Our love affair with retinol (a.k.a. a vitamin A-derivative that is an awesome anti-aging ingredient) has been going on for quite some time now. With super-effective over-the-counter and prescription-strength formulas, who wouldn’t want to take advantage of such a powerful anti-aging, acne-fighting superhero?
But regardless of how plump and blemish-free retinoid products may leave your skin, they do have one drawback: They’re banned from the skin-care routines of all pregnant and breastfeeding women as a precaution, as excess amounts of vitamin A have been linked to birth defects (and even using a topical cream can risk absorption of vitamin A into your bloodstream).
That’s a pretty important group of women who can’t use these products, especially considering the stress and body changes that come with childbirth and caring for a baby (read: out-of-whack skin that probably needs soothing the most). There must be safe, effective alternatives out there, right?
We consulted Yale dermatologist Mona Gohara, who says that while retinoids are hands-down the most effective anti-ager on the market, vitamin C comes in a close second. “Free radicals are cosmetic particles that bind to your skin and cause cancer, sagging, and wrinkles, and antioxidants like vitamin C pick them up, almost like a game of Pac Man,” she says.
“Most vitamin C products are cosmetically elegant, easy to layer, and highly concentrated,” says Gohara. Along with vitamin C, Gohara also cites hyaluronic acid, a commonly used ingredient in fillers, as a top-notch anti-ager. “Hyaluronic acid absorbs water, which in turn plumps the skin like a filler would,” she says.
Smoothing and plumping is one thing, but fighting acne without retinoids can be a bit trickier: Gohara says that even some of the most common zit-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide are unsafe for pregnant women. “I recommend using a mild exfoliating wash that unclogs pores and helps to regulate and even out the skin.”
For all the moms and moms-to-be out there, we found the best retinoid alternative products that actually work—including a skin-brightening vitamin-C serum from SkinCeuticals and a gentle exfoliator from Aveeno. Shop all 12, below.
A version of this article was originally published in August 2017.