If you were to ask top skincare experts to pick one holy grail product they recommend the most, chances are you’ll see retinoids popping up time and time again. After all, these vitamin A derivatives are regularly mentioned as the gold standard for improving everything from acne and hyperpigmentation to fine lines and wrinkles – and a extensive body of research confirms these benefits. (More efficient, much?)
There’s a range of potencies across the retinoid spectrum, from over-the-counter retinols you can grab at Sephora to strength Rx stuff you’ll need a doctor to prescribe. And recently, a version of the substance that falls squarely in between has made its way into formulations: retinaldehyde, aka retinal.
What is the retina?
Retinal is one of many types of retinoids offered, each varying in strength. “Before retinols work, they have to be converted into retinoic acid,” explains Corey L. Hartman, MD, FAADa board-certified dermatologist Skin well-being in Birmingham, Alabama. (For reference, retinoic acid is commonly known by the brand name Retin-A…as if there weren’t too many similar terms to follow already). “Retinaldehyde is one step below retinoic acid, so it requires fewer conversion steps and is ultimately more potent [than retinol],” he keeps on.
On the other hand, retinol “must be converted to retinal first before it is converted to retinoic acid, which makes it notoriously unstable,” explains Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and founder of her eponymous skincare line. “Retinal also has a very small molecular size compared to other types of retinoids,” she adds, which makes it easier to penetrate the skin and works its magic. (Still, retinoic acid is smaller, making it even easier for skin to accept it, Rouleau notes).
Simply put, retinal puts you on the fast track to solving common skin tone issues and is the strongest retinoid you can get without a prescription.
The Benefits of Using Retina
“Similar to retinol, retinal helps promote cell turnover to even out skin tone and texture, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, and prevent acne,” Dr. Hartman shares. But the benefits don’t stop there.
A Randomized Controlled Trial 2018 also found that retinal creams improved overall photoaging, reduced transepidermal water loss (TEWL), and increased hydration with twice-daily use for three months in Korean participants. Additionally, a older study found that “retinaldehyde has beneficial effects on the vascular component of rosacea” and more recent searches in animals confirms its “significant depigmenting activity”.
If you have one or more of these issues, a single retinal product can accelerate progress toward your skincare goals, delivering a more powerful punch than other over-the-counter options. “Retinal is stronger than retinol,” Dr. Hartman reiterates, “and is often found in a lower concentration than retinol due to its potency. The benefits are greater and faster than traditional retinols. As long as your skin can tolerate its powerful effects, of course.
Why more and more brands are jumping on the retinal bandwagon
According to Rouleau, there are a few key reasons retinal is booming in the skincare world.
“The demand for vitamin A ingredients is at an all-time high due to their benefits and consumers seeking them out,” she says. “People are becoming more aware of retinoids and how they need to be converted into retinoic acid in the skin to be usable by cells. The closer we get to retinoic acid, the better.” in other words, thanks to a focus on skincare education and a deep dive into ingredients, whether through social media, beauty editorials, or information from trusted dermatologists, the Retinal’s star is clearly on the rise.
Rouleau also notes that retinal (and retinol, even more so) has historically been unstable in products, making formulation difficult. “However, more and more ingredient companies are now developing technologies to better stabilize the retina so that it can be more effective in formulations,” she explains. “Consumer demand is also helping push the science further to meet what shoppers are looking for,” which is fresher, clearer skin via products worthy of their hard-earned cash.
Tips before adding retinal to your regimen
Retinol is infamous for causing what is known as “retinol ugliness”, i.e. dryness, flaking and bleeding before the skin-enhancing benefits you want really don’t show up. For this reason, if you’re new to topical vitamin A, dipping into the retina right off the bat may not be the best choice.
“Because retinals are more potent than retinol, they should not be used by those who have never used retinol,” warns Dr. Hartman. “But if you’ve acclimated to the class, then this would be an appropriate step and just below the strength of a prescription product.”
Additionally, Rouleau shares that consistency is key to getting the biggest benefits. And even if you tolerate retinol well and decide to experiment with a new retinal product, start slowly and steadily to allow your skin to acclimate to the new ingredient and minimize the risk of irritation. “I recommend using it on a ‘two nights, one night off’ schedule throughout the week, for a total of four nights a week,” she says. “On opposite nights, use an exfoliating acid serum to speed up the removal of dull skin cells,” which she says will promote better retina absorption. If your skin is sensitized, further limit your use and/or consult your dermatologist to see if another product (vitamin A or other) might better meet your skin’s needs.
Retinal Skin Care Products to Try
Avene Retrinal Intensive Cream — $74.00
Don’t be confused by another slight variation in the name of this product, as it actually contains retinal as an active ingredient. Best of all, it’s also rich in plumping peptides and soothing Avène Thermal Spring Water, which help make it safe enough for even super dry and sensitive skin. It also gets Dr. Hartman’s official stamp of approval, as he notes that this cream “provides benefits without compromising the skin barrier or causing irritation.”
Allies of Skin Retinal Repair Night Cream and Peptides — $118.00
A leader in “clean” skincare, Allies of Skin offers its own patented form of encapsulated retinal to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles in this overnight mask. Meanwhile, a 13.5% peptide complex reinforces the skin’s moisture barrier while antioxidant-rich organic oils recharge and replenish dull, thirsty skin for a fresher complexion in the morning.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.