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Retinol vs Retinal – what’s the difference?

Retinol has long been the gold standard youth-booster, but what do you know about retinal? We compare the two to see which one comes out on top

The confusion surrounding retinol and retinal seems to stem from a confusion around vitamin A in general. "When we talk about vitamin A in skincare, we're referring to a group of compounds known as retinoids. Of that umbrella term of 'retinoids', there are derivatives – two of which are retinol and retinaldehyde – or retinal for short,” explains Consultant Dermatologist Anjali Mahto.

Retinaldehyde is a relatively new vitamin A ingredient but still has significant published studies proving its efficacy: in particular, it is proven to be 11 times faster acting than traditional retinol.

“It’s the closest thing to prescription-strength vitamin A, otherwise known as retinoic acid. It's a powerful skincare ingredient that is able to directly enter the nucleus of a skin cell, attaching to specific retinoic acid receptors and triggering protein synthesis. This results in enhanced cellular regeneration and the synthesis of collagen molecules, leading to a youthful-looking, smooth and firm complexion,” shares Director of Research at Medik8, Daniel Isaacs.

What’s the difference?

While retinol converts to retinal and then to retinoic acid in the skin, retinal only has to convert to retinoic acid, making it quicker and more efficient and less of an irritant than prescription strength vitamin A.

But when it comes to the results we see on the skin, doesn’t retinol do the same? Yes, it does. Both retinol and retinal speed up cellular turnover and collagen production to plump, firm, smooth and strengthen the skin, as well as inhibit excess melanin to promote a more even-toned complexion.

However, “retinal also has antibacterial properties so may be suitable for oily or blemish-prone skin," adds Mahto. It's the antibacterial properties that cleverly diminish P. acnes, the bacteria responsible for breakouts, to treat acne over time.

How do you use retinal?

Retinal and retinol should be used in the same way. “Retinoids can cause mild irritation to the skin when you start using them. This is nothing to be alarmed by. It happens because the skin cells are being overloaded with unusual amounts of non-physiological retinoic acid.

"This can cause redness, irritation and often flaking of the skin as the retinoid is stimulating cellular renewal, but it’s just a sign that your skin is adjusting to having an abundant source of this beneficial vitamin," shares Isaacs.

The best way to decrease the risk of side effects associated with retinoids is to introduce them into your routine slowly. “Start on an entry level strength – Medik8’s 0.03% encapsulated retinaldehyde is perfect for those new to vitamin A and should be introduced to your skin slowly so as not to overwhelm it. Use twice a week for the first two weeks, then once every other night for a further two weeks and then nightly application. Once your skin has accepted the molecule without experiencing any irritation you can then move up to a higher strength to maximise your results," adds Isaacs.

The verdict

Retinal does seem to be a more superior active, however it is known to be a pretty unstable ingredient, which is why not as many brands use retinal over retinol. But if you want faster results, and have oily and acne-prone skin, retinal is the non-prescription retinoid for you.

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