Can Anti-aging Cream Work without Retinol?

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Treating signs of aging skin (let’s say fine lines, wrinkles, or saggy spots for examples) doesn’t always necessarily require cosmetic procedures. If the problems are mild, sometimes OTC anti-aging cream would help a lot. Still, the ingredients play a key role! But can anti-aging cream work without retinol?

Pros and cons of retinol

We all know retinol, a holy-grail thing in the beauty world for smoothing out the skin texture, fine lines, and other signs of aging skin.

This free-needle potent ingredient isn’t just a celebrity secret. It does promise a fresh and glowing skin appearance by boosting skin cell turnover. And the effectiveness has been clinically and scientifically proven [1] — a hero cosmetic ingredient that has no gimmicks. It has become a gold standard in anti-aging industry to give youthful looking in a lot of ways.

Retinol is a kind of vitamin A that you can also find in foods (e.g. carrots, eggs, dark leafy greens, and fruits). When topically applied and absorbed into the skin, your enzymes convert it to become retinoic acid.

It is available in OTC products (without prescription) and the strength is lower than retinoids (stronger vitamin A derivative, typically used with prescription). Since it has lower concentration of the active retinoic acid, it’s likely to work more gradually than prescription retinoids.

OTC retinols are usually available in ester forms, these include; propionic acid, retinyl acetate, retinaldehyde, retinyl linoleate, or retinyl palmitate. The ester forms require more steps to become the active retinoic acid so it will take longer to see results.

Even though retinol is likely safe for many people, particularly true if compared to stronger retinoids, unfortunately it’s not suitable for anyone.

You have seen the pros mentioned above, now here are a few drawbacks and when you need to avoid it:

  1. Many times it’s still too powerful (harsh) for sensitive skin, making counterproductive effects (irritation, redness, peeling, and drying out skin) more likely. Start with a patch test, for example apply the cream every 3-4 night! If there is no negative reaction after 2 weeks, it’s probably safe to increase the intensity gradually!
  2. When you first begin applying it, you may have redness, flaking, or dryness skin. But with proper skin care routine (especially adequate hydration, both applying moisturizer and drinking adequate water), you would find these effects subside within 2 weeks.
  3. The risk of skin pigmentation. Retinol will make your skin more sensitive to UV rays. So slathering on a high-grade SPF is a must during the day. Use also a hat, if necessary!
  4. Retinol is absorbed into the skin, affecting the activity of your cells. So don’t use it when you’re pregnant! While vitamin A is an essential micronutrient for pregnancy, an extreme dose of vitamin A would be counterproductive during pregnancy [2].

Anti-aging creams without retinol, do they work?

Nowadays there are more innovative forms of retinol in order to provide one that works more effectively with the least side effects. But still, some people can’t tolerate retinol!

People with eczema, for example, can’t tolerate it at all. The same goes for people with very sensitive skin or other skin conditions. That’s why we’re looking for alternatives that yield something similar.

But do anti-aging creams ‘without retinol’ really yield the same magical things like what retinols do?

For the record, there is still no true ‘retinol alternative’ with the same magical effects on the skin.

However, a few alternatives exist. Although they don’t promise dramatic results as well as what retinol products do, they are worth a try – and some are also already backed by science, these include:


If you’re looking for a thing with retinol-like activity from plant-based ingredient, bakuchiol is probably your best bet. It is derived from an herb plant long used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine called the Babchi plant.

Bakuchiol has pseudo-retinol effects, including for anti-aging. It is one of the few alternates for which several studies back up [3].

Studies suggest it may work to:

  1. Ease and reduce find lines and wrinkles.
  2. Improve skin elasticity.
  3. Improve signs of sun damage.
  4. Lighten skin pigmentation.

It activates particular genes that have to do with the production of elastin and collagen, the same ones what retinols activate!

Plus it’s likely safe for most skin types, including sensitive skin. It’s less likely to redden or irritate the skin. Even it’s probably OK to use during pregnancy, but ask your doctor first because anything related to pregnancy would be double checked.

Although the results are likely to be less dramatic, you should give it a shot if you experience negative and comfortable reactions with retinols.

The following are a few bakuchiol products I recommend:


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