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Retinol alternatives for recovering skin

Reviewed by Marta August 18, 2012 23 Comments

It's interesting how many people write to me saying that they have reached a retinol “plateau”. It usually takes a few years for this to happen. Initially they are delighted by the results – retin A works very quickly to give a clearer, brighter looking complexion. But over time there is a cost and that can be a heavy one of thinner, duller and more fragile skin. So if you are thinking about starting out with retinols, it’s good to understand what you are getting in to. And if you shy away or want to wean yourself off retinols, what would be a good alternative regimen? Since this is one of the FAQs in my email box, I thought it would be worth sharing in a post.

Retinol is vitamin A in its whole molecule form, which can be broken down into thousands of smaller components, including retinoic acid (or tretinoin, the active ingredient in Renova and retin-A). Doctors tend to prescribe retinols because there’s a ton of research on them and patients (if they don’t find them too irritating – I’ll come back to this in a moment) tend to be happy with the results. But it is important to understand how those results come about.

Vitamin A itself does not have a direct effect on skin, but is only effective after specialized enzymes in the skin cells convert it into retinoic acid (tretinoin). Retinoic acid facilitates communication between cells, encouraging aging cells to turnover. This repeated shedding of the upper dermal layer forces the skin to produce new cells. These new cells look a lot better than the old ones, but they come a price.

The downsides of heavy duty exfoliation include thinning skin. Although new cells are facilitated by the retinoic acid, it may be that the Hayflick Limit (the number of times skin can regenerate itself before reaching its limit, at 52 times), is being speeded up. Certainly, many of the women that write to me report that after years of retinol, their skin seems thinner, duller and more delicate. There are other issues to consider as well, such as irritation – redness, scaling and itching are relatively common – and severe allergic reactions that can include blurred vision (see Junko’s post on her experience with tretinoin). Propensity to sunburn is also increased. And then there is the not insignificant issue that retinol has been shown to produce excess free radicals.

So what are the alternatives?

A more gentle approach to exfoliation is a good place to start. Glycolic acid will brighten the complexion considerably. It exfoliates by reacting with the upper layer of the epidermis, weakening the binding properties of the lipids that hold the dead skin cells together. The stronger the concentration, the more there is a likelihood of irritation and sensitivity to sunlight. For ideas for effective but gentle glycolic products, see our 2011 Five Best. You have to experiment with how often you need to use a glycolic product, but a general guideline would be 2-3 times a week to begin with and once you start to see a marked improvement, you can cut down to once a week (twice at most).

I often recommend Your Best Face Restore for weaning off retinol and typically users say that it helps their skin calm down considerably. Although there are mixed reports on whether it brightens the skin post retinol (read Erica’s experience of discontinuing retin A and trying out Restore). I haven’t used retinol, but I do consistently find Restore to be both soothing and revitalizing.

Arbutin is one of the key ingredients in Restore and is worth looking out for if skin lightening is your goal. A natural source of arbutin is bearberry, which can be found in John Masters Organics’ mist and in La Vie Celeste’s glycolic mask and moisturizer. Recovering retinol users could also think about gravitating towards a good vitamin C product for brightening and help with hyperpigmentation. Nutra-Lift does a very good value one, Maximum C (1oz for $34 in the TIA shop) and at the other end of the spectrum there is E’shee’s ($117 in the TiA shop), which is super stable and very gentle (I just recently started using it again and I am loving it). There’s also a mid-range ($85 in the TIA shop) one called Collametics.

Also worth incorporating is hyaluronic acid to help combat dryness. Note that straight up hyaluronic acid tends not to work in dry climates (it works by pulling in and retaining moisture) and should be used with other things. But products with a decent dose of hyaluronic acid (see our Five Best for some recommendations) help plump out the skin and a spate of supporting research has recently made it the darling of dermatologists – so at least you and your doc will have something to agree on again.

See our Five Best with retinol. Also, see all our Five Best recommendations, including Five Best for sagging skin and Five Best with vitamin C and Five Best eye creams.

  • January 7, 2016

    by sam

    This is complicated--it isn't about stimulation and it isn't just about skin. Most human cells have a turnoff point (senescence) when they stop making new cells, and that is what is referred to as the Hayflick Limit or Phenomenon. "The relevance of Hayflick's Limit to senescence of the whole [cell] is unclear. Although some cells ... [like] skin fibroblasts divide more or less continuously throughout life, they are unlikely to approach the limit of 50 divisions" (Source: The Merck Manual of Geriatrics, Exactly how (or if) skin cells are affected by this isn't clear. What we do know about AHAs and BHA, though, is that they cannot penetrate anywhere near the deep layers of skin where new cells are being produced. They simply impact the outer surface layers where built-up dead layers of skin accumulate and often need help being removed. So the good news is that AHAs and BHA do not affect living, reproducing cells.

    Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A (such as tretinoin in Retin-A and Renova, or the cosmetic ingredient retinol, which is the entire vitamin A molecule) and they do impact "living" skin cells. However, they do not exfoliate skin. Often retinoids are confused with or thought to be exfoliants because they can trigger irritation that can make skin look flaky, but that effect has nothing to do with the helpful exfoliation AHAs and BHA provide. Skin cells do have retinoid receptor sites that allow certain vitamin A derivatives to tell a cell to function better and produce healthier cells, but this doesn't have an impact on how often new cells are produced. If anything, there is an immense amount of research showing that retinoids help undo some sun damage (but only some, it doesn't replace the need for a well-formulated sunscreen). In terms of the skin laxity you've noticed lately, this may be an earlier-than-usual sign of aging, perhaps brought about by too many years of unprotected sun exposure or from a smoking habit (smoking slowly destroys the skin's collagen and elastin fibers, progressively weakening its support system).

  • August 25, 2015

    by Alex

    Isn't the Hayflick Limit mean't to be false when it comes to skin?

  • February 14, 2015

    by Mary

    Any article that uses the Hayflick limit as a reason to stop using retinoids loses me right there.

    I realize Retin A is not for everybody and I never recommend it without seeing a doctor first, but I'm age 50 with very fair skin (which is naturally thinner than darker skin), and I've been using Retin A since I was 23. I started using it to help control acne, and just never stopped. Yes, it thins the top layer of skin, but the deeper layers of skin thicken up. My skin looks great for my age, and I'm not going to be one of those people on the internet who says that everybody tells them they look 20 years younger than they are, but I'd say my skin looks fantastic for my age and I get compliments on it all the time. However, it's not the only thing I use on my skin, but I know it's helped and certainly has not hurt my skin.

  • December 31, 2014

    by yuki

    I'm so glad someone has finally spoken up about the down sides of using retinol!
    I'm in my mid-20s and decided to add retinol into my skin regime as a precaution to aging. I used almost every night for 3 months. Before retinol I had very good skin, glowy and soft. Lately I've notice fine lines developing under my eyes and skin becoming very sensitive. When I went to my facial, the girl told me to stop using retinol immediately as it was obvious to her that I was losing water retention around my eyes (hence causing the wrinkles).

    I guess your eyes should be the best indicator if you're over using retinol as the skin is much more delicate. Any thinning would be the most apparent around your eyes.

    I read on some websites that retinol is supposed to create collagen and thicken your skin. It is confusing with all the conflicting information out there on retinol.

  • October 21, 2014

    by Marta

    Hi Jennifer, your skin might need some help to regain its suppleness. In the article, I suggest hyaluronic acid as a skincare ingredient because it is super moisturizing and plumping. I like Sciote Super Moist as it has 50% hyaluronic acid:

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