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Retinol is known as a skin-care superstar thanks to its ability to stimulate cellular turnover and collagen production—delivering firmer, smoother, more even skin—but its powers don’t come without their risks. The ingredient’s intensity can often come paired with irritation, making it unsuitable for sensitive skin types.

Thankfully the skin-care world has found new ways to deliver similar results—sans risks—with retinol alternatives.

“Retinol alternatives are ingredients that can produce similar results as retinol, but typically by different mechanisms,” explains Carmen Castilla, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Retinol alternatives tend to be less irritating and work well for sensitive skin.”

Recently, formulas that employ these “retinol-alts” have been popping up all over, which has been great news for me and my sensitive-to-retinol skin. One that’s earned a permanent spot in my routine? Caudalie’s Resveratrol Lift Instant Firming Retinol Alternative Serum ($84).

What are ‘retinol alternatives’?

Generally speaking, retinol alternatives are any ingredients that deliver comparable to retinoids.

“Retinoids, or vitamin A derivatives, are super powerful for minimizing fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating collagen and elastin production, decreasing excess pigmentation, and treating inflammatory acne,” says Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Shafer Clinic in New York City.

While the ingredient is proven to be effective, it isn’t for everyone. Dr. Engelman notes that for those who experience negative side effects of retinol—such as redness, irritation, and dryness—“It’s best to shop for natural retinol alternatives that avoid irritation while still repealing the benefits.”

These ingredients are typically gentler, thus making them safe for sensitive skin. Additionally, they’re safe for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding (which traditional retinol is not).

Popular retinol alternatives

  1. Bakuchiol: One of the most well-known retinol alternatives, Dr. Castilla says this ingredient works by many of the same mechanisms as retinol. “Studies have shown that it activates many of the same pathways as retinol but overall tends to be less irritating,” she notes.
  2. ResveratrolDerived from grapes, resveratrol has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-aging effects on the skin. Dr. Castilla says that it also has antioxidant properties that protect against free radical damage and prevent signs of skin aging, and (like retinol) stimulates cellular turnover. (More on this one in a sec).
  3. Azelaic acid:  “Azelaic acid can block pigment production, and is often used to treat melasma and post-inflammatory discoloration—which are the brown patches left behind after a rash, inflammation in the skin, [or acne],” says Dr. Castilla. It is also works as an exfoliant to unclog pores and stimulate cellular renewal.
  4. Niacinamide: A derivative of vitamin B3, niacinamide functions as an antioxidant to prevent the free radical damage that leads to visible signs of skin aging. It also helps to block the transfer of pigment to the skin, improving the look of discoloration. “It can help calm inflammation and redness which is helpful for acne and rosacea patients,” says Dr. Castilla.

Overall, depending upon the product, Dr. Engelman says that with continued use, “you can see results with retinol alternatives about four to six weeks onwards. For most over-the-counter retinoids, it may take a few weeks to see visible results and for the full results, it will take about 12 weeks.”

How the Caudalie Resveratrol Lift Instant Firming Retinol Alternative Serum works

Now that you know a little more about retinol alternatives, you can appreciate how efficacious Caudalie’s Serum really is.

“This serum from Caudalie is a super multi-tasker that plumps, hydrates, firms, and reduces the appearance of wrinkles,” explains Dr. Engelman.

The star of the show here is resveratrol. “It’s a potent antioxidant from grape stalks that is skin-firming and wrinkle-minimizing,” says Dr. Engelman, noting that Caudalie pioneered the use of antioxidants in skin care. “This natural, hero ingredient actively lifts and firms the skin by increasing elastin production, collagen synthesis, and the natural production of hyaluronic acid.”

The serum itself is super lightweight, fast-absorbing, and firms the skin without irritation. It’s meant to be applied in the morning and evening, after cleansing and toning, and before moisturizing. Since it can take a little bit more time to see results than with a stronger form of vitamin A (retinol), with consistent use, expect to see results in about 4-6 weeks depending on your skin type, says Dr. Engelman.

What happened when I tried Caudalie’s Resveratrol Lift Instant Firming Retinol Alternative Serum

I gave Caudalie’s Resveratrol Lift Instant Firming Retinol Alternative Serum a try for a few weeks—using it a.m. and p.m. as per the directions on the bottle until I ran out.

Though I already started out with pretty healthy and plump skin, I felt that the serum complimented all of the other products in my routine. My complexion looked glowing and smooth down to the last drop, which I went through in a month (a rarity as a beauty writer with dozens of products to try). And, as promised, there was no irritation at all.

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.


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Harmony Evans is an award-winning author of Harlequin Kimani Romance, African-American romance, and so on. Harmony Evans is an award-winning author for Harlequin Kimani Romance, the leading publisher of African-American romance. Her 2nd novel, STEALING KISSES, will be released in November 2013. Harmony is a single mom to a beautiful, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, who makes her grateful for life daily. Her hobbies include cooking, baking, knitting, reading, and of course, napping and also review some of the best-selling and popular brands and services in the market and also write comprehensive blogs.

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