Retinol in clean beauty…is that a thing? Does a “clean retinol” exist? And if so, does it work? I have been asked these questions so many times and as I’m settling into my mid-forties, I decided I needed to find out for myself. This post has been months and months in the making because I really wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty in terms of retinol products in the clean beauty space.
First things first, what is retinol and why should we use it?
A Little Bit About Retinol
Retinol is one of those seemingly miracle products that clears up blemishes, diminishes fine lines and wrinkles, and brightens the complexion.
Retinoids (which is the umbrella term for most topical vitamin A–based drugs) are the most studied anti-aging compounds, as I’m sure you’ve heard of Retin-A, which was the first retinoid. Originally used as an acne treatment in the 70s, researchers soon discovered that it also evened pigmentation, sped up the turnover of superficial skin cells, and reduced fine lines and wrinkles.
How, you ask? Well, retinoids increase the production of collagen, as well as stimulating the production of new blood vessels in the skin which improves the skin’s overall look. It usually takes about 3 months of regular use to see results, and the best results are usually seen between 6 and 12 months.
There are all different strengths and types of retinoids – prescription formulas usually contain retinoic acid, and nonprescription alternatives (such as retinol) need to be converted into retinoic acid by the skin at the cellular level. Retinol is more gentle than retinoic acid, but it’s important to note that the end results are usually the same…it just takes retinol longer to achieve the same results as retinoic acid. There are also weaker retinoids such as retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate, which are the most gentle.
Bottom line – retinoic acid is the strongest and the most effective at reducing wrinkles, but also the most irritating. Retinol is in the middle – not as strong as retinoic acid, but still improves the appearance of skin and is less irritating in the process. All can produce a similar result, it just takes the weaker ones longer.
I know what’s coming…but is it safe to use?
Is Retinol Safe?
Yes. We know it increases cell turnover and increases collagen (yay!) and retinoid toxicity could be a possibility, but the dose makes the poison, not the ingredient alone. Proper dosages of Retinol in formulations have been studied for decades and been proven to be safe. Bottom line – you’d have to use a LOT O’ RETINOL to experience toxicity.
So, yes, feel confident that retinol is a safe skincare ingredient. Check out this study if you are interested in learning more.
Retinols in Clean Beauty
The best part! Let’s talk retinol formulations in clean beauty.
First, you have products that aren’t retinol per se, but mimic retinol’s activity, such as rosehip seed oil and fermented pumpkin enzymes. Let’s call it an “herbal alternative, ” shall we? Two products in this category that I like are Kypris Moonlight Catalyst and Tata Harper Retinoic Face Oil. These gently refine the skin and are a great start for the rejuvenation enthusiast. Bakuchiol has also recently exploded on the scene and I wrote a full post on those products here.
However, if you want to dive right into real stuff like I use, there are some great options as well. Marie Veronique makes the Gentle Retinol Night Serum and the Treatment Retinol Serum – they are actually the same formulation but labeled for different categories (one for aging, one for acne…I find this confusing to be honest) to help those with specific skin concerns find them easily.
However, drumroll please, I have found the holy grail of clean beauty retinol and it’s the Resurrection Cell Recovery Serum by African Botanics. Oh wow, my friends. I’ve been using this at night for months and I’m completely enamored with the way it’s transformed my skin. Softer, less texture, less redness, less clogged pores…I can’t even express how much I love it. So much so that I rarely wear foundation or BB cream anymore!
My #1 Pick – African Botanics Cell Resurrection Recovery Serum
I found out about the Resurrection Cell Recovery Serum through my Boxwalla box last year. I knew very little about the African Botanics brand personally but was excited to give it a shot. Described as an anti-aging serum that lifts, firms, and brightens the complexion, the serum diminishes the damage caused by sun, time, and pollution while protecting the skin with rare ingredients harvested in South Africa. One look at the ingredients and you know that it’s something special. Besides 0.5% retinol, it contains resveratrol, hyaluronic acid, and plant peptides to smooth lines and wrinkles. I mean, if that isn’t the holy grail of good skin ingredients, I don’t know what is.
Not to mention the Swiss Garden Cress Liposomes and green sea algae which minimizes dark spots by 67% (I can attest to this!), and the anti-inflammatory and calming African Aloe Ferox, Arnica, Gotu Kola, Cucumber and Cape Chamomile extracts.
The sheer, gel-like texture applies so beautifully and doesn’t leave a weird film or stickiness that many gels can. And it doesn’t congest or irritate my sensitive skin in the least which is huge for me. All I can say is that after using it nightly for a few months, my skin visibly looks different. My normal redness and texture around the nose is gone, my lines around my eyes have softened, and I just look brighter overall.
I. Am. Thrilled.
And look at these ingredients! It’s formulated without silicones, mineral oils, parabens, allergens, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, PEGs and SLSs.
Aqua (Water), Hamamelis Virginia (Witch Hazel) Extract, Hydrolyzed Rice Protein, Arnica Cordifolia Extract, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Extract, Sambucus Nigra (Elder Tree) Extract, Malva Sylvestris (Mallow) Extract, Hedera Helix (Ivy)* Extract, Anacyclus Pyrethrum (Pellitory)* Extract, Glycerin (Vegetable), Butylene Glycol (Sugarcane), Aloe Ferox Leaf Extract*, Panthenol (Vitamin B5), Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Hyaluronic Acid, Phytic Acid, Triticum Vulgare (Wheat) Germ Oil, Linoleic Acid, Sorbitol, Alpha Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Ascorbyl Methylsilanol Pectinate (Vitamin C), Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Extract, Equisetum Arvense (Horsetail) Extract, Hydrocotyl (Centella Asiatica) Extract, Chamomile Martricaria Extract, Chlorella Vulgaris (Green Algae) Extract, Hydrolyzed Algin, Lepidium Sativum (Garden Cress) Sprout Extract, Lecithin, Myrothamnus Flabellifolius (Resurrection) Plant Extract, Resveratrol, Retinol (Vitamin A), Citrus Aurantium (Neroli)* Flower Extract, Eriocephalus Punctulatus (Cape Chamomile)* Flower Oil, Sclerocarya Birrea (Marula)** Seed Oil, Adansonia Digitata (Baobab)**, Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Extract. *Organic and **Wild-Harvested Ingredients.
This serum now has a permanent spot in my nightly routine – I apply it after a toner/mist and before my moisturizer. (Click here for my most recent skincare routine post.) I use about 1 1/2 pumps and apply on my face and neck.
I’m not going to lie, the luxury brand is not inexpensive. (It’s so dang worth it, though!) The only slightly terrible part? You are probably going to fall in love with it as much as I did, decide you can’t live without it, and then be forced to repurchase again and again. The things we do for (skincare) love, people. WE DID IT ALLLLL FOR THE GLORY OF LOOOOOVE. Yes, I just quoted a Peter Cetera song.
UPDATED: If you’ve been using Cell Resurrection Serum for a while and are ready to step up your game without going the prescription route, the African Botanics Retinal Night Cream is for more experienced retinoid users and is excellent. It contains 0.1% retinal – retinal sits in between retinoic acid and retinol in terms of strength.
As always, if you have any questions regarding retinol, feel free to leave ’em in the comments!
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