We’ve heard a lot about retinoids and its wonders. In fact, research has shown that retinoids are the only ingredient that has significant impacts on improving the signs of ageing. Think: no more dull complexion, crepe-y texture, hyperpigmentation and sagging skin. When retinoids get in touch with specific receptors in the skin, it gets converted to retinoic acid, the real MVP behind its regenerative powers. However, this action can be too much for some. Because our skin cells’ turnover rate is on overdrive, one can expect hypersensitivity, breakouts and excessive peeling to occur. More often than not, people give up during this phase before they have even achieved the skin of their dreams.
That being said, not all hope is lost. Today, there are numerous products that claim to have “retinol-like effects” without the nasties. But will these retinol alternatives work just as well as the OG? Dr Gladys Teo, head of R&D at ést.lab and Heure give us a lowdown on the subject.
Differences between retinol, retinol derivatives and retinol alternatives
“Retinol is a popular version of vitamin A, and its derivatives include things like retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, retinyl palmitate and retinyl propionate. Retinol and its derivatives are chemically related to Vitamin A, and bear the root word ‘retin’,” Dr Teo shares. She also confirms that in order for these to be effective, they must first be converted into retinoic acid as this is a chemical that our skin can recognise and will respond to.
It is important to note that a retinol alternative is neither a retinol nor a retinol derivative. “Retinol alternatives show similar, even comparable anti-aging and skin conditioning properties as retinols,” she shares. “But retinol alternatives have an entirely different chemical structure to retinoids and are chemically unrelated,” she clarifies. Dr Teo also highlighted that one good thing about retinol alternatives is that they have chemical structures that make them stable, hence they do not degrade easily under heat and light like retinol and its derivatives do. They also do not cause photosensitivity and irritation.
Retinoids and retinol alternatives: Their mode of action
As mentioned previously, retinoic acid activity begins at a molecular level when it is activated by specific skin cell genes. When retinol alternatives are used instead, a similar gene activation pattern can also be achieved.
“Both retinol and retinol-like actives can stimulate the synthesis of collagen while reducing the activity of collagenase and elastase, enzymes that break down collagen and elastin,” Dr Teo shares.
Shopping for retinol alternatives
Notable examples of retinol alternatives are plant-based bakuchiol, botanical vitamin A-like ingredients such as vigna aconitifolia (moth bean) seed extract, maclura cochinchinensis leaf prenylflavonoids, and nature-identical noreugenin, which is present in medicinal rhubarb.
Dr Teo points out that although brands love to highlight “bakuchiol”, you may realise that the ingredient may not even be listed at all. But do not be confused. As it turns out, bakuchiol is also found in psoralea corylifolia extracts including its seed oil, seed and leaf extracts, so look out for those instead.
Are retinol alternatives just as effective as retinoids?
Retinol alternatives have also been said to be “gentler” with fewer side effects. We love a product that deliver immediate results, so how can we tell if these alternative options are even working?
In the case of pure bakuchiol, clinical studies have shown comparable effectiveness through improvements in skin elasticity, firmness, fine lines, pigmentation, smoothness, texture, clarity, and radiance. Pure bakuchiol was also generally well tolerated by a panel with eczema, atopic dermatitis, rosacea, and cosmetic intolerance syndrome. “The effectiveness of the results and gentleness of this active ingredient for all skin types make this particular ingredient worth trying. It also has extra anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits compared to retinol, making it helpful in reducing the acne lesions and the appearance of scars for those with oily and acne prone skin,” Dr Teo adds.
“An ingredient can work gently and be effective, just like how there are ingredients that can irritate the skin but are not effective,” Dr Teo explains. One way you can tell that a retinol-alternative skincare is working is when you see noticeable improvements in your skin from about four weeks onwards. “It should show cumulative beneficial effects over time. Unlike retinol, it is perfectly ok to use this continuously without fear of a thinning skin barrier.”
Despite its efficacy, retinoids has its limitations. Those who have conditions like rosacea, eczema and psoriasis should steer clear of the skin sentitising ingredient. Another group of people who should avoid retinoids are those who are pregnant and breast feeding, as high levels of vitamin A in the system can cause issues like miscarriages and defects.
In the case of retinol alternatives, Dr Teo assures that it is safe for all skin types. It can also be used by pregnant women and nursing mums. “Retinol alternatives benefit those with ageing, dull, oily and acne prone skin the most,” she adds.
Making the most out of it
At the moment what is known about bakuchiol is that it is fairly versatile and can be used with almost all ingredients. It has been safely formulated with hyaluronic acid, anti-aging peptides and vitamin C in existing serums in the market. Bakuchiol can also be used daily both in the day and night without causing photosensitivity, unlike AHAs and retinoids. Due to its gentle nature, it can also be incorporated into your skincare regime for longer periods of time.
Dr Teo points out that as with all new ingredients, it is best to start off using alternatives such as bakuchiol two to three times a week, especially if you have overly sensitive skin and a compromised skin barrier. From there, you can gradually increase the usage overtime to help your skin build up tolerance to the new ingredient. And of course, let’s not forget the sunscreen.