works by blocking the effects of testosterone on the skin, reducing the production of sebum and helping to prevent the development of acne lesions. This medication is particularly useful for those whose acne is primarily driven by hormonal fluctuations, such as women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or those experiencing menstrual-related breakouts.

Another approach to managing acne involves stabilizing the skin's microbiome, which is the collection of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that naturally inhabit the skin. Fermented skincare ingredients, such as those derived from kombucha or lactobacillus, can help promote a healthy balance of microbes on the skin, reducing inflammation and preventing the overgrowth of acne-causing bacteria. These ingredients work by providing beneficial nutrients and creating an environment that favors the growth of healthy microorganisms.

Topical antibiotics, like clindamycin, are another class of prescription medications that can be highly effective in treating acne. These antibiotics work by reducing the population of Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes), the bacteria primarily responsible for causing inflammatory acne lesions. By minimizing the growth of these bacteria, topical antibiotics can help reduce inflammation, redness, and the formation of new acne lesions.

Wrinkle Treatments To Use Instead of Retinol

If you're looking to target signs of aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles, but you want to avoid retinol, antioxidants like vitamin C and growth factors can be beneficial alternatives to retinol. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that not only protects the skin from free radical damage but also plays a crucial role in collagen synthesis. By stimulating the production of collagen, vitamin C can help improve skin firmness, elasticity, and overall texture, leading to a more youthful appearance.

In addition to vitamin C, growth factors and exosomes have emerged as promising anti-aging ingredients. Growth factors are naturally occurring proteins that help regulate cellular growth and repair. When applied topically, they can help stimulate collagen production, promote skin cell renewal, and improve skin texture and tone. Exosomes, on the other hand, are tiny vesicles released by cells that contain a variety of growth factors, proteins, and other beneficial molecules. These exosomes can help deliver the benefits of growth factors more effectively to the skin, promoting collagen production and improving the overall health and appearance of the skin.

By incorporating vitamin C, growth factors, and exosomes into your skincare routine, you can help address the signs of aging without relying solely on retinol. These ingredients work together to boost collagen production, protect the skin from damage, and promote a brighter, more even complexion. As always, it's essential to choose products that are suitable for your specific Baumann Skin Type to ensure the best possible results and minimize the risk of irritation or other adverse reactions.

Here are some antiaging retinol alternatives. If you have taken our skin type quiz, you will see your skin type octagon displayed next to the products that are right for you.

Dark Spot Treatments to Use Instead of Retinol

Retinoids like retinol are used to as exfoliants to treat dark spots. If you cannot use retinol, it can be replaced with other types of exfoliants. For those concerned with hyperpigmentation and dark spots that cannot use retinol, there are several ingredients that can effectively lighten and even out skin tone. Kojic acid, arbutin, and licorice extract are well-known tyrosinase inhibitors that work by inhibiting the production of excess melanin, the pigment responsible for dark spots and uneven skin tone. Tyrosinase is an enzyme that plays a crucial role in the production of melanin. By inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase, these ingredients can significantly reduce the production of excess melanin, leading to a more even skin tone and a reduction in the appearance of hyperpigmentation.

Kojic acid, derived from certain species of fungi, is a potent tyrosinase inhibitor that has been used for centuries in Asian skincare for its skin-lightening properties. Arbutin, a naturally occurring derivative of hydroquinone found in various plants, works by slowly releasing hydroquinone into the skin, inhibiting tyrosinase activity and reducing melanin production. Licorice extract, obtained from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, contains glabridin, a compound that inhibits tyrosinase and possesses anti-inflammatory properties, making it effective in treating hyperpigmentation and promoting a more even skin tone.

In addition to these ingredients, other tyrosinase inhibitors such as hydroquinone, azelaic acid, and vitamin C can also help address hyperpigmentation. These compounds work by blocking the activity of tyrosinase, significantly reducing the formation of dark spots and promoting a more even skin tone.

Sunscreen is also an essential component of any hyperpigmentation treatment plan, as UV exposure can trigger the production of excess melanin and worsen the appearance of dark spots. By using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 daily, you can help protect your skin from further pigmentation and allow the lightening ingredients to work more effectively.

Another approach to managing hyperpigmentation involves the use of PAR-2 blockers, such as niacinamide. PAR-2 (protease-activated receptor-2) is a protein that can stimulate melanin production when activated. By blocking the activation of PAR-2, niacinamide can help reduce the formation of dark spots and promote a more even skin tone.

Inflammation and oxidative stress can also contribute to the development of hyperpigmentation. To combat these factors, anti-inflammatory ingredients and antioxidants can be incorporated into your skincare routine. Antioxidants, such as vitamin E and resveratrol, help protect the skin from free radical damage and can even chelate copper, which is a cofactor necessary for the activity of tyrosinase. By inactivating tyrosinase through copper chelation, these antioxidants can further assist in reducing the production of excess melanin.

When addressing hyperpigmentation, it's important to be patient and consistent with your skincare routine. Combining multiple lightening ingredients, such as tyrosinase inhibitors, along with sun protection and anti-inflammatory agents, can help you achieve the best possible results even if you cannot use retinol.

avoid retinol when pregnant

Retinol Alternatives for Pregnancy

When you are pregnant, your body is making amazing growth factors and giving off other signals that really help your skin look younger and glow. So you do not need antiaging treatments during pregnancy. If you need retinol for acne or you have melasma from pregnancy, read above for retinol alternatives to treat hyperpigmentation.

Natural Alternatives to Retinol

If you have sensitive skin, are pregnant, or simply looking for a gentler alternative to retinol, you may be wondering what your options are. There are several natural alternatives to retinol that can provide similar benefits to retinol.  However, none of these bind the retinoic acid receptor, so they work differently than retinol.  Retinol is stronger and preferred, but these are options to use if you cannot tolerate retinol or if you are pregnant or want a natural alternative.

Azelaic Acid

Azelaic acid is an alternative to treat  hyperpigmentation.  It can be used to treat melasma of pregnancy.  Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring dicarboxylic acid found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties, making it an alternative treatment for various skin conditions, including acne, rosacea, and hyperpigmentation. Azelaic acid works by inhibiting the production of melanin, reducing inflammation, and promoting cell turnover. It is generally considered safe for use during pregnancy and is well-tolerated by most skin types, including those with sensitive skin or eczema. However, it is an acid and not very soothing so do not use if your skin is itching, stinging, or has a rash.


Bakuchiol is an alternative to treat skin wrinkles and skin aging. It is a meroterpene phenol found in the seeds of the babchi plant (Psoralea corylifolia). It has been shown to have retinol-like effects on the skin, targeting cellular pathways similar to those targeted by retinoids. However, bakuchiol does not activate retinoic acid receptors so this natural option does not work as well as retinoids.

 Bakuchiol can stimulate collagen production, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and improve skin texture and tone. In a clinical study, bakuchiol was found to be as effective as retinol in reducing signs of photoaging, with fewer side effects such as scaling, stinging, and burning. (5) While there is limited information on its safety during pregnancy, bakuchiol may be a gentler alternative for those with sensitive skin or who cannot tolerate retinol.

what is licorice extract

Licorice Extract

Licorice extract, derived from the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, is known for its skin-lightening properties, as it helps to inhibit the production of tyrosinase, an enzyme involved in the formation of melanin. This makes it an effective natural treatment for hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and uneven skin tone. Additionally, licorice extract has anti-inflammatory and soothing properties, making it helpful for reducing redness and irritation in sensitive or inflamed skin. This is why it is a good skin lightener for sensitive skin that can be used instead of retinol.


Niacinamide, also known as vitamin B3, is a water-soluble vitamin that offers numerous skincare benefits. It has been shown to improve skin texture, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, even out skin tone, and strengthen the skin's barrier function. Niacinamide works by increasing ceramide and fatty acid levels in the skin, which help to retain moisture and protect against environmental stressors. It is generally considered safe for use during pregnancy and can be used instead of retinol.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a powerful antioxidant that brightens skin and boosts collagen production. It is safe to use during pregnancy.  However, it is an acid, so avoid it if you have irritated skin, a wound or burn, peeling, or a rosacea flare.

Retinol ia a wonderful exfoliator and the best antiaging ingredient- but not everyone can tolerate it. I hope this blog helps you find a good retinol substitute.

Each of these retinol alternative ingredients works through different mechanisms of action to target various skin concern like wrinkles, dark spots, and acne. By understanding your Baumann Skin Type and specific needs, you can choose the best retinol alternative for your unique skincare routine. To help you determine your Baumann Skin Type and find the most suitable products, take our advanced skin type quiz. With this information, you can shop for products tailored to your skin type from over 60 medical-grade skincare brands and build a custom skincare routine that will help you achieve your best skin ever.

Level up your skin care knowledge with medical advice from dermatologists

What do I use on my face instead of retinol if I have eczema?

If you have eczema, take our skin type quiz to find the best barrier safe cleansers and barrier repair moisturizers. Once you have rehydrated your skin, you may be able to tolerate low strength retinol on your face.  Until then, you can use these retinol alternatives for antiaging.

I'm pregnant. What do I use instead of retinol?

For antiaging you can use exosomes, ascorbic acid, niacinamide, and growth factors.  For acne you can use benzoyl peroxide unless your skin is a dry skin type or you are allergic to BP. If you have dark spots, you can use ascorbic acid, niacinamide, licorice extract and azelaic acid.

Best References and Scientific Publications on Alternatives to Retinoids:

  1. Baumann L. Antiaging Ingredients in Ch. 37 of Baumann's Cosmetic Dermatology Ed 3. (McGraw Hill 2022)
  2. Baumann, L. Ch. Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients (McGraw Hill 2015)
  3. Putriana, N. A., Husni, P., & Mita, S. R. (2024). Recent Advance Bakuchiol Application as a Potential Alternative to Retinol in Skincare and Cosmetics.
  4. Brown, A., Furmanczyk, M., Ramos, D., Ribes, A., Pons, L., Bustos, J., ... & Jourdan, E. (2023). Natural Retinol Analogs Potentiate the Effects of Retinal on Aged and Photodamaged Skin: Results from In Vitro to Clinical Studies. Dermatology and Therapy13(10), 2299-2317.
  5. Sadgrove, N. J., Oblong, J. E., & Simmonds, M. S. J. (2021). Inspired by vitamin A for anti‐ageing: Searching for plant‐derived functional retinoid analogues. Skin Health and Disease1(3), e36.