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Today we're not only reviewing three revamped products from REN Skincare but talking more broadly about 'natural retinol' and how I feel about this class of ingredient, because I can't really do the review without this deep-dive! So, let's do it...
There’s a real trend at the moment of trying to find ‘natural’ retinol alternatives and I’m not entirely sure why. But we'll get to that! Lots of raw plant extracts contain beneficial vitamins like A and C but when it comes to these extracts, they haven't been refined to be at their most potent and the amounts of these vitamins you get in your product is going to vary from depending on the yield. Additionally, we can’t really tell how much of the plant extract you need to get the benefits, and they haven’t been refined to penetrate the skin in the same way as lab-formulated ingredients. For this reason I'm quit iffy on a product only containing rosehip to make Vitamin A claims or products only containing kakadu plum being painted as in the same ballpark as a refined Vitamin C formula. When it comes to bakuchiol or bidens pilosa (which is what REN uses), it's thought that these antioxidants can 'trick' your skin cells into thinking they're receiving retinol, so you get to bypass the irritation associated with retinoids and get all of the benefits.
Retinoids have decades of research, studies and application in the field behind them, so it's really hard to call anything 'the new retinol' because whatever people make this claim with regards to isn't going to have that level of scientific consensus yet. Whilst ingredients like bakuchiol and bidens pilosa have a little bit of research, I think it falls into the category of 'interesting' or 'ones to watch' but still quite far off being a sure thing.
Retinoids are also notoriously drying and irritating, especially if you've only just started using them. Whilst I'm inclined to think that almost everyone could build up to some form of actual retinoid if it's done sensibly (even if it's only retinyl palmitate, a weak ester), I could be wrong (I can't speak for other people's skin), and also: I get that not everyone is inclined to want to do that. Yes, the majority of people can push through than initial retinisation process and see amazing results within a couple of months, but not everyone wants that. Some people want products and ingredients that are gentle and enjoyable to use, even if they're sacrificing some of the results and proof of efficaciousness. We have to respect that people use skincare for different reasons and want different things out of their products.
One thing I don't love is that I don't think we need so many of these sorts of products on the market. It kind of feeds into this ‘natural is better’ narrative. I personally love REN products because they work beautifully for my skin and I do really appreciate the innovation they've done in terms of packaging and raw ingredient sustainability. They're very much 'clean' in that original sense (along with Bybi) in that the natural angle really comes from a true appreciation of the ingredients and extracts they're working with, rather than the LA / Goop 'eVerYthIng iS tOcZiiIc' nonsense which then flogs you overpriced alkaline water or whatever.
Ultimately, what I' trying to say is that you should go into it with your eyes open: your retinoid is not poisoning you and you don’t have to find a natural alternative, but I also understand that there's a valid audience for these products. For me, based on the limited research we have, it actually seems as though ingredients like bakuchiol and bidens pilosa can work with your retinoid and boost its effectiveness, so it's not an either / or: you can definitely use them together. Or, even if your skin is just feeling a bit dry and sensitive due to the cold weather, you could alternate each night between your retinoid and one of these products just to give your skin a bit of a rest, and you could still be reaping some retinoid benefits on these 'down' days that are more focused on hydration and building up your barrier. Another angle is: you can only use retinoids at night but these alternative ingredients can be used in the daytime (plus have antioxidant benefits), so if you want to potentially boost your results you could add the REN line into your AM lineup and keep your retinoid in your PM routine.
Now all of that has been said and you understand the perspective I'm coming from with this review, I wanted to give these ingredients a real go so I could say anecdotally (even if not scientifically) if these products compared to retinoids for me and if they're good products more broadly. Initially I tried all three to see if I noticed similar effects and then I decided to layer them alongside my retinoids for comparison purposes.
Let's start with the Bio Retinoid Youth Serum* | £62. This is a gorgeous milky-lotion serum with the bidens pilosa alongside other well-ageing ingredients like ceramides and niacinamide. Ceramides are a fundamental component of the skin's lipid barrier but over the years your supplies deplete and your skin can feel drier, so it's really important to have them in your routine for general skin maintenance over the years. Niacinamide is great for a lot of reasons, but from a well-ageing perspective: it's an antioxidant, protecting the skin from environmental damage, it actually encourages the skin to produce more of its own ceramides and it can be beneficial for preserving an even skin tone over the years. Vitamin E is also in here, which is moisturising, calming and has antioxidant benefits. We also have glycerin, drawing water into the skin, replenishing fatty alcohols and moisturising plant oils like sunflower seed and linseed. This also contains squalane, a plant-based but skin-mimicking oil to restore moisture. I personally loved using this serum: it was moisturising, softening, hydrating and did have a plumping effect to it. Whether my skin thought it was retinol or not, I can't be sure of, but something this nourishing but also lightweight that provides deep moisture and can banish dry, dull, lacklustre skin will always be welcome in my routine.
The Bio Retinoid Youth Cream* | £52 | was actually a little disappointing for me. The first reason is that it doesn't contain that much that excites me beyond the retinol alternative; there's a bit of Vitamin C and some Vitamin E, but this is getting quite far down on the INCI list, and most of the ingredients are various plant extracts, which are fine but not superstar additions for me. I could've forgiven that if I truly loved using the product, but as a moisturiser this just wasn't as nourishing as I expected (I far prefer the Evercalm cream in that respect) and it pilled up with my other products. I've been pretty consistent for a while with my routine and the rest of the products work really well for me and I've never had this issue with them in the past, which is why I blame this product. Overall, I would say this is one to skip if you usually have similar moisturiser preferences to me.
Last - but certainly not least - we have the Bio Retinoid Youth Concentrate Oil* | £52. What can I say? This is just beautiful! It's formulated with our retinol alternative, alongside rosehip oil and sea buckthorn oil, so it's rich with replenishing fatty acids and packed full of antioxidants. This is what I reach for (as the final step in my evening skincare routine) when my skin is a bit tired or drab because it's so, so nourishing, it restores my glow and ensures I wake up with plump, soft, smooth skin. Again, I can't say if that's my skin saying 'well, I guess that's retinol!' or if it's just the deep moisture and nourishment having a smoothing effect on my skin. However, the product stands on its own as a great oil, and if you want to try a retinol alternative for any of the reasons I've discussed: definitely give this a go.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed using two out of three of these products in and of themselves. For me, nothing is going to replace the results I get from retinoids in my routine and I wouldn't pay the cost of these products expecting that they're going to 100% give me all the benefits I see from my retinoids without any irritation, however - would I personally pay this amount for a delicious serum and oil that make my skin look and feel this good? Absolutely! I need the guaranteed collagen and I'm not with child, so I'm going to keep using and enjoying the oil and serum in conjunction with my retinoids.
Have you ever tried a retinol alternative? Did you see results with it?