POSTED: 25 Oct 2023

Retinal in Skincare, Comparing it with Retinol and Tretinoin

In the skincare world we have long celebrated the benefits of vitamin A derivatives like Retinol and Tretinoin. However, one less known but emerging retinoid is Retinal (also known as Retinaldehyde). With its impressive anti-ageing potential, it is fast becoming a skincare must have in the beauty. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of Retinal in skincare, its down sides and side effects as well as how to use it. We’ll also compare and contrast Retinal vs its more famous cousins, Retinol and Tretinoin.

Understanding Retinal & How Does it Work?

Retinal, also known as Retinaldehyde, is a member of the vitamin A family. Like all Retinoids, it plays a vital role in the health and appearance of the skin. Retinaldehyde can help combat fine lines and wrinkles, treat acne and improve overall skin texture.

Much like other vitamin A derivatives, enzymes on the skin activate Retinal. It then works by binding with the retinoic acid receptors on our skin cells. This then influences gene expression. The effects of this are:

  • Collagen Stimulation: Retinaldehyde boosts collagen production in the skin. Collagen is important for maintaining the skin’s firmness and elasticity. By boosting collagen synthesis, Retinal can effectively combat fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Skin Cell Turnover: Retinal speeds up the turnover of skin cells. By doing so, it helps shed dead skin cells from the surface and promotes the rise of newer, healthier cells. This can be beneficial for treating uneven skin tone, dullness and acne.
  • Pore Unclogging: The raised rate of skin cell turnover can also aid in unclogging pores, making retinaldehyde a good option for those with acne-prone skin.
  • Anti-Inflammatory Properties: Retinaldehyde also has anti-inflammatory effects. This can be helpful in reducing the redness and inflammation linked to conditions like acne.

Retinal vs Retinol vs Tretinoin

Put simply, Retinaldehyde positions itself between Retinol and Retinoic acid (Tretinoin or Retin A) in the vitamin A conversion process. It stands in the middle in the conversion process of vitamin A derivatives into retinoic acid. This retinoic acid is the active form that your skin can use. When applied topically, retinal requires one conversion step to become retinoic acid, whereas retinol requires two and Tretinoin doesn’t require any. This means retinal can be more potent than Retinol. However, it is less irritating than prescription retinoic acid treatments, like Tretinoin. As such, it’s often a good compromise for those looking for effectiveness with fewer of the side effects of stronger Retinoids.

Infographic of retinoids hierarchy: retinaldehyde retinal vs tretinoin vs retinol

When comparing Retinal vs Retinol vs Tretinoin, remember that they are all part of the same family and have similar skin-renewing benefits. However there are differences in their strength and side effects which we’ll discuss below. As such they cater to different skin needs and types. Your choice will depend on your skin’s tolerance, your previous experience with retinoids and the specific concerns you wish to address. Always remember to introduce retinoids gradually into your routine and use sunscreen daily, as they can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

Retinol vs Retinal

For decades, Retinol has stood as the revered over the counter vitamin A. It has decades of studies behind it and long term record of safety. It boosts collagen production, refines skin texture and reduces wrinkles. Moreover, it can help with mild forms of acne and hyperpigmentation.

Whilst Retinal is a newer generation of retinoid, when compared vs retinol here are the key differences:

  • Mechanism of Action: Once applied to the skin, Retinol first converts into retinaldehyde and then into retinoic acid. This two-step conversion process means that the effects of Retinol can be milder and take longer to appear compared to retinal. On the other hand, Retinal is just one metabolic step away from becoming retinoic acid. This is the form that can be directly used by skin cells. As a result, retinal tends to act faster vs Retinol.
  • Potency: Due to its place in the vitamin A conversion pathway, retinal is thought to be more potent than retinol. Some dermatological studies even propose that retinal can deliver results significantly faster than retinol. However, the evidence is still not robust and more studies are needed.
  • Irritation: Although less potent, Retinol can still cause some irritation, especially when first introduced into a skincare routine. This can include redness, peeling, and dryness. Interestingly, many users find Retinal to be less irritating than retinol. This could be due to its faster conversion to retinoic acid.
  • Availability: Retinol is widely available in a range of over-the-counter skincare products at varying concentrations and price points. At the moment, Retinal is less commonly found than Retinol in skincare products. It is usually more expensive due to its increased potency.
  • Suitability: Retinol is ideal for beginners or those with sensitive skin. Its wide availability means you can find a formula that fits your specific needs and skin type. Retinal is generally best for those who already have experience with retinoids and want something stronger.

Tretinoin vs Retinal

Tretinoin’s reputation in the skincare world is also well known. There are decades of research that support its benefits in treating skin ageing, acne and hyperpigmentation. Tretinoin and Tazarotene are the strongest topical retinoids. Retinal is less extensively studied vs Tretinoin. Although it is often promoted as a gentler over the counter alternative to Tretinoin, this is an oversimplification and there’s no evidence that over the counter products can reliably tackle skin ageing and photo-damage compared with prescription retinoids.

Here are the key differences between Retinal vs Tretinoin:

  • Mechanism of Action: Tretinoin is retinoic acid. As such it directly interacts with the skin’s receptors and doesn’t require any conversion. This is what makes it so potent and relatively fast in treating conditions like acne, hyperpigmentation and skin ageing. Retinal however, needs to undergo a single conversion step to retinoic acid once applied. This makes it one step removed from the direct action of Tretinoin but still faster acting vs Retinol.
  • Potency: Tretinoin is more potent than Retinol or Retinal and is known to deliver pronounced results. Due to its direct action mechanism, users often report quicker results. Retinal is generally positioned between Retinol and Tretinoin in terms of strength. This means that it often works faster than Retinol but slower than Tretinoin.
  • Irritation: Due to Tretinoin’s potency, some users might experience an initial period of sensitivity or purging. Retinal can also cause these but is generally more gentle.
  • Availability: Tretinoin is a prescription-only medicine so you will need to see a doctor to access this treatment. On the other hand, Retinal is available over-the-counter and as such is more widely available vs Tretinoin.
  • Suitability: In general, Tretinoin is better for severe acne, significant signs of ageing and stubborn hyperpigmentation. Whilst it is associated with higher risk of irritation, it can work even in those with sensitive skin or rosacea. Tretinoin is also a good choice for oily and combination skin due to its sebum-regulating properties. Whilst Retinal is a gentler alternative, it is also less potent. As such it is more suitable for mild to moderate skin concerns such as early ageing signs and uneven skin tone.

Risks, Side Effects & Who Shouldn’t Use Retinaldehyde

Retinal, like other members of the retinoid family does have some potential side effects. Common reactions include redness, dryness, flaking or a mild tingling sensation. These side effects typically present themselves when introducing retinal into a skincare routine and can decrease with regular usage as the skin adjusts. However, for some individuals, persistent irritation or an allergic reaction might occur. This can manifest as intense itching, swelling or a rash. In this situation you should stop using and seek medical attention. Like with any skincare product, you should perform a patch test before using. This will help you check for allergic reaction or severe side effects. Additionally, although Retinal is considered milder than traditional retinoids, it can still increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. Thus, you need to be diligent with sun protection.

Whilst Retinal is well tolerated by most people, there are some exceptions. In general dermatologists advise against using any retinoid, including Retinal during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Additionally, those with extremely sensitive skin or conditions like eczema or rosacea might find Retinal too potent. If you have any existing skin diseases or are prone to allergies or sensitivity, you should consult with a doctor before starting any retinoids. They will advise you if you can safely use Retinal and how to add it to your skincare routine to avoid any problems.

How to Use Retinal in Your Skincare Regime

A lot of people ask what’s the best age to start using Retinal? Whilst there’s no specific age, most dermatologists recommend introducing Retinal or retinoids in your late twenties or early thirties if you are looking to treat or prevent skin ageing. This is because this is the time when natural collagen production starts to decline. Otherwise, If you are looking to treat acne, scars or hyperpigmentation then you may need to start it at an earlier age.

Tips for Getting Started

You can easily add Retinal in to your skincare routine with a few tips that will help you get the most out of it and reduce the risk of side effects:

  • Gradual Introduction: It’s super important to ease Retinal into your skincare routine. Start with a low strength product and frequency. A common protocol is to begin using twice a week and then gradually increasing by a day every 2-3 weeks as your skin tolerates.
  • Time of Day: Your skin is most active during the night. That’s why you want to use your heavy hitters, like Retinal in your night time routine. Another reason for this is that retinoids are sensitive to sunlight. So using them at night reduces their degradation.
  • Smart Combinations: It is possible to use Retinal with other actives like exfoliating acids and vitamin C but you need to be cautious when starting. The best way to do this is use exfoliating acids either on alternate nights when you are not using Retinal or in the morning. The morning is also the best time to use Vitamin C. You can then adjust your routine based on how your skin responds.
  • Protect Your Skin: Make gentle skincare products the backbone of your skincare routine. Use hydrating cleansers to clean and prepare your skin for Retinal. Rich moisturisers will also reduce the risk of irritation and dryness as well as repair your skin barrier. Lastly, don’t even think about using retinoids without sun protection. Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF30 to protect your skin from sundamage.

Retinal is making waves in skincare and with good reason. Retinaldehyde works by directly influencing cell behaviour, promoting collagen synthesis, accelerating skin cell turnover and exerting anti-inflammatory effects. These multi-faceted actions make it an effective ingredient for a range of skin concerns including aging and acne. It has proved itself as a worthy contender vs Retinol and a milder alternative vs Tretinoin. However, as with any skincare product, results and experiences can vary from person to person. So, if you have sensitive skin or a severe skin concern then seek advice from a skincare specialist. They can guide you towards choosing the best treatment for your skin and help you avoid risks or side effects.

We wholeheartedly believe that skincare is always personal. This is at the heart of our online skin clinic. Our doctors offer treatments like Tretinoin to target acnehyperpigmentationmelasma and skin ageing using personalised protocols. Book a virtual consultation with one of our doctors or fill in our online consultation form today to take your first step towards better skin.

Authored by:

Dr Amel Ibrahim
Aesthetic Doctor & Medical Director
Founder City Skin Clinic
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
Associate Member of British Association of Body Sculpting GMC Registered - 7049611

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