Boosts production of natural moisturizing factors and essential skin proteins
Accelerates skin cell turnover rate (which naturally slows down as we get older), which in turn can help fade dark spots, clear your pores, and reverse some of the effects of sun damage.
And the thing is, retinol does these things really well, which is why it’s truly the gold standard when it comes to anti-aging. So yes, it sucks if we can’t use retinol, but luckily there are several other ingredients that provide similar benefits!
Benefits covered: 1️⃣ 2️⃣ 3️⃣ 4️⃣
While best known for its antioxidant benefits, it actually shares several of the same benefits with retinol, especially if you use the most potent ascorbic acid form. That’s why the two are often used together, vitamin c in the morning and a in the evening.
The main downside is that ascorbic acid can also be irritating, especially at higher %, but it’s still safe to use while pregnant. Using a different form will avoid irritations but lead to lower efficacy.
Benefits covered: 1️⃣ 2️⃣ 3️⃣ 4️⃣*
Not only is this such a powerful ingredient, it doesn’t have the same sensitizing issues as ascorbic acid or retinol! In fact, it can even help reduce redness, making it suitable for sensitive skin types (unless you’re specifically sensitive to this ingredient). Regarding 4️⃣, it can help fade dark spots but has no effect on skin turnover rate.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
Benefits covered: 1️⃣ 2️⃣ 4️⃣
The most popular are Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid. We know them for their exfoliating abilities (so all the benefits of 4️⃣), but they can minimize the look of lines as well! Glycolic Acid has been specifically studied for its effect on collagen production 1️⃣ while lactic acid is gentler and has moisturizing properties!
Benefits covered: 1️⃣ 2️⃣ 3️⃣
An umbrella term that covers a range of ingredients that can either boost collagen production, slow down collagen breakdown, or relax the lines on our face, which are all things we want as we get older! But how effective they are depends on which one(s) you’re using. Some like Matrixyl and Matryxil 3000 are better studied than others.
Benefits covered: 1️⃣ 2️⃣
The famous plant-based natural retinol alternative that seems to have the same collagen boosting and line reducing properties without the irritations. Derived from the seeds of the babchi plant, it also has some anti-acne and anti-inflammatory benefits! It’s not as well studied as the above ingredients though, so I personally wouldn’t rely on bakuchiol alone for your anti-aging needs.
Benefits covered: 1️⃣ 2️⃣
An ingredient that also occurs naturally in our body. In addition to share some of the same benefits as retinol, it’s also anti-inflammatory, making it especially suitable for sensitive skin types.
9 retinol-free serums to try
The Skin House Wrinkle Supreme Serum
I already raved about this in The Skin House Wrinkle Supreme line review, and it's a super gentle option. In addition to adenosine and a blend of mushroom extracts with some anti-aging benefits, it's also wonderfully moisturizing without being heavy, and reasonably priced too.
I would actually recommend this for those too young to start retinol or those with oily-dehydrated skin types.
Don't be turned off by the name, Noble Rot is actually a type of fungus that ferments grapes, creating the 62.1% fermented grape fruit extract that's featured in this milky serum. In addition there's Adenosine, 4 types of Hyaluronic Acid, and Macadamia Seed Oil to hydrate and nourish the skin. While there's no specific research on fermented grape fruit extract, Dermatologist Marisa Garshick says that the fermentation process itself can help improve ingredient absorption and create beneficial byproducts like peptides, enzymes, vitamins, and amino acids!
I love how this leaves my dry skin feeling moisturized and plump, and would recommend it to those with the same skin type.
The strongest niacinamide treatment you'll fine, it also contains vitamin c derivative Ascorbyl Glucoside and several other antioxidant plant extracts, and it works. My pores have gotten more noticeable with age due to collagen loss (and you thought wrinkles were the only side effects huh?), and this serum has made such a difference. By the same logic it should target fine lines as well, but I prefer using this on just my pores.
Highly recommend this to anyone whose pores are looking larger as they get older.
Contains 4 different types of peptides, ceramides, and vitamin c for a powerhouse formula. The milky texture applies like a dream too, and not only does my skin feel hydrated and smooth, I noticed a brighter tone and youthful glow with continuous use.
Price is a major drawback though, so I'd recommend this if budget is a non-concern.
A simple 5% glycolic acid treatment that really delivers results with regular use! I'm almost 2 months in using this and the biggest improvement has definitely been a brighter skin tone. Smoother skin texture and decreased pore appearances have also been observed. Does tingle initially but worth it for the results!
I recommend this to all skin types struggling with dullness and texture issues.
One of my favorite K-beauty brands, this Neogen serum not only contains bakuchiol but also peptides, niacinamide, and 2 types of vitamin c, and adenosine! The watery texture feels light and comfortable on the skin, and I love than I can use this in the morning. It's great for mixing with my oilier vitamin c serums too! Does contain fragrance, but I had no issues with it.
Recommend this to anyone that wants to try a lightweight, gentle, and balanced anti-aging serum.
One of my favorite vitamin c serums that uses 15% Ethyl Ascorbic Acid, which has a 86% conversion rate to ascorbic acid that is higher than the average 60%. Also contains niacinamide and a bunch of antioxidant + barrier supporting ingredients. This one not only visibly brightens, but makes my skin plump with long term use too!
Recommended to anyone looking for a gentle yet effective vitamin c!
A gentle anti-aging starter serum with peptides and niacinamide. I was iffy about this being a celebrity skincare line but really enjoyed how hydrating it was! When it was a part of my am routine (with vitamin c), I noticed plumper and bouncier skin! While you won't see drastic wrinkle reductions here, it is one of the more affordably priced options.
I recommend this as a supporting product to your vitamin c or main anti-aging serum.
These are sister brands that focuses specifically on wrinkles, fine lines, firmness, you know, all those issues we start caring about as we get older. You get to work with a licensed healthcare provider to create a custom anti-aging treatment for your specific skin conditions. Possible ingredients include azelaic acid, niacinamide, tranexamic acid, tretinoin, and panthenol.
I recommend this to anyone who wants access to a professional for a bespoke formula.
⇾ $60 per shipment on Agency (save $20 if you bundle with their dark spot formula) or $40 per shipment on Curology. Product shipped every 2 months.
These are just some of the products I’ve tried and enjoyed. Obviously there are a ton of options out there as these are all very popular ingredients, so I would definitely encourage you to do your own research as well!
If you’re not yet a newsletter subscriber, I have a vitamin c spreadsheet comparing all the products I’ve tried, and I’m constantly expanding my skincare database!
Some products were provided for review purposes but all opinions are 100% honest and my own. This post contains affiliate links, and each purchase helps cover the
cost of running this blog at no extra cost to you! Full disclosure
Written by Jenny Wu
Passionate about science-based skincare. Tested hundreds if not thousands of products since my 20's. Working
regularly with brands like iHerb, Ulta,
CurrentBody, and MedStar Health to share my knowledge and experience in all things beauty. Learn more.
Skin profile - 35+,
dry/combination, focused on well-aging, hydration, and a healthy glow ✨