Department of Skincare

Curious About Retinol and Retinol Alternatives? Here's What You Need to Know

Plus, skincare tips from two dermatologists.

By Heather Dunhill April 3, 2024

Retinol has long been considered the gold standard when it comes to anti-aging skincare. Most dermatologists agree that every single one of us can benefit from adding retinol to our skincare routine, regardless of skin type or skin concern. Yes, even if we have sensitive skin.

However, due to retinol's potency, there can be an acclimation period that includes the potential for dry skin or irritation. Because of that, some people abandon it altogether.

""People's reactions to retinols can vary," says Dr. Ilya Lim of Suncoast Skin Solutions. This variation often stems from differences in skin types, underlying conditions and sensitivities. Many people experience positive results, like improved texture and reduced wrinkles, while others may experience irritation or dryness, at least in the beginning."

But here's the good news: retinol alternatives exist, and studies have shown that even though the alternatives are gentler, they are equally powerful performers. 

"Retinol alternatives include bakuchiol, niacinamide and vitamin C," Lim says. "Bakuchiol is a gentler option that mimics retinol's benefits without the potential side effects. Prescription retinoids are another option. Retinoids have a more reliable effect than retinols, but at least some dryness and irritation can be expected at the start of the treatment course."

""One may also consider in-office procedures, such as chemical peels, laser treatments, intense pulsed light, superficial radiofrequency, or microneedling with radiofrequency," he says.

No matter what, retinols and retinol alternatives should be applied on clean, dry skin. Lim advises starting with a pea-sized amount of product and gradually increasing the frequency of use. "And always follow with a moisturizer and sunscreen during the day," he says. "Start slowly, be consistent, and consult a dermatologist for personalized advice."

As far as products go, TRNR Skin is making a splash with its new serum, which incorporates the buzzy ingredients bakuchiol and niacinamide. We asked the brand's founder, NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Ryan Turner, to share more about the serum—whose creation incorporates Ayurvedic principles—for those looking for a powerful retinol alternative, as well as tips for applying it and for good skin hygiene in general. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

TRNR Skin co-founders Dr. Ryan Turner, Carrie Pickett and Aimee Bailey.

Talk to us about TRNR Skin’s serum formula with bakuchiol and its benefits.

"I designed my serum to be a comprehensive one-and-done treatment. The star ingredients in this formula are bakuchiol and niacinamide. 

"Bakuchiol has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine; it’s derived from the seeds of the babchi plant. One clinical study shows that bakuchiol may approach the effectiveness of retinol—one of the most well-studied and clinically-proven ingredients in skincare—in treating signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles, and skin laxity. It works comparably to retinol by activating cellular signaling mechanisms that promote skin repair. Not only is it plant-derived, but it offers far fewer side effects than retinol. Retinol [can cause] irritation, sensitivity, inflammation, and peeling, while bakuchiol use is far less likely to result in these concerns. 

"Niacinamide has been a buzzy ingredient as of late for good reason—it is backed by numerous studies that show it can address a wide range of skincare concerns. Niacinamide is also known as vitamin B3; it’s a known anti-inflammatory that can help reduce hyperpigmentation, balance oil production (which improves the appearance of enlarged pores and can reduce breakouts), promote cellular turnover, and reduce transepidermal water loss. All of these benefits combined support brighter and more balanced skin that appears healthier and more youthful. 

"To round out the serum, I added adaptogenic plant extracts of turmeric, reishi mushroom, and copaiba oil. These are all ingredients found in traditional medicine used around the world. Adaptogens are ingredients that help protect skin by reducing stress. These ingredients in particular feature anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and regenerative properties for clearer and more even-looking skin."

Should the skin be dry before applying serum?

"I prefer serums to be applied to damp skin as it may increase the permeability of the skin, allowing improved penetration of active ingredients. Also, humectants like hyaluronic acid can soak up the additional water on damp skin and help retain it."

How long should we wait to apply moisturizer after serum? 

"Whenever you apply any serum, you should wait for it to fully absorb before proceeding with the next step. Serums are concentrated, targeted treatments, and applying a moisturizer before it’s fully absorbed can dilute the serum’s potency, rendering it less effective. Most serums only take about a minute or so to absorb.

"I often recommend multitasking while completing your skincare routine—take the time in between each step to complete steps of your personal care routine. For example, after cleansing your face, brush your teeth, then while your serum absorbs, you can style your hair. Doing all of these things simultaneously will make your morning and evening care routine more efficient. I’m all about efficiency."


Why did you create your line?

"Inclusivity is at the heart of TRNR Skin — this was a non-negotiable to myself and my co-founders [Carrie Pickett and Aimee Bailey], as we represent various races, genders and sexual identities, and worked tirelessly to create a line of products and a brand for all, no matter skin type or concern. Not to mention, I see such a diverse range of patients in my practice across the spectrums of gender, race and ethnicity, lifestyle, budget ranges, and skincare concerns.

"We felt there was a gap in the market—my patients echoed this sentiment—as dermatologist-founded brands can be pricey and typically don’t highlight plant-based ingredients as the star. There are so many skincare products, which can make it overwhelming and confusing to my patients and the majority of consumers on how best to build out a regimen that’s time effective while providing results, regardless of who they are or the skincare struggles they face. 

"As a board-certified dermatologist, clinical researcher, and academic, I felt very strongly that this  needed to change. No one should feel like they have to struggle to care for their skin. I have spent years studying plant-based active compounds that are proven to be effective and safe; these ingredients are often used in traditional remedies found across the world, including in indigenous populations in the Amazon and in Ayurvedic medicine. These remedies are often written off as ineffective, homeopathic treatments, but the truth is that there is real science backing them. I worked with cosmetic chemists to integrate these plant-based ingredients into elegant, reliable formulas that are straightforward and easy to use for products everyone can trust."

You’re known on Instagram for your 'Dr. T’s Tips.' Please share one with us. 

"Be sure you’re applying SPF beyond what’s in your tinted moisturizer or foundation—while that’s great, it’s not enough! You need a true-blue sunscreen for full sun protection.

"Also, when getting your annual skin check from your dermatologist—this is your gentle reminder to book yours if you haven’t yet—be sure to arrive at your appointment with bare nails. Skin cancer can develop anywhere – trust me. Dermatologists are meticulous during skin checks and will check you from head to toe, literally, to ensure there is nothing out of the ordinary."

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