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Retinol alternatives for recovering skin

August 18, 2012 Reviewed by Marta 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:

  • October 21, 2014

    by Jennifer

    every single article I come across on this topic never once tells the reader whether discontinuing retinoids after some time has been shown to regain the skins orriginal elasticity prior or close to prior use of retinoids. can someone please tell me if skin has healed and regained its suppleness from prior to using retinoids. Im 24 years old and I thought I was smart by creating an anti aging skin routine that included a retinol cream. well I used it for 3 months. prior to using it I still looked 20. after using it I looked 28. I still look older. depending on who looks at me I eather look 24 to 28 years old. When I look at my skin, even thought its been 8 months since I used the cream my skin looks thinner, my cheeks are more hollow and I have acne scarrs I never had before never. will it heal, and will I always look older than I am because of this experience?

  • March 11, 2013

    by JTS

    Hayflick limit not an issue because skin cells are a population that comes from non-differentiated stem cells. No worry. A skin cell dies in 10 days. Do the math -- a typical human will go through much more than 50 layers of skin cells.

  • January 10, 2013

    by Sheena

    I am wondering if you would tell me if retinol alternatives also cause the hayflick effect? Specifically chicory root and tara gum? Also, are these 2 natural alternatives photostable in uv rays or are they just like the regular retinol in uv rays, that cause photoaging?

  • March 11, 2012

    by Yassy

    Hi. I have been doing some research on retinol and retin a, and there it says it helps with fine line and skin brightening. I have no lines and pretty good skin already but there are some areas i can see some mild sagging, and i was wandering if retinol or retin a would help with that? Also if it thins the top laayer of the skin and i want to stop using it will the skin get thicker again and back to normal? Thanks.

  • August 27, 2011

    by Gloria

    I can only speak from my own experience. I was using a retinol product and my skin would not stop flaking. I tried it for quite a while and it never stopped. I followed Marta's advise and got off the retinol and started using other products and have ended up using Reluma serum, moisturizer and eye cream. My skin has never looked this good. I did not see anything good come from the retinol. Maybe it is good for some of you but with my skin which is sensitive it only made it worse.

  • August 26, 2011

    by Isabelle

    I love Truth in Aging and am very thankful for the information they provide. However, this particular article strikes me as odd because I have spent a fair amount of time reviewing testimonials of long-term users of retin a and so far I have found all of them (yes, 100%) to be thrilled with their skin and so thankful that they started on retin a/tretinoin so many years ago. I only started a few months ago (at the age of 51) but a good friend, older than me by about 5 years, has been using it every night for 20 years and her skin is "amazing", despite having gone through intensive chemo and radiation - plump, healthy, radiant, no lines or wrinkles. (partly due to genes I am sure but still, her skin is "amazing", far from thin or brittle-looking

    I would make the same comment as Kim - "what I would appreciate is seeing if anyone can find ANY professional dr or chemist who agrees that the Hayflick Limit is a concern."

  • August 25, 2011

    by Ozana

    If I may add a little bit of information re Tretinoin: apparently <<A>>
    Where it gets confusing is because retinol in both over-the-counter and prescription products can cause flaking. Because of this side effect, people assume it is also exfoliating their skin. Flaking skin is not exfoliation, it is a reaction / irritation of the skin to the retinol. The source for this information is Paula’s Choice website (Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary and the Learn section of her website). So, if I were to summarize, I guess tretinoin affects how living cells form and shed deep into the skin (beyond where AHAs and BHA ingredients reach), whereas AHA and BHA only exfoliate the surface of the skin.

  • August 24, 2011

    by Chris Dowling

    Some studies have shown skin thickening, opposing the apparent long term action of retinol, with lactic acid topicals like Lac-Hydrin and Amlactin.

  • August 24, 2011

    by Naja

    Glad to report I have had no such problems. I've been using Retin-A for almost 20 years. The results are still great (way better than anything else on the market). My skin is tight, full, youthful and glowing. Absolutely no lines, wrinkles or sagging whatsoever.

    I plan to take it to the grave. I'll only temporarily suspend usage for pregnancy.

    For the money and the results, you cannot beat it. It's still the #1 anti-aging ingredient.

  • August 24, 2011

    by Kim

    Thank you, Talia. As an ex-biochemist, turned teacher for health reasons, I see all sorts of pop science, beliefs that have sprouted due to half learned or less, biochemistry or science in general. It is good to see people without a scientific or medical background making the effort to understand these things, but what I would appreciate is seeing if anyone can find ANY professional dr or chemist who agrees that the Hayflick Limit is a concern. The doctors to whom I have spoken have certainly not vouched for that (and these were drs with nothing to gain, say, financially, if they did admit one could induce that Hayflick Limit via methods suggested here and elsewhere on popular internet sites.) Anyway, it is important to realize that the body has many ways of dealing with what we do to them and they simply are not all intuitive at all, so heavy exfoliation would not necessarily cause any permanent thinning to the skin. Having a reputable dermatologist or up to date biochemist around, so as not to spread alarmist views might be a good thing. I've just seen too many people get a hold of a term, in this case, Hayflick Limit, and then run with it. It takes years to learn science and it isn't always as easy as you might think on the surface to understand exactly what is going on or if there is any relationship at all between certain things, say Hayflick and exfoliation. I see a makeup artist has been added to this blog. What about a medical dr or a biochemist? Just a suggestion.

  • August 24, 2011

    by Naomi

    Thanks Marta. I use the cream at night and a different moisturiser during the day so hopefully this isn't a danger for me. This thread does make me feel it might be best just to stick with simpler formulas though and reminded me that my skin used to seem quite happy with pure jojoba oil until I succumbed to the marketing of more scientific ingredients!

  • August 24, 2011

    by Marta

    Hi Naomi, this article is for people who want an alternative to prescription retinol treatments. There is not the same concern regarding a small amount of vitamin A in an over the counter serum. Retinyl palmitate does raise a different concern regarding its behavior in sunlight - there is a study that says it becomes photocarcinogenic. More on that here:

  • August 24, 2011

    by Naomi

    Please could someone clarify whether the percentage and type of retinol matter here? I have discovered my HG moisturiser in Nia 24 SSC. I'm 30 and part of the reason I use it is because I feel it has increased the thickness of my skin and will protect it for the future. However it contains retinyl palmate (unsure what %). So now I am paranoid I could be damaging my skin for the future. Any advice? Thanks.

  • August 23, 2011

    by Talia

    I should clarify that tretinoin does thin the stratum corneum but thIckens the dermis. A thin stratum corneum isn't something to fear.

  • August 22, 2011

    by Talia

    As a cautious tretinoin and tazorac user, I read just about everything I could get my hands on concerning the long term effects of using both. There has never been any findings linking these compounds to the hay flick limit. Since tretinoin has been available for over 30 years, you would think if there was a causation or at least a correlation we would know by now. There seems to be a lot Fear mongering regarding tretinoin from TIA die hards. Tretinoin has been studied probably more than any other chemical any user to this site has placed on his or her face. It is prescribed by dermatologist and approved by the FDA. I think getting readers worked up about thinning skin and hayflck limits is about as silly as reviewing a product with apple stem cells. But I am a die hard too!

  • August 20, 2011

    by Marta

    Hi Jeni, this post was inspired by members of the TIA community writing in because they were no longer happy with the results they were getting with retinols. There has to be some correlation between heavy duty exfoliation - which is what it is - and the risk of thinning skin. But it is also going to be about degree. Perhaps they have been overdoing it. Some have been using it every day for years. If you are still happy and are only using it "off and on", then I wouldn't get too paranoid.

  • August 20, 2011

    by Jeni

    I have heard of fears that retinoids could cause the hayflick limit, but I don't know if I've actually read about anyone that has reached that point. How would you know that retinoids were what caused thinner/duller/fragile skin, and it wasn't just part of the natural aging process, or caused by previous sun exposure? Now I'm sooo paranoid! I've been using Retin-A, and now Renova, off-and-on since my 20s.

  • August 18, 2011

    by Evening Feeding: Learning To Love My Baby | Mommyish

    [...] Retinol alternatives for recovering skin (Truth In Aging) [...]

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