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!
Other posts you might like:
Tips For Using Prescription Retinoids
Kelly GriffithFebruary 27, 2019 at 10:40 am
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! I have been scouring the Internet looking for a post like this. And the fact that you posted a link so that I could get it WAY cheaper than it normally is? It was meant to be…thanks again!
whoorlFebruary 27, 2019 at 10:42 am
You are so welcome! I hope you love it as much as I do!
JessicaFebruary 27, 2019 at 11:11 am
This is awesome! Do you have any thoughts about using retinol during pregnancy? I’ve read it’s not recommended but that many doctors are saying that’s outdated information and are letting people use it. (I know you’re not a doctor and may not feel comfortable commenting on this, just thought I’d see if you had an opinion!) Thanks!
whoorlFebruary 27, 2019 at 11:13 am
I haven’t come across any info and like you said, don’t feel comfortable addressing it, but if you find any info during your search, please do share! :)
Reader in CAFebruary 27, 2019 at 11:11 am
I echo Kelly’s comment above, I’ve been wondering about green beauty and retinol for a while. Thanks so much for finding, using and reporting back! I also just ordered the Resurrection Cell Recovery Serum. How long does one bottle usually last you Sarah?
whoorlFebruary 27, 2019 at 6:15 pm
3-4 months – I only find I need to use 1 1/2 pumps for my face and neck. :)
Amy PetersonFebruary 27, 2019 at 6:13 pm
Hi! This was SO helpful!! I just bought the Retinol you recommended – – when do you use that??
whoorlFebruary 27, 2019 at 6:16 pm
At night between toning and my oil/moisturizer.
Amy PetersonFebruary 27, 2019 at 6:14 pm
When do you use the Retinol?? I just ordered it and am so excited
LinedFebruary 27, 2019 at 8:16 pm
This is so great! Question: have you tried Drunk Elephant’s new retinol product? I love so much of their stuff and noticed they have something new out (with a note from the founder about how wrong she was about retinol and how amazing it is!). Anyway, would love your feedback if you tried it! Thanks!
whoorlFebruary 28, 2019 at 7:26 am
Hi there! I don’t use Drunk Elephant skincare products because most have Phenoxyethanol in them (including the retinol product). Although I don’t mind small amounts of Phenoxyethanol in cosmetics, I prefer not to use any in skincare that I’m applying all over my face and neck daily.
JeanneFebruary 28, 2019 at 12:04 am
Thank you for all the added information about BHT and BHA. I just learned I have a compromised liver despite not drinking alcohol (what a bummer!) so consuming these preservatives will have a really bad impact on me. All your information and education helps in so many unexpected ways. Thank you so much!
whoorlFebruary 28, 2019 at 7:23 am
You are so welcome! I’m sorry to hear about your compromised liver, although I’m so glad you know so you can take the proper steps!
StephanieFebruary 28, 2019 at 5:57 am
Are you still using Maya Chia oil after the retiniol?
whoorlFebruary 28, 2019 at 7:22 am
Yes, and then I usually seal it all in with this while it’s still dry outside: http://shrsl.com/1fri9
MeganFebruary 28, 2019 at 9:03 pm
The top ingredients are witch hazel, rice protein, arnica, and cucumber extract. Could I put those all on my face for much cheaper with the same results? Are there tests that show the effectivness of this product or is it anectotal? At some point, these products, as part of the wider beauty industry, seem like they are trying to separate me from my (potential) retirement funds with little payoff.
whoorlFebruary 28, 2019 at 9:12 pm
The results are due to the retinol in the product, which is the most studied skincare ingredient out there. So no, if you mixed the first four ingredients and applied to your face, you wouldn’t see the same results. Obviously, ingredients are listed on a label in order of product predominance and if retinol was in the top 4, it might eat your face right off.
Jen McElroyMarch 1, 2019 at 9:22 am
Did you start off nightly with the African botanics or did you need to slowly ramp up? I know with prescription retinols they recommend 2x/week and gradually increasing. Did you find you needed to build a tolerance so to speak or is this typically okay for right away nightly? PS – long time follower, first time commenter, you are seriously the BEST…thanks for all your guidance in this crazy information-overloaded world!
whoorlMarch 1, 2019 at 9:25 am
You are so welcome! I have slightly reactive skin and need to be careful with some products, but I never experienced any sensitivity, redness, or peeling and use it every night religiously. It’s been such an easy addition to my routine!
Jennifer kMarch 2, 2019 at 10:48 am
Do you have any option about using retinols while breastfeeding?
Jasmine PMarch 23, 2019 at 4:54 pm
Hi Sarah! I am loving the African Botanics cell recovery serum for my night routine. It has really brightened and lightened up hyperperpigmentation and dullness. I’m Indian and am still searching for morning serum to help lighten and brighten skin. Do you have any experience or opinion on Eminence Organic Skin Care
Bright Skin Licorice Root Booster-Serum? Or any other morning serum with melanin inhibiting properties? Thankyou for such an informative blog!
whoorlMarch 25, 2019 at 8:04 am
Hi! I haven’t tried any of the Eminence products but these are 2 great brightening serums for the morning: