Does Safe Retinol Exist?

safe retinol

Retinoids, a blanket term for vitamin A-derived products, have long been considered the gold standard of anti-aging due to a veritable laundry list of benefits. Most-widely known as Retin-A (tretinoin), this topical was initially used to treat acne, but users soon noticed that it had the fortunate side effect of simultaneously smoothing out wrinkles and brightening hyperpigmentation. (The unfortunate side effect? Redness and peeling.) Soon, a retinoid revolution was underway: Doctors prescribed it, and drugstore shelves were lined with its over-the-counter version retinol. And many were willing to overlook the subsequent redness and peeling because of its rejuvenating powers. But the youth-enhancing products have come under new scrutiny as of late, due to concerns about preservatives and photocarcinogenicity. 


Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is a lipophilic synthetic antioxidant that works as a preservative in skincare and cosmetics, and as a stabilizer in retinoids. A 2002 study in the International Journal of Toxicology found that doses of 0.5 to 1 gram of BHT given orally to rats, resulted in liver toxicity. However, that same study pointed out that BHT, when used topically and in low concentrations, was “safe as used in cosmetic formulations.” But that’s not exactly a green light for someone prioritizing clean beauty. 

“As a whole, more research is needed on BHT, and any potentially harmful effects when used on the skin,” says Sydney Cook, Director of Science and Research at MADE SAFE®. “Because conclusive information is not available on BHT and a similar chemical, BHA, demonstrates numerous harmful impacts, BHT is not permitted in MADE SAFE®-certified products until more information becomes available,” Cook explains.

Another concern raised by Cook? Parabens. Although this endocrine-disrupting ingredient class has been disappearing from even non-clean product formulations, it’s still present in many retinol serums. 

Equally troubling is the fact that you may not even see BHT or parabens on the ingredient list of your retinol serum. Because the preservatives are used in such small amounts, the raw ingredient suppliers themselves may not even know they’re present. (Thus underscoring the need for third-party safety screening, which organizations like MADE SAFE® provide.) 

Sun Toxicity 

Dermatologists have long advised limiting retinoids to nighttime use because they make skin more sensitive to the sun. What’s more, many over-the-counter retinols like retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid have been flagged as potentially photocarcinogenetic—cancer-causing when exposed to sunlight. Yet they still remain in many daytime products like sunscreens. 

Meet the Retin-Alts 

Clean retinol does exist—it just isn’t retinol. Take bakuchiol, a naturally occurring antioxidant found in the leaves and seeds of the Psoralea corylifolia (babchi herb), a plant found in East Asia. Although structurally dissimilar to retinoids, it’s been found to deliver similar collagen synthesizing benefits, minus the irritation. But—and yes, there is one— bakuchiol can contain residual solvents left behind from the extraction process, including controversial petrochemicals with their own safety issues. And like with the preservatives dilemma, these solvents aren’t always listed.

But bakuchiol isn’t the only plant-based retinol alternative. Rosehip seed oil and algae extract, found in the Renew Pure Radiance Oil, are rich in vitamin A (from which retinoids are derived) and shown in studies to mimic the benefits of retinol and bakuchiol—firming, smoothing, brightening—without the potential trade-offs. Beyond plant sources, there are clean synthetics. Amino acid-based peptides, which are packed into the Renew Repair Serum, are scientifically proven cell communicators that instruct cells to produce more collagen, increasing skin’s thickness and suppleness. And vitamin C, the star ingredient in the Vitamin C Booster, is a jack of all skin-rejuvenating trades, stimulating collagen and diminishing dark spots to leave skin firmer, plumper, smoother, and more luminous. And don’t forget about AHAs like lactic acid (in the Resurfacing Moisture Mask.) Not only does lactic acid separate connections between dead cells, revealing smooth, radiant skin underneath, but there’s also data showing it can help rev up collagen. Bottom line: You’ve got (safe) options.  

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