While it has enjoyed a decades-long run as a beloved skin de-ager and beautifier—it boosts cell turnover! it lightens pesky pigmentation patches! it blasts acne! —retinol is considered by some to be full-on toxic. Cosmetics watchdog Environmental Working Group, for example, gives the powerful vitamin A derivative a “high” Overall Hazard rating, linking it directly to developmental and reproductive toxicity.
Still, among skin experts and wrinkle-fearers alike, retinol remains wildly popular.
A Fresh New Crop of Kinder, Gentler Retinols
“Retinol really is the closest thing doctors have, in terms of topical ingredients, to the fountain of youth,” says Dubai-based Lamees Hamdan, MD, founder and CEO of Shiffa, a holistic skincare range sold in spas throughout the UAE and in the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. A general practitioner who has studied dermatology extensively, Hamdan is a true believer. “Everyone should be using some sort of vitamin A derivative every night.”
As long as they can withstand the irritation, that is. For many users, redness, stinging, and increased susceptibility to sun damage are a direct byproduct of slathering on classic retinol. That’s why we’re happy to report on a fresh new crop of kinder, gentler retinols headed to destination and day spas near you. Whether they swap-in luxe plant extracts for hatched-in-a-lab chemicals, or deploy new methods for encapsulating retinol that all but eliminate irritation, these next-gen options are ultra user-friendly.
Celebrity esthetician Joanna Vargas, owner of day spas in New York City and Los Angeles, included a slew of natural ingredients in her new Super Nova Serum retinol. Alongside apple fruit cell culture extract for skin cell generation, summer snowflake flower extract for brightening, and the anti-inflammatory Persian silk tree extract, Vargas opted for palmitoyl oligopeptide, a retinol alternative that stimulates collagen and “stabilizes skin cells without side effects.”
Granactive retinoid, a trending alternative to retinol, plays a starring role in Shiffa Rose Maroc Night Elixir and Instytutum RetinOil. At the risk of getting overly tech-y, granactive retinoid is a delivery system for the active ingredient hydroxypinacolone retinoate, which is a retinoic ester. And unlike retinol, it needn’t be converted by the skin before the results start to kick in.
For Instytutum, which paired granactive retinoid with algae extract, raspberry stem cells and bakuchiol (more on that in a second), the client feedback has been hugely positive, says Executive Director Helen Ploeger. “The level of the advanced granactive retinoid in RetinOil is the highest percentage level allowed by law,” she says, “to ensure the greatest results with limited side effects.”
In the spa arena, look for bakuchiol in PCA Skin’s Intensive Age Refining Treatment, Alpyn Beauty PlantGenius Melt Moisturizer, and Ole Henriksen’s Retin-Alt range of products.
Still, it’s bakuchiol that’s getting most of the alterna-retinol buzz. This gentle-but-effective newbie ingredient—derived from plants, it’s vegan, no less—has been written up in the British Journal of Dermatology and is clearly on the rise. In the spa arena, look for bakuchiol in PCA Skin’s Intensive Age Refining Treatment, Alpyn Beauty PlantGenius Melt Moisturizer, and Ole Henriksen’s Retin-Alt range of products.
Charting Their Own Course
Of course, some spa skincare brands like to chart their own course rather than embrace the ingredient darling du jour. Eminence Organics, for example, relies on its own natural retinol alternative to power its bestselling Bamboo Firming Fluid, along with other products including Firm Skin Targeted Treatment and Neroli Age Corrective Hydrating Mist. Crafted from chicory root and tara tree extract, Eminence’s secret sauce delivers an immediate lifting and tightening effect as well as longer-term benefits like brightening and softening of crow’s feet.
“Our natural retinol alternative complex has similar benefits to retinol, and where natural ingredient alternatives are available, we prefer to use them,” says Natalie Pergar, Senior Product Education Specialist for Eminence. “We’re constantly working with our formulators and product development teams to harness the power of fruits, herbs, and vegetables in new ways to give the best possible results with the healthiest possible ingredients.”
A proprietary encapsulation technique gives French spa brand VIE Collection’s new Retinopur the edge over more traditional (read: potentially irritating) retinol products. The light fluid is formulated for combination to oily skin, and has a mattifying effect to tamp down breakthrough shine. Bonus: the fresh scent, courtesy of a host of flower notes (rose, jasmine, iris, orange blossom) anchored by musk and amber and topped with citrus.
The upshot of all this mad science? If you’re at all sensitive to traditional retinol, you have an ever-growing array of less-irritating options. And while some may take longer to yield noticeable change, the wait is worth it—especially if they’re crafted from plants. “The results may not be as instantaneous as with other, more aggressive options,” says esthetician and natural ingredient savant Jess Arnaudin. “But in my opinion, they’re more sustainable long-term options, and offer a lot of antioxidant benefits.”
Dana Wood is the Contributing Beauty Editor at InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She has been writing about beauty and wellness for decades, and no matter how many times she taps the words “hyaluronic acid” or “healing modalities” into her keyboard, it never gets old. Dana spent a total of 20 years at Condé Nast, serving as Beauty Director for W, Cookie, and Brides. A transplanted New Yorker, Dana now lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her peak spa experience? Dana says it’s impossible to decide between the Coco-Mango Body Buff at the Driftwood Spa at Jakes in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, The Land of Beautiful Waters Anti-Aging Facial at Four Seasons Nevis, and the 80-minute 5 Senses massage at the Spa by JW in Marco Island, Florida.