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5 Retinol Alternatives For Sensitive Skin

Few skincare ingredients inspire such cult-like devotion as retinol. Visit any beauty blog or social media page, and you’re bound to find dozens of articles extolling the virtues of this powerful ingredient, which is best known for its ability to help banish breakouts, refine uneven skin, and visibly diminish the more obvious signs of aging, like wrinkles. Unfortunately, retinol’s potency can make it irritating, especially for those with sensitive skin.

Thankfully, you don’t need to rely on retinol to achieve youthful, radiant-looking skin. Here, we’ll introduce you to five powerful yet gentle retinol alternatives that are suitable for sensitive skin. Whether wrinkles have you looking for the best retinol for sensitive skin or you need something to help keep your breakouts in check, we’ve got you covered. Read on to discover five ultra-effective retinol alternatives and learn how to use them in your routine for glowing skin.

What Is Retinol?

Let’s rewind a bit: You need to know what retinol is before we go any further. Retinoids are a class of compounds derived from vitamin A. There are many different types of retinoids; retinol refers to a specific type, known primarily for its use in topical skincare formulations. Though retinol has many benefits, it is most commonly found in acne treatments and anti-aging skincare products. It is known for helping diminish the appearance of fine lines and deeper wrinkles, firm thin or sagging skin, and protect against the visible signs of photoaging. Additionally, retinol and other retinoids can balance oily skin, which helps visibly reduce blackheads and other types of acne breakouts.

Can You Use Retinol For Sensitive Skin Concerns?

While retinol can be a useful addition to your skincare routine, it isn’t for everyone. If you’re prone to sensitivity, retinol can cause redness, peeling, or discomfort. It’s also known to increase photosensitivity, leaving you more vulnerable to sunburns (particularly if you have fair skin). But it’s not all bad news for sensitive-skinned folks: There are plenty of gentle retinol alternatives that you can use to minimize the signs of aging and keep acne at bay. Read on to discover a few of our favorites.

Vitamin C and Hyaluronic Acid

If aging is your primary concern, we recommend seeking out skincare products formulated with vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, which can work together to help diminish some of the signs of aging. Vitamin C is a water-soluble antioxidant known for its ability to help minimize the look of skin discolorations, like age spots. Like retinol, it also helps boost skin’s elasticity and promotes a more even, youthful appearance. Hyaluronic acid, on the other hand, is a humectant moisturizer known for its ability to hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Its retinol-like effects can be attributed to its ability to visibly improve wrinkles and boost skin’s radiance. Together, this perfect pairing works in harmony to help smooth and plump your skin, allowing for a more even, radiant appearance.

You’ll find hyaluronic acid and vitamin C in Powerful-Strength Vitamin C Serum. This potent, water-free serum for all skin types absorbs easily and instantly makes your skin look more radiant. With continued use, it helps diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, firms the skin, and refines the skin’s overall texture. We recommend applying this lightweight serum to your cleansed, toned face and neck morning and night to promote smooth, glowing skin.

For your eye area, try Powerful-Strength Dark Circle-Reducing Vitamin C Eye Serum. This lightweight eye serum immediately smoothes and hydrates the under-eye area to improve the appearance of under-eye wrinkles and puffiness. When used regularly, it also helps diminish the look of dark under-eye circles and other eye-area concerns. You can use this layerable eye treatment alone or under a heavier eye cream morning and night to help refresh and brighten tired-looking eyes.

Phytomimetic Vitamin A

Instead of retinol, sensitive skin types may benefit from using gentle vitamin A compounds, such as phytomimetic vitamin A. This botanical extract, which we source from Indian matki seeds, helps refine and resurface the skin without the irritating side effects of classic retinoids. It’s particularly useful for age-related skin concerns, and as such, stars alongside hyaluronic acid in Super Multi-Corrective Anti-Aging Face and Neck Cream. This anti-aging moisturizer for all skin types is clinically-proven to help reduce wrinkles, smooth skin texture, and even skin tone within just four weeks. With continued use, it also helps firm sagging skin to reveal a more lifted, youthful appearance.*

*Results based on a 12-week consumer test of 53 panelists in the US.

Reach for Super Multi-Corrective Eye-Opening Serum to address eye-area concerns. This potent formula smoothes and hydrates the skin to help restore your youthful appearance. It’s clinically-demonstrated to visibly firm and lift the eye area to diminish the appearance of age-related concerns, including under-eye wrinkles and crow’s feet.* Wear this eye serum alone or pair it with an eye cream for added hydration.

*Based on consumer evaluations after four days of use.

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

Alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are naturally-occurring compounds typically derived from plant sources and natural sugars. They work as chemical exfoliants, helping to remove dead skin cells to reveal the smoother, clearer-looking skin underneath. As such, like retinol, AHAs are often found in anti-aging skincare products, especially those designed to help improve skin tone and texture irregularities. There are many different AHAs, from gentle acids like phytic acid to more potent varieties, like glycolic acid.

You’ll find the former in Nightly Refining Micro-Peel Concentrate, a concentrated nighttime peel. The gentle yet effective formula, which also contains quinoa husk extract, helps exfoliate the skin overnight to reveal fresher, smoother-looking skin over time. When used consistently, it also helps accelerate skin cell turnover and improves the appearance of uneven skin tone and texture.*

*Based on instrumental test within surface layers.

For a fast-acting retinol alternative, try Clearly Corrective Accelerated Clarity Renewing Ampoules. This 14-day system contains 28 individual ampoules designed to be used twice daily (once in the morning and once at night). Each ampoule is formulated with a potent blend of skin-resurfacing AHAs, including lactic, glycolic, and phytic acids, plus vitamin C. When used as directed, they are clinically-demonstrated to brighten skin by 33% while improving skin texture for a clearer, visibly more radiant appearance.* Despite its efficacy, this two-week treatment is gentle enough for all skin types and can be used as needed to help refine and renew your skin.

*Based on expert grading in a two-week clinical study of 85 panelists in Brazil.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid widely used in skincare formulations, particularly those for blemish-prone skin. Like AHAs, salicylic acid works by exfoliating dead cells from the skin’s surface. However, unlike AHAs, salicylic acid is lipid-soluble—in other words, it can dissolve in oil. This makes it particularly useful for managing oily skin concerns, like clogged pores and other types of comedonal acne. Some research also suggests that salicylic acid, like retinol, can help reduce your skin’s oil production, which helps keep breakouts at bay.I

Salicylic acid is one of several effective skin-friendly retinol alternatives in Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Corrector. This powerful serum, which also contains peony extract and vitamin C, helps brighten dull, uneven-looking skin. It’s clinically demonstrated to help diminish a wide array of skin discolorations, including sun spots and post-acne marks. The clarifying formula is suitable for all skin types and can be used daily to promote more even, radiant-looking skin.*

*Based on a 12-week clinical study of 17 women with all skin types presented with mild to moderate severity of attributes, including post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

To further help minimize stubborn breakouts, add Breakout Control Acne Treatment Facial Lotion to your acne-prone skin routine. This lightweight moisturizer with salicylic acid and niacinamide is clinically-demonstrated to diminish acne blemishes and help smooth rough-feeling skin.* When used regularly, it also helps prevent future breakouts.

*Tested in a dermatologist-controlled clinical study.


Peptides are essentially small fragments of proteins created by the linking of amino acids. They’re critical for healthy-looking skin. And, much like retinol, peptides can help boost skin’s elasticity and flexibility when used topically. As such, these unique compounds are a particularly useful weapon in your anti-aging skincare arsenal.

We recommend addressing stubborn facial wrinkles with Line-Minimizing Targeted Triangle Patch-Masks. These powerful hydrogel sheet masks, formulated with hexapeptide, help smooth and plump aging skin. They’re clinically-demonstrated to help improve the appearance of a wide range of facial wrinkles, including nasolabial folds and forehead wrinkles, and are uniquely designed to fit comfortably on the contours of your face.* We recommend using the miniature masks on areas of concern three times per week.

*Based on expert grading in an 8-week clinical study with three times per week usage (24 applications).

Next: 10 Anti-Aging Skincare Tips to Try Starting Now

I. Arif, Tasleem. “Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review.” Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology vol. 8 455-61. 26 Aug. 2015, doi:10.2147/CCID.S84765

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