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6 Amazing Sustainable Alternatives to Retinol

Throughout history, humans have always been invested in treating their skin, putting almost anything on their faces and bodies in a bid to look their most radiant and youthful. Geishas would wear bird poop as face masks (1); Victorian women lightened their skin with arsenic; and people today get one of the most toxic ingredients known to man (2) injected into their face on a regular basis—all in the name of beauty. The anti-aging skincare market is full of weird and outrageous ingredients, as women and men all over the world strive for the smoothest, youngest, most flawless-looking skin. 


For centuries, we have been damaging our skin on a daily basis through dangerous formulations, like lead and radium in makeup (3) throughout the 18 and 1900s; unsafe practices, like sun-bathing slathered in Crisco (4), which was popular in the 70s and 80s; and using now banned medications, like accutane, to treat severe acne.


It’s only been in recent decades that the beauty industry has begun to focus more on ingredients and treatments that protect the skin. For example, SPF was invented in 1938 with a rating of just 2. SPF 30 was later invented, but not until 1974. So for all of time, right up until less than 50 year ago, we were relying on wearing hats and clothing to protect our skin from the sun, which isn’t always the most practical way.


In the 1980s scientists invented the first anti-aging skincare product using tretinoin, or retinoid, an ingredient that had been used for treating acne since the 1940s. Retinoids, or retinol, has grown more and more in popularity, as people everywhere have found it to be an effective treatment for fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and smoothing skin’s texture.

This effective ingredient sounds too good to be true, and for many of us it is. For there has always been one troublesome side effect to using retinol, and that is: skin inflammation. 


Retinol can cause redness, dryness, peeling, skin sensitivity, and on a microscopic level, it can damage the skin’s microbiome, which, if you know anything about skin, is imperative to its health. Regardless of these side effects, retinol is still one of the most popular ingredients consumers look for in their skincare.


An Industry Movement

So let’s talk about the movement the beauty industry is currently going through. You only have to watch your favorite influencer or celebrity to see that clean, sustainable, and natural are trending hard. We’re all looking for a healthier and happier life, which means eating better, staying active, and looking after our skin and body. Some of the most recent trends within these trends are:

  • Celebrities, like Pamela Anderson and Victoria Beckham, have removed their breast implants (5) to improve their health. 

  • Minimal skincare formulations and regimes are in vogue because of the health benefits, financial gains, and environmental advantages. Take DEW MTY’s all-in-one Bloom Jelly Serum Bar for example. It is formulated with minimal sustainably sourced ingredients, which don’t include any water, making them soft on skin and the planet. 

  • Natural ingredient alternatives are also on the rise, such as fruit enzymes in lieu of synthetic AHA’s, like the Hawaiian Beauty Water by Honua Skincare. 

So it’s really no surprise that some people are now waging a war against synthetically-made, inflammation-inducing retinol. 


What Are Retinols?

Before we move on, let’s just quickly go over what retinol is. Retinols come from a family of chemicals—there’s retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, all-trans retinoic acid, tazarotene, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, isotretinoin that are all derivatives of vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for human reproduction and development and helps with maintaining good vision and healthy skin, andl is effective in treating acne by promoting cell turnover in the skin. This also helps with signs of aging and pigmentation. So it is a very active and very effective chemical.

Some of you may have heard of, or been treated with Accutane before it was discontinued in the US about a decade ago. This oral drug was designed to treat extreme cases of acne. It was formulated with a strong dose of isotretinoin, which, over the course of the treatment (around 16-24 weeks) would gradually destroy the sebaceous glands’ ability to produce sebum. This in turn stopped any acne from forming. It also stopped the skin from being able to produce oil, drying it out in excess, often causing flaking and cracked skin, and was also linked to deformities in a foetus if women used the drug while pregnant—yikes!

This is an extreme example of retinoids, and it’s rather easy to see why it was taken off the market. Retinol as a topical treatment in skincare is far less intense, and you can get different levels of retinol in your skincare products. However, as mentioned earlier, there are now many skincare professionals claiming that retinol should not be used in skincare at all.

As Dr. Barbara Sturm (6), German orthopedic surgeon-turned-esthetician puts it:

“I don’t believe in attacking the skin and forcing healing and repairing every time, and I don’t think retinol should be in skin-care products you can buy in stores. My approach is respecting the skin as our largest organ with so many necessary functions, including our immune system, and staying away from aggressive ingredients.”

Works for Some, but not All

There are four basic skin types: normal, oily, dry, and combination. Your skin type is determined by your genetics, and can be managed—but not necessarily changed—with a good skincare regime. From there, your skin may suffer from conditions or symptoms that usually accompany your skin type. We’re talking acne, sensitivity, rosacea, signs of aging, etc. 

So let’s say you have dry and dehydrated skin that is sensitive and also prone to acne. You might want to reach for a retinol serum to treat the acne and fine lines, and this would likely be an effective ingredient in doing that. However, your dry and sensitive skin may likely suffer as a result, as the retinol can cause further irritation to an already inflamed skin.

As mentioned earlier, pregnant women should also avoid vitamin A derived ingredients, as this can interfere with the pregnancy and cause deformities in the foetus. 

So what if you have dry and sensitive skin, and you’re pregnant, but want to reap the benefits of retinol? Well luckily for you there are now plenty of natural alternatives to retinol popping up on the market that won’t irritate or inflame the skin. Here are just a few:

Bakuchiol. Found in the seeds and leaves of the Psoralea Corylifolia plant, this botanical extract boasts all the same benefits as retinol, without the irritation.  

We recommend: Honua Aloha Youth Serum is designed to hydrate, smooth, brighten and tighten; this carefully curated blend will boost skin’s immunity by providing the nutrients needed for a youthful glow. A unique formula that penetrates easily into the skin delivering concentrated nutrition, leaving skin fresh and dewy.

Frankincense. Used since ancient times, this oil increases cell turnover and gives skin a youthful radiant appearance. Fine lines, wrinkles, and pores are all minimized, without the irritation.

We recommend: Silk Premier Cleansing Oil where healing and reparative Frankincense oil is known to balance sebum production, fade scarring and lift and tighten skin for a refreshed complexion. Follow this with your favorite moisturizer and a scoop of Farizad’s Veil Sun Reflector with ingredients like non-nano zinc oxide, aloe, and frankincense to protect and treat the skin.

Rambutan. This has gained recent popularity, as it aids in development, repair, rejuvenation, and maintenance of tissues and cells. Rambutan is also high in antioxidants called flavonoids, which have anti-cancer as well as anti-inflammatory attributes.

We recommend: Nephelium Hydrate 4 Sleeping Mask reduces fine lines, smooths and tightens skin in a matter of weeks. This particular product extracts nepheline from the Rambutan Seed peel (Nephelium lappaceum), via a new Sub-critical Water Extraction (SWEX) method that yields high performance extracts.

Rosehip oil. In skincare, rosehip has been around for thousands of years, and there is a good reason for it. It hydrates, moisturizes, brightens, exfoliates, boosts collagen, protects against sun damage, reduces pigmentation, and helps minimize fine lines, and to top it off, it’s also an anti-inflammatory.

We recommend: Marina Biome Brightening Ampoule. It harbors highly-concentrated adaptogenic oils that vigorously brighten and balance for an even, radiant complexion. It works at a deep level optimizing skin's delicate microbiome to quickly and noticeably improve the look of overall skin health

Carrot Seed Oil. This is not only high in carotene, which is great for skin and eyesight, it is also an anti-inflammatory and anti-aging, antifungal, antibacterial, and is a strong antioxidant. 

We recommend: Aura Facial Oil. It’s formulated with plant oils chosen for their regenerative properties to brighten and improve skin texture and complexion. This fast-absorbing, lightweight facial oil is a treat for the skin and has a delicious blood orange scent. It can be used as a day or night oil.

Red Algae Astaxanthin. One of nature’s most powerful antioxidants. It builds collagen and rehydrates the skin, giving skin a more radiant appearance, while simultaneously neutralizing free radical damage, and also works as a blue-light blocker.

We recommend: Helios Anti-Pollution Youth Ampoule. It’s almighty ambrosia brimming with ultra-reparative Plant Stem Cells and a fountain of youth-preserving Red Algae Astaxanthin. Unparalleled in strength for combating pollutants and daily skin stressors, this liquid gold ampoule is a godsend for skin in need of aftersun replenishment, bold defense against the elements, and thriving barrier function.


The Problem with Natural

There is another thing to consider when you are deciding whether to use a natural alternative to retinol. Particularly if you don’t have any negative reactions to using retinol, and you are not pregnant.

The problem with going with more natural alternatives is, it opens up another area of concern. Sourcing natural alternatives means that there is greater risk of the ingredients being sourced unsustainably and unethically, or being overharvested. The conditions in which the farmers and workers are subjected to are more likely to be exploitative—this includes increased risks of child labor, if the plants are sourced from unknown, or unvetted locations.

The only way to know for certain that the brand you’re buying your skincare from are ethically and sustainably sourcing their products is to do your research. The information should be readily available on their website or on their packaging. If it isn’t, and you need to go digging for this information, then you might want to think twice before buying.

Transparency in the beauty industry has become such an important part of a brand’s core values, and if a brand is not completely open about all of their ingredients, how they are sourced, and where they are sourced from, chances are their standards are not high enough—not in our opinion, anyway. 


Not for Everyone

It’s important not to follow trends just for the sake of following trends. It’s also important not to disregard an ingredient just because it doesn’t work for someone else, or you read an article that goes against it.

Retinol does work, but you must use it according to the instructions, and even then it might not work as intended. Test patching ingredients, or trialling them before you go hard using them is the best way to know if something works for you. Or if you're uncertain, try one of the many products we have recommended in this article.


Emma Masotti is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.

Some of the products promoted in our blog are from our online store. Many others are brands we have researched and found to be great examples of sustainable, ethical, and innovative brands in their field, and we don't make any profit from mentioning them in our blog. #CollaborationOverCompetition