Decoding Skincare, One Potent Ingredient at a Time.

Retinol Alternatives, and then some.

The internet is filled with information on skincare. From Blogs, to newsletters, and Instagram posts to YouTube videos you name it, and there’s something on skincare, all of which aim to educate the consumer about every thing under the skincare universe. If you’re an avid reader or a follower of this content, you know that currently, there is a lot of talk about retinol, and the hero that it is, having said that, there are individuals who are unable to use retinols, so let us explore the alternate universe to retinol - acids, yes acids. Acids, are active ingredients and can deliver great results with consistent use, similar to that of retinols.

There are plenty on active ingredients and acids present in the market. When it comes to acids, some that you might spot regularly on counters would be salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid, bakuchiol, all of which are great actives and target specific concerns. Some of these acids may even be available in different concentrates. Before you buy these, it is essential to understand your skin type and what its concerns are. It is important to note that these ingredients are strong and can cause harm if not used in the right way.

Thus, in this article we are decoding these ingredients, so as to better help you decide which to use!

In this article

Salicylic Acid

Derived from the bark of white willow and wintergreen leaves, Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). It belongs to a class of ingredients called salicylates. BHAs are exfoliants that can be applied every day, and for maximum benefits when using BHAs it is essential to use a sunscreen in your daily routine as well.

Salicylic acid is not only an anti-inflammatory ingredient, but it also acts as a topical antibacterial agent due to its ability to promote exfoliation. Moreover, salicylic acid is also an oil soluble ingredient; according to board certified dermatologist, Sejal Shah, oil soluble ingredients penetrate the skin at a deeper level as compared to the water soluble AHA exfoliants.

On applying this to your skin, it encourages thorough skin exfoliation and unclogging of pores. It shows maximum effects on oily and acne prone skin by significantly decreasing redness and swelling. Moreover, it slows down the speed of acne and promotes healing.

Lactic acid

An AHA exfoliant, and is most commonly derived from soured milk. Vegan lactic acid can be derived from fermented corn starch, beets, and other sugar-rich foods. Lactic acid, a water-soluble exfoliant and works effectively to offer the following benefits: increase in cell turnover, eliminates dead skin cells, delays aging, reduce dark spots, improves fine lines and helps treat acne. Unlike other acids, besides its ability to keep the skin looking refreshed and bright, Lactic acid also helps keep the skin naturally hydrated. Studies found that moisture levels of the skin significantly increased even after four weeks of use. Moreover, when using it at a concentration of 12% it assists the skin in becoming firmer and thicker. For maximum benefits, use this in tandem with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid.

When using this ingredient, we recommend that you start slow and increase the amount and concentration gradually. Try the three-on, three-off method where in you use it three days in a row then give your skin a break for three days. Why? Well, being a potent ingredient, lactic acid is something that doesn’t go very well with retinol. Using both together would irritate the skin and perhaps even target the skin’s moisture barrier.

Glycolic Acid

Another ingredient that’s categorised as an AHA exfoliant is glycolic acid - which is primarily derived from sugarcane. It is the acid with the least molecular weight which means that this ingredient penetrates into the skin easily and shows promising results. Studies suggest that consistent use of glycolic acid is known to show a significant resolution of comedones, papule and pustules; moreover, skin texture is known to improve, also it has been found to bring an evident reduction in acne scars and lesions, and follicular pores actually become smaller.

Glycolic acid is one of the most-loved ingredients in the skincare world as it treats more than just acne and zits. Once it dissolves in your skin, glycolic acid works to break bonds between one’s outer layer of skin cells, as well as dead skin cells and the following layer, hence exfoliating the skin. Once stimulated, it aids in stimulating collagen production as well.

Dermatologists are also known to use this acid to prep the skin for other treatments. Given its light molecular weight it penetrates the skin quickly and its exfoliating properties allows for better absorption of other products.

While it is available over the counter, given its strength, it is important to consult a dermatologist on how to use glycolic acid and when to do so, so as to ensure safe and effective use. Moreover, it does make your skin sensitive to sunlight, so when using this acid, be sure to be cautious if you are exposed to sunlight on a regular basis.


Bakuchiol, is an antioxidant found in seeds and leaves of the plant scientifically known as Psorealea Corylifolia aka the Babchi plant. If you are an avid skin care content follower, or a Skintellectual as well like to call it, you would know that this ingredient is referred to as ‘the go to retinol alternative.

Is this truly an alternative to retinol? In an open access independent study published by the British Journal of Dermatology it was found that both Bakuchiol and Retinol reduced wrinkles, as well as hyperpigmentation to similar levels. Having said that the study also found that Bakuchiol was better tolerated than retinol as those using retinol had more irritation than those using Bakuchiol. Moreover, those using bakuchiol experienced no photosensitivity, while those who applied retinol did. It was noted that participants who were using bakuchiol used twice as much product as those that used retinol. Hence, showing that you needed more bakuchiol based product to achieve similar results. This could then, also indicate that retinoids are more effective than bakuchiol.

Bakuchiol would thus, be the preferred choice to those who are unable to tolerate retinoids or those who are pregnant. Having said that, for maximum efficacy it may be wise to go for a retinol if your skin can tolerate it.

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