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Retinol: The Good, The Bad, and The Plant-based Alternatives.

Chances are, you’ve heard about retinol and its magical rejuvenating powers. But do you really know what it is?

The word retinol is often used as an umbrella term for products containing retinoids. Retinoids are a family of compounds derived from vitamin A. Retinoids can do a lot for your skin, including acne relief, aging support, and skin rejuvenation. In recent years these ingredients attracted increased attention from the beauty industry. Today, the retinoid market size has been estimated to be a whopping 1.6 billion dollars worldwide.

Three types of retinoids are available over-the-counter: Retinyl palmitate, Retinaldehyde, and Retinol. Retinol is the strongest ingredient found in OTC retinoid products. 

So how does it work? Once absorbed into the skin, enzymes convert retinol to retinoic acid, which is the active form of vitamin A. This triggers skin cell turnover and increases levels of hyaluronic acid, collagen, and elastin. The result is smoother and even-looking skin. 

Sounds great, right? Is retinol truly an all-singing, all-dancing miracle worker that should be a part of everyone’s anti-aging routine? Let’s find out.

The Good

Retinol reduces signs of aging

  • Retinol is best known for its ability to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. It does so by boosting blood flow to the skin, which increases collagen production and thickens the inner layer of the skin. Research has shown that retinol application for one week led to a reduction in collagen breakdown and an increase in collagen production. It might take three to six months of regular use to see an improvement in wrinkles.
  • Retinol improves skin color by stimulating the formation of new blood vessels in the skin.
  • Retinol encourages skin cell turnover. This helps to shed discolored skin cells, fade dark spots, and reduce sun damage.

Black & white portrait of a woman smiling

Retinol improves the appearance of acne

Acne develops when dead skin cells and excess oil collects inside hair follicles and block skin pores.

  • Retinol encourages cell turnover, so they’re shed and replaced more quickly.
  • Retinol decreases oil production.
  • By accelerating epidermal turnover retinol improves overall skin texture and lightens the appearance of acne scars.

Retinol helps with discoloration

  • Retinol affects skin discoloration and reduces its pigmentation by about 60%. It contributes to a proper melanin distribution in the skin.
  • Retinol influences the function of melanocytes (melanin-producing skin cells), providing even distribution of melanin in the epidermis. 
  • Retinol blocks transport of melanin to epidermal cells and prevents the appearance of dark spots.

The Bad

Once you start using retinol, it is common to experience some unpleasant skin reactions:

  • Skin peeling. Peeling may occur in the first few days of use. It can go along with dryness, itchiness, flakiness, and redness. These tend to be temporary skin problems and usually improve within a few weeks.
  • Skin sensitivity. All retinoids can cause the skin to become sun-sensitive. This can be managed through the use of broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.

AKT Therapy's moisturizing balm and bronzer with SPF

AKT Therapy D-Luxe Daily Bronzer and Elemental Sun Balm with SPF 30


However, some side effects can be potentially harmful to both, your skin and health: 

  • Painful severe red patches and persistent peeling
  • Hives or any other symptoms of allergies (seek medical attention immediately)
  • Stinging
  • Burning
  • Eczema (retinoid dermatitis)
  • Cystic breakouts
  • Chapped lips
  • Irritation around eyes

Some of these side effects can lead to scarring, making it crucial to stop the use of retinoids and consult with a dermatologist ASAP. 


  • Retinoids are not recommended during pregnancy as they may cause birth defects or miscarriage.
  • Retinol may aggravate eczema and should not be used when you have an active eczema rash.

Plant-based alternatives to retinol

If you have sensitive skin, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or are looking for cleaner beauty options, natural retinol alternatives might be the right choice for you.


Known as “nature’s retinol”, bakuchiol is a botanical extract derived from bakuchi plant seeds. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Unlike retinol, it is gentle enough to be mixed with vitamin C and acids. Bakuchiol is rich in antioxidants and provides the same collagen-growth and cell-turnover benefits as 0,5% retinol.


Rambutan is a plant from the same family as lychee. Rambutan extract is derived from the leaves and has the ability to boost collagen production and promote skin cell turnover. It is often compared to retinol for its power to improve the skin’s elasticity and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

Rosehip Oil

Rosehip oil contains a naturally occurring form of vitamin A called trans-retinoic acid. This ingredient has regenerative and healing properties and boosts collagen production in the skin.



Lycopene is a carotenoid found in tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables. It is a powerful antioxidant that helps to protect cells from damage. When applied topically, Lycopene reduces skin roughness, inhibits collagen breakdown, and helps to keep skin firm.

Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide)

Vitamin B3 is found in whole grains and certain greens. Research shows that B3 significantly reduces wrinkles and dark spots. It has unique compatibility with peptides, vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acid, and beta hydroxy acid.

Evening Primrose Oil

Evening primrose oil is rich in fatty acids, has skin nourishing ability, and tends to provide fast results. It is effective in treating acne, reducing the appearance of wrinkles, and increasing skin elasticity.

Green Tea

Green tea contains polyphenols that have anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, anti-oxidant, and DNA-repair properties. Green tea minimizes sun damage, treats acne, eczema and rosacea.

Vitamin C

Also known as Ascorbic Acid, Vitamin C is a well-known antioxidant. It’s effective in fighting sun damage, regenerating skin cells and has powerful anti-aging properties. Vitamin C is commonly used for skin brightening, removal of age spots, and hyperpigmentation. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, vitamin C helps to reduce redness and swelling associated with acne and improves the healing of acne wounds.

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Written by Elena Popkova

AKT Therapy