What to Look for if You Can’t Use Retinol

Sara Bliss
Senior Writer

Photo: Alexandre Weinberger/Trunk Archive

Ask any derm the number one way to fight aging and—after sunscreen—he or she will answer retinol. Whether you use a prescription grade or an over-the-counter formula, the vitamin A derivative is proven to build collagen, shrink pores, smooth skin, even pigment, and fight wrinkles. When the dermatologist does send you out their door with a prescription, they’ll warn you that you might suffer from redness, peeling, and irritation before you see glowing results. But if you have truly sensitive skin, those side effects might not disappear. Retinol is also a no-no for pregnant women.

So if you can’t use retinol, what are some good alternatives? I asked Manhattan-based dermatologist Dr. Gervaise Gerstner to recommend products that can achieve similar results. She says there are two potent ingredients that can deliver the same kind of plumping and re-texturizing. The first is vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that, like retinol, helps build collagen, diminish age spots, and strengthen skin. If a serum or moisturizer touts vitamin C, look for vitamin E on the back of the label for extra anti-aging benefits.

The second magic ingredient is glycolic acid, which helps to uncover smoother, fresher skin (another retinol-like bonus). “Glycolic acid helps you achieve that dewy, glowy look by enzymatically taking off dead skin. It helps with the texture and acne, too,” Dr. Gerstner says. Look for glycolic acid in pads, serums, and masks.

Gerstner recommends two products in particular. One of her favorite drugstore products is L’Oreal Youth Code Pore Vanisher ($20) for its ability to even out texture and minimize pores.  “People want instant results, as well as something that is going to diminish pores over time and this product does both,” Dr. Gerstner states. She also mentions SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum ($115), one of her clients’ favorites.“It’s a one-stop go-to product, it does so many things. I have my patients use it on their skin daily and under their eyes too.” The potent serum with Coenzyme Q10 and Green Tea Leaf Extract targets fine lines, wrinkles, and can even help correct sun damage.