8 Of The Best Clean, Non-Toxic Retinol Serums To Reverse Aging

I’m sharing the best clean retinol serums to use if you want to reverse signs of aging and get back your youthful glow. From retinol to retinal to retinol esters, I’ve got all the details about the different kinds of retinoids, how effective they are and what will get the job done for your skin type. 

hand with skincare products

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If you’re looking for clean, non-toxic retinol serums with legitimate anti-aging effects, I’ve found 8 brands that will take your skin from lackluster and wrinkly to glowing and smooth. I was a die-hard tanner in high school and retinoids are the main product that have saved my skin from becoming a wrinkly prune. I use them every night to promote cell turnover and target my fine lines.

What are Retinoids & What Do They Do?

Retinoids are an umbrella term for a class of chemical compounds that are derivatives of vitamin A. Retinoids regulate cell growth and encourage cell turnover, and have been shown to be effective in treating various skin conditions, including acne, fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.

Types of retinoids include retinol, retinaldehyde (retinal), retinoic acid (this is what is typically prescribed at a derm office), adapalene, isotretinoin and retinol esters.

Retinoids can do wonders for our skin, and the benefits include promoting collagen production, encouraging cell turnover, addressing acne, diminishing hyperpigmentation, enhancing skin texture, minimizing the appearance of pores, and reducing fine lines, wrinkles, and other visible signs of skin aging

retinoid graph

Strength of Retinoids

Retinoic acid plays a crucial role in regulating various cellular processes, including cell growth and differentiation. Retinoic acid is the active ingredient prescribed by a dermatologist. 

Other retinoids need to go through a conversion process before they become retinoic acid. The length of the conversion process determines how effective the product works. For example, retinaldehyde has a shorter conversion process compared to other retinoids, and it’s considered to be one of the most effective retinoid products (along with HPR) below retinoic acid, which is the gold standard.

Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate (HPR) is at the same level of efficacy as retinal, although it is less irritating and is suitable for sensitive skin. One of the brand naes you will often see is Granactive Retinoid.

Retinol is one step lower in efficacy than HPR and retinal.

Retinol esters require a minimum of three conversion steps to reach the active form (retinoic acid), and thus they are less effective than retinol.

Why Are Retinoids Synthetic?

Vitamin A itself is found in various natural sources, such as liver, dairy products, fish oil, and certain fruits and vegetables, and it includes retinol, retinal, retinoic acid and carotenoids like beta-carotene. 

Retinol, retinal, retinoic acid and retinol esters are primarily found in animal-derived foods, so synthetic retinoids are used due to their stability, controlled formulations, and specific properties.

Synthetic retinol can be produced with a high level of purity and consistency. This allows manufacturers to control the formulation of skincare products and medications more precisely, ensuring stability and effectiveness.

Are Retinoids considered “clean” skincare?

Despite one 2012 study that was inherently flawed where retinyl palmitate was linked to tumor growth in mice, other studies have demonstrated the safety of retinol in skincare products. A long-term 2020 study found that a specific retinoid product was safe, well tolerated and effective for treating acne. Another long-term study demonstrated the safety of tretinoin (retinoic acid) for treating photodamage. 

Retinol is one of the most well-researched ingredients for aging and acne-prone skin. I personally don’t have a problem with using retinoids in my skincare products.

Ingredients to avoid in Prescription Retinoic Acid

If you are prescribed retinoic acid by a dermatologist, here are some ingredients that they sneak into your cream that are concerning:

  • Butylated hydroxytolulene- antioxidant and preservative in cosmetics that is associated with endocrine disruption.
  • Polyoxyl 40 stearate- made of polyethylene glycol, enhance penetration of other ingredients. Can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide.
  • Isopropyl Mystrate is a pore-clogging ingredient. 

Are Retinoids Safe To Use During Pregnancy?

No. Using retinoids in skincare during pregancy may contribute to an excess of vitamin A in the body, which can cause birth defects in the fetus. 

Important Considerations When Using Retinoids

Retinoids may cause skin sensitivity, redness, or peeling, especially when first incorporating it into your skincare routine. I would recommend starting with lower concentrations and gradually work your way up in concentration. You could start with a retinol esther, then work your way up to a retinol, then try a product that incorporates either retinal or HPR if you want to ramp up to the most effective products.

Apply sunscreen daily! Using sunscreen during the day is crucial when using a retinoid product to protect the skin from potential sun damage. If you have acne-prone skin, apply acne-safe non-toxic mineral sunscreen as the last step in your morning skincare routine.

Beyond anti-aging serums, consider washing your face with a non-toxic face wash and apply non-toxic face lotion over your serum.

If you’re considering trying a retinol product or switching to a cleaner version of retinol, below are my top clean, non-toxic retinol serum picks to get your skin in tip top shape. 

Leahlani Aqua A Retinoid Renewing Serum
Cost: $74 for 1 fl oz ($74 per ounce)
Skin Type: All skin types.
Pore Clogging Check: not acne-safe
Anti-aging ingredients: hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR)
From the Leahlani website: A powerful blend of skin actives and potent botanicals to bring youthful vitality into the skin. Aqua A is formulated with low-irritation HPR retinoids, which have been proven to be just as effective but non-sensitizing, to promote cellular turnover – smoothing fine lines and wrinkles while giving skin a glow from within. Aqua A is supported by plumping ceramides to help strengthen the skin barrier and boost elasticity while a potent cocktail of botanical antioxidants like superfood spirulina and green caviar oil help to firm, tone and protect.
Shop: Leahlani Aqua A Retinoid Renewing Serum

Cocokind Beginner Retinol Gel
Cost: $27 for 1 fl oz ($27 per ounce)
Skin Type: All skin types, including sensitive skin. Formulated without fragrance, essential oils, and known/common allergens.
Pore Clogging Check: not acne-safe
Anti-aging ingredients: 0.05% retinol, 0.025% time-released retinal, 0.025% granactive retinoid
From the Cocokind website: Cocokind Beginner’s Retinol is clinically-tested for sensitive skin and made with their Tri-Retinoid Comfort Complex™ to improve the appearance of fine lines and uneven texture with no irritation. Their retinol complex is further buffered with a soothing blend of aloe and cica to prevent excessive dryness.
Shop: Cocokind Beginner Retinol Gel

Innbeauty Project Retinol Remix 1% Retinol Treatment
Cost: $48 for 1 fl oz ($48 per ounce)
Skin Type: All skin types for normal, dry, combination, and oily.
Pore Clogging Check: not acne-safe
Anti-aging Ingredients: 1% Retinol, Retinal, Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate
From the InnBeauty Project website: This serum features 1% Vegan Retinol, Peptide & Tranexamic Acid work to visibly reduce wrinkles & enlarged pores while brightening & smoothing skin. It’s effective, not aggressive.
Shop: Innbeauty Project Retinol Remix 1% Retinol Treatment

Mychelle Renew Remarkable Retinal Serum
Cost: $39 for 1 fl oz ($39 per ounce)
Skin Type: All skin types.
Pore Clogging Check: acne-safe
Anti-aging ingredients: retinal (retinaldehyde)
From the Mychelle website: This advanced serum promotes healthy skin regeneration and reduces the appearance of wrinkles by combining the most potent non-prescription form of Vitamin A (patented-process Retinal) with Ceramide 3 and Orange Plant Stem Cells. This non-irritating, dermatologist tested serum is made without parabens, petroleum, phthalates, silicones, sulfates, ureas, artificial fragrances and colors.
Shop: Mychelle Renew Remarkable Retinal Serum

Marie Veronique Multi-Retinol Night Emulsion
Cost: $135 for 1 fl oz ($135 per ounce)
Skin Type: All skin types, including mature, dry, sensitive, blemish-prone, combination, normal, and those with rosacea.
Pore Clogging Check: not acne-safe
Anti-aging ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, Bakuchiol, Retinyl sunflowerseedate
From the Marie Veronique website: This creamy, luxe night treatment provides a smarter, more strategic way to address and repair the declining function that is characteristic of aging skin. The innovative formulation leverages the unique benefits of three different retinoid actives to deliver comprehensive age delay benefits gradually and effectively, without causing redness, discomfort, or irritation. Microbiome-friendly, Fragrance + Essential Oil free.
Shop: Marie Veronique Multi-Retinol Night Emulsion 

Maya Chia The Straight A
Cost: $125 for 1 fl oz ($125 per ounce)
Skin Type: All skin types, especially mature and blemish-prone.
Pore Clogging Check: acne-safe
Anti-aging ingredients: Encapsulated retinol, Bakuchiol, Moth Bean Extract
From the Maya Chia website: Maya Chia uses the highest quality shelf-stable Vitamin C, along with Vitamin E to help brighten and reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation as well as carrier oils that are rich in naturally-occurring Vitamin A. Nutrient-dense botanicals such as Chia Seed and Buriti oil help to moisturize and nourish and achieve similar results as a Retin-A product without the associated irritation. Microbiome-friendly, Fragrance + Essential Oil free.
Shop: Maya Chia The Straight A

Pai Skincare Retinal 0.16% Skin Renewal Booster
Cost: $29 – no weight available
Skin Type: Mature, sensitive skin
Pore Clogging Check: not acne-safe
Anti-aging Ingredients: retinal (0.16%)
From the Pai website: This age-defying active speeds up cell turnover even faster than Retinol – meaning improved elasticity and less prominent fine lines – without the irritation. It improves visible signs of aging, reduces the appearance of fine lines, and improves skin tone and elasticity.
Shop: Pai Skincare Retinal 0.16% Skin Renewal Booster

Common Heir 0.2% Retinol Serum
Cost: $88 for 60 capsules ($1.47 per capsule)
Skin Type: All skin types, including sensitive skin and melanin-rich skin.
Pore Clogging Check: acne-safe
Anti-aging ingredients: 0.2% retinol from retinyl linoleate
From the Common Heir website: Time-tested Vitamin A is boosted by smoothing botanicals that detox and repair skin, while squalane and algae oil nourish for clinically-proven results without irritation. Retinol for all: Formulated at a gentle 0.2% to boost benefits while nourishing skin.
Shop: Common Heir 0.2% Retinol Serum

woman applying skin serum