Even though retinol is one of the most powerful skincare ingredients, some people choose to avoid it because it’s too irritating for them or because they prefer more natural options. If this sounds like you, then this list of natural alternatives to retinol is perfect for you.
When putting this list together I looked at natural substitutes that are rich in antioxidants known as carotenoids.
Like all antioxidants, carotenoids play a major role in protecting the skin from free radical damage.
But even more importantly, the body has the ability to convert a subset of carotenoids into preformed vitamin A (which is what retinol is). This subset of carotenoids is (source):
So, by choosing ingredients that contain one or more of the above carotenoids, your skin can enjoy many of the same benefits that retinol provides.
Just keep in mind that these natural options are not as concentrated as retinol. So it might take longer to see changes.
Now, without further delay, let’s have a look at these natural retinol substitutes.
Note: this post contains some affiliate links and I earn a commission (at no additional cost to you) if you use them to make a purchase.
10 PLANT-BASED, NATURAL EQUIVALENTS TO RETINOL FOR FACE: BAKUCHIOL, ROSEHIP OIL, CARROT OIL AND MORE
1. Unrefined Palm Oil
If you’ve ever used unrefined (red) palm oil then you know that it has a very strong orange/red color. That color is due to palm oil’s exceptionally high carotenoid (provitamin A) content.
So, just how much carotenoids can you get from palm oil? Well, research shows that it has 15 times more provitamin A than carrots and 300 times more than tomatoes (source).
Furthermore, palm oil contains the three carotenoids that the body converts to vitamin A: alpha carotene, beta carotene and beta cryptoxanthin.
This makes palm oil one of the best natural alternatives for retinol.
- Tocopherols and tocotrienols: forms of vitamin E, which is known for having antioxidant properties.
- Lycopene: an antioxidant that prevents the breakdown of collagen, protects the skin from sun damage.
- Squalene: a lipid that lubricates and protects the skin; squalene is also found in sebum.
- Fatty acids: palm oil is particularly rich in palmitic, followed by oleic, linoleic
- Co-Q10: antioxidant that balances skin tone and keeps the skin hydrated.
Personally, I’m a little biased when it comes to red palm oil because I grew up in West Africa where it was frequently used for skin and hair care. It’s incredibly conditioning, nourishing and healing.
But it does have a noticeable odor and a strong color that stains. So, be aware of this if you decide to use it.
To minimize the odor and color, you can blend it with other carrier oils or butters.
2. Buriti Oil
The orange-reddish buriti oil comes from the fruit of the moriche palm tree that grows in tropical regions, particularly the Amazon.
The pulp of the palm fruit is particularly high in beta carotene and as such, the oil that is extracted from that fruit is considered one of the best sources of provitamin A (source).
As far as research goes, one study found that lotions and creams that contain buriti oil may have a protective effect against UV damage (source).
- Fatty acids: mainly oleic acid followed by palmitic acid.
- Antioxidants: high in phenolic compounds and tocopherols (vitamin E).
- You can give this plain buriti oil a try.
- Since buriti oil doesn’t have the most pleasant smell, you may want something more enjoyable like this face oil which contains buriti and rosehip (another provitamin A oil). This face oil also contains skin-soothing ingredients like St John’s Wort extract and calendula extract.
3. Rosehip Oil
Rosehip oil is a lightweight and easily absorbed oil that is known for being a good source of beta-carotene, fatty acids and vitamin E.
Overall, rosehip oil can be quite helpful for:
- Inflammation that manifests in the form of acne, rosacea or eczema.
- Stretch marks.
Rosehip oil is also quite rich in linoleic acid (about 54%) making it helpful for supporting the skin barrier (linoleic acid happens to be one).
Do keep in mind that the pulp of the rosehip fruit is where most of the beta carotene is located.
So, when purchasing any rosehip oil, check the label (or the company’s website) to make sure that the pulp was used in the oil extraction process.
You can also read my guide on the difference between rosehip and rosehip seed oil to learn more about choosing a good quality rosehip oil.
- Kosmea‘s rosehip oil is my personal go-to because it’s extracted from the pulp and seed. Go here to get a 10% discount for this oil.
4. Sea Buckthorn Oil
With a high concentration of antioxidants (including beta carotene) and omega fatty acids (3, 6, 7 and 9) sea buckthorn is one of the best natural substitutes for retinol.
Anecdotal and scientific evidence shows that sea buckthorn oil is great for:
- Inflamed skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and acne.
- Supporting wound healing.
- Protecting the overgrowth of candida.
- Fading scars.
- Protecting the skin from moisture loss.
When shopping for a sea buckthorn oil, be aware that there are three types:
- Seed oil
- Fruit or berry oil (this will have most of the beta carotene)
- A blend that contains oil from the fruit and seed.
Pay close attention to the label to see which part(s) were used in the oil extraction.
- Mountain Rose Herbs is one company I like to use for many of my DIY supplies. They make a sea buckthorn oil that combines oil from the seed and fruit. Gives you the best of both worlds!
Bakuchiol is a very calming and soothing extract that comes from the psoralea corylifolia plant (aka babchi). Historically, the psoralea corylifolia plant has been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to address a variety of skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis (source).
When it comes to the skin, bakuchiol has many of the same benefits as retinol, such as (source):
- Reducing wrinkles.
- Improving skin firmness.
- Reducing skin discoloration.
For many people, bakuchiol is a win-win because it offers many of retinol’s benefits while also being very gentle on the skin.
- With a blend of bakuchiol, rose water, rosehip oil and niacinamide, this Firming Serum from Follain has many essential ingredients to support collagen production and maintain firm skin.
- This serum from Acure includes bakuchiol, aloe, turmeric and basil (just to name a few). For delicate or sensitive skin, these soothing ingredients are a welcome treat (yet they still pack a punch when it comes to their benefits!).
6. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
As such, olive oil could be used together with other carotenoid-rich oils, to support skin health.
- Any high quality, extra virgin olive oil will do the trick. One place I like to get my natural living supplies from is Mountain Rose Herbs. They have this organic, extra virgin olive oil that you can use.
7. Apricot Oil
In addition, apricot kernel oil also provides:
- Vitamin E.
- High amounts of oleic acid and moderate amounts of linoleic acid.
- This cold-pressed, apricot kernel oil from Mountain Rose Herbs.
8. Plum Oil
As a natural source of beta-carotene, plum oil can help to promote cell turnover, support collagen production, improve skin elasticity and smooth out wrinkles.
Furthermore, plum oil contains vitamin E which is one of the best emollients for the skin, as well as a potent antioxidant.
One thing to keep in mind with plum oil is that it has a higher amount of oleic acid (52 – 66%) and a lower amount of linoleic acid (28 – 35%).
Oils higher in oleic acid tend be a little heavier. Also, if you have acne, then you want to be mindful of using high oleic oils. This is because those with acne-prone skin tend to produce sebum that is rich in oleic acid and low in linoleic acid.
9. Carrot (Seed) Oil
Carrot oil is mainly available in the form of:
- Seed oil: this can be either a steam distilled essential oil or a cold pressed carrier oil. Either way both come from the seed and both are labeled “carrot seed oil.” It’s important to pay very close attention to how the oil was produced because the essential oil (steam distilled) must be diluted like all essential oils. When it comes to natural retinol options, the cold pressed carrot seed oil is what you want.
- Macerated oil: this involves soaking carrots or infusing carrots in a carrier oil for an extended period of time. The carrier becomes infused with the therapeutic benefits of the carrots.
Although each oil has different benefits, they both contain beta-carotene.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a good comparison of how much beta-carotene is in each type of oil.
- Carrot seed carrier oil from Essential Wholesale.
- This macerated oil from Typology which is made of carrots infused in sunflower oil.
10. Pumpkin Seed Oil
Pumpkin seed oil is considered rich in carotenoids, particularly beta-carotene, as well as others like lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene.
In addition, pumpkin seed oil is a natural source of vitamin E (in the form of tocopherols) and sterols (these are cholesterol-like compounds that are anti-inflammatory and that also support production of collagen and hyaluronic acid).
As for its fatty acid composition, pumpkin seed oil has a slightly higher amount of oleic acid (41.4%) than linoleic acid (37%).
- Try this cold-pressed pumpkin seed oil from Leven Rose.
PREGNANCY SAFE ALTERNATIVES TO RETINOL
That said, it’s still a good idea to double check with your doctor just to have that extra peace of mind.
In addition, carrier oils are generally considered safe during pregnancy. So that means you could consider using palm oil, apricot kernel or sea buckthorn for their retinol-like effects during pregnancy.
However, please note that there really aren’t many safety studies done with pregnant women because it’s just too risky. So, even with carrier oils, make sure to have a conversation with your doctor before using them.
Now, when it comes to carrot seed oil, it’s best to avoid it during pregnancy because it’s an essential oil. If you do decide that you really want to experiment with it during pregnancy, check with an aromatherapist first.
Lastly, please keep in mind that the quality and reliability of the brands you use during pregnancy also matters a lot.
So, whether you choose to use rosehip, bakuchiol or sea buckthorn, go for brands that are certified organic and as natural/wholesome as possible.
This minimizes your exposure to pesticides and other toxins. Purchasing from a reputable or established brand also minimizes (but doesn’t completely eliminate) the chances of buying an oil that’s been adulterated with cheaper oils.
Since commercially available retinol is synthetic, there isn’t an exact duplicate for it in nature.
However, there are plant oils and extracts that can offer many of the same benefits as retinol. I hope that this article has been helpful in giving you some alternatives that you can add to your skincare routine.
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