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The Best Retinol Alternatives for Sensitive Skin

By Gabriella Buckner -
Retinol alternative image

If you’re at all interested in anti-ageing skincare, it’s practically guaranteed that you’ve heard of retinol.

Also known as vitamin A, retinol has been proven time and time again to improve the look of fine lines, uneven texture, dark spots, acne and sun damage, and also boost collagen. Its efficacy makes it the first choice for many people. After all, who likes spending money on a product that makes tonnes of claims but doesn’t actually do much for your skin?

However, as much-loved as this ingredient is, retinol can cause your skin to become irritated or sensitive, and there are many rules around when you can use it and what products you can’t mix it with (see our guide to retinol here).

If you have sensitive skin, are afraid of the side effects of retinol, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, retinol isn’t for you—but luckily there are some great alternatives out there so you can still reap the benefits of retinol, without any of the irritation.

Keep reading for our top three alternatives to retinol for sensitive skin, plus some of our favourite products with each ingredient.

Bakuchiol

The most talked about alternative to retinol is bakuchiol, a powerful skin-smoothing ingredient derived from the babchi plant.

Gentler than retinol, bakuchiol works for all skin types, healing sensitive and dehydrated skin, evening out textured skin and brightening dull complexions.

The bakuchiol vs retinol debate is a long-standing one, and while some say bakuchiol isn’t quite as potent as retinol, this makes it perfect if potency is your concern. With bakuchiol, you also don’t need to worry about staying out of the sun, so you can apply it morning and/or night. And the plant-based ingredient is always vegan, whereas some forms of retinol may be derived from egg yolk and fish liver oil.

Below are a few of the bakuchiol products we love here at Cosmetify so you can add this gentle yet effective ingredient into any point of your skincare routine. You might also want to read Cosmetify’s full guide to the amazing ingredient here.

Bondi Sands Fountain Of Youth Restoring Bakuchiol Serum

Bondi Sands Fountain Of Youth Restoring Bakuchiol Serum

£9.17 £10.79 (16% off)

This serum from affordable Australian brand Bondi Sands promises to 'take you on a one way trip to our favourite destination, the Fountain Of Youth'. In addition to bakuchiol, it contains sunflower seed and rosella extract to hydrate and soften your skin and improve pigmentation.

The INKEY List Bakuchiol Moisturiser

The INKEY List Bakuchiol Moisturiser

£11.21 £12.46 (11% off)

Another budget option that's still highly effective is this moisturiser from The INKEY List. The lightweight moisturiser includes a blend of omega-3-rich sacha inchi oil and squalane to lock in moisture, working together with bakuchiol to give you even skin with improved texture and fine lines.

Antipodes Credo Probiotic Ferment Revitalise Serum

Antipodes Credo Probiotic Ferment Revitalise Serum

£29.13 £38.00 (24% off)

For a slightly pricier serum, we recommend this multi-tasking serum targeted towards improving blemishes as well as plumping up the skin to smooth fine lines. An innovative blend of probiotic, kombucha, bamboo ferment and hyaluronic acid firm and balance the skin, and there's also aloe vera and avocado oil for extra nourishment.

Allies of Skin CE15 Bakuchiol Firming Oil

Allies of Skin CE15 Bakuchiol Firming Oil

£145.00 £152.63 (5% off)

The height of luxury, this gold-bottled firming moisturiser contains nine oils and 1% bakuchiol to resurface and hydrate your skin. With the added antioxidant benefits of vitamin C and E, 3% renovage and coenzyme Q10, your skin is also protected from environmental damage and any age spots and redness are reduced.

HydroPeptide Vital Eyes Instant Awakening Serum

HydroPeptide Vital Eyes Instant Awakening Serum

£79.80 £84.00 (5% off)

One of the areas that starts showing signs of ageing the earliest are our eyes, so an eye cream with bakuchiol is a must. This one reduces puffiness and dark circles as well as fine lines and wrinkles, giving your eyes a dose of skin tone-improving Neurophroline, depuffing caffeine and skin brightening vitamin C. There's also a peptide complex (our next ingredient on this list!) for helping with pigmentation.

Peptides

Another retinol alternative we love is peptides, short chains of amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins in our skin and which firm up skin by promoting collagen and elastin.

Both retinol and peptides improve collagen production but peptides are more moisturising, and they also reduce inflammation where retinol can potentially cause it.

Read the full Cosmetify guide to peptides here, then shop our top peptide products below.

The Ordinary Buffet + Copper Peptides 1%

The Ordinary Buffet + Copper Peptides 1%

£27.41 £28.90 (6% off)

Copper peptides support and strengthen the skin in this serum, which is the next level up from The Ordinary's cult-favourite Buffet serum (an amazing anti-ageing product that contains hyaluronic acid and matrixyl 3000). Together, these ingredients stimulate collage and improve imbalances in the skin, whether that's uneven tone, texture or acne.

Medik8 Oxy-R Peptides

Medik8 Oxy-R Peptides

£60.00

Another serum we love is this overnight one from Medik8, just one of their lovely peptide-infused products. This particular one reduces age spots in just four weeks, plus it improves hyperpigmentation and hydrates your skin.

Paula's Choice Skin Recovery Replenishing Moisturiser

Paula's Choice Skin Recovery Replenishing Moisturiser

£25.63 £29.13 (13% off)

Perfect for morning or evening use, this rich but non-greasy moisturiser nourishes and soothes your skin while protecting it from environmental stressors - thanks to vitamins C and E, plant oils and aloe vera. And of course, there's peptides to promote healthy skin renewal.

Revision Skincare Gentle Foaming Cleanser

Revision Skincare Gentle Foaming Cleanser

£29.64 £31.20 (5% off)

Most products that utilise retinol alternatives are serums and moisturisers, but you'll want this amino acid cleanser for its super effective cleanse that doesn't strip skin, thanks to the moisturising properties of peptides.

Niacinamide

If you’re looking for a great all-rounder ingredient, we can’t recommend niacinamide enough. Niacinamide (vitamin B3) absorbs quickly into your skin to treat a plethora of different conditions.

Niacinamide’s retinol-like benefits include boosting collagen and elastin production, firming up skin, reducing the appearance of fine lines and dark spots and helping block UV rays and reducing UV-induced skin damage. For more of this lovely ingredient’s properties, check out our guide to niacinamide here.

Compatible with pretty much everything, niacinamide is a hydrating, ceramide production-boosting option for those who want to avoid retinol. Here’s our top recommendations for niacinamide products so you can load your bathroom cabinets up (and multiple niacinamide products can be safely layered, so don’t be afraid to stock up).

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%

£8.94 £9.00 (1% off)

With so many effective and affordable serums we've got to recommend The Ordinary again, this time for their niacinamide and zinc solution. It targets blemishes and discolouration, as well as oil production thanks to the zinc salt.

Alpha-H Vitamin B Serum With 5% Niacinamide

Alpha-H Vitamin B Serum With 5% Niacinamide

£38.60 £46.00 (17% off)

5% niacinamide and 1% panthenol in this serum strengthen your skin's barrier while hyaluronic acid hydrates and copper peptides and chia seeds reduce moisture loss. This serum sinks quickly into the skin to give you a plump, radiant glow and control excess sebum.

Milani Supercharged Brightening Undereye Tint

Milani Supercharged Brightening Undereye Tint

£12.23 £13.50 (10% off)

We thought we'd throw this skincare and makeup duo into the mix just to show how versatile niacinamide can be (you probably wouldn't find retinol in any makeup since it shouldn't really be worn during the day). This tint illuminates dark circles and hydrates your under-eye area, thanks to hyaluronic acid, collagen, caffeine and niacinamide.

PCA SKIN Hyaluronic Acid Overnight Mask

PCA SKIN Hyaluronic Acid Overnight Mask

£67.45 £71.00 (5% off)

Just because niacinamide is safe to use in the day time doesn't mean we don't love it in an overnight mask! Pop on this mask to hydrate and calm your skin, boost radiance, regenerate your skin cells. It'll nourish your skin overnight with niacinamide as well as hyaluronic acid, panthenol and albizia julibrissin bark extract.

Now that you’ve read up on the best alternatives to retinol, you might want to peruse more products for sensitive skin, from gentle sunscreens to sensitive skin foundation. We’ve also compiled our favourite anti-ageing skincare products here, with everything from eye creams to night creams. Happy reading!

Gabriella is a junior content writer with a background in creative writing, content marketing and journalism. She’s passionate about all things makeup and skincare, but especially vegan and cruelty-free beauty that is effective and inexpensive.

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