If you were to ask leading skin-care experts to choose one holy grail product they recommend most, chances are you’d see retinoids pop up time and time again. After all, these vitamin-A derivatives are routinely mentioned as the gold standard for improving everything from acne to hyperpigmentation to fine lines and wrinkles—and a massive body of research backs up these benefits. (Overachiever, much?)
There is a range of potencies across the retinoid spectrum, from the over-the-counter retinols you can snag at Sephora to the Rx-strength stuff that you’ll need a doctor to prescribe. And recently, a version of the stuff that falls squarely between the two has been cropping up in formulations: retinaldehyde, aka retinal.
What is retinal?
Retinal is one of several types of retinoids on offer, each of which varies by strength. “Before retinols work, they need to be converted to retinoic acid,” says Corey L. Hartman, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at Skin Wellness in Birmingham, Alabama. (For reference, retinoic acid is commonly known by the brand name Retin-A… as if there weren’t already too many similar terms to keep track of). “Retinaldehyde is one step below retinoic acid, so it requires fewer conversion steps and ultimately is more powerful [than retinol],” he continues.
On the other hand, retinol “has to be converted first to retinal before being converted to retinoic acid, making it notoriously unstable,” says Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and founder of her namesake skin-care 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 work its magic. (Still, retinoic acid is smaller, which allows the skin to accept it even more readily, Rouleau notes).
Simply put, retinal puts you in the fast lane to address common complexion concerns and is the strongest retinoid you can get without a prescription.
The benefits of using retinal
“Similar to retinol, retinal helps promote cell turnover to even skin tone and texture, smooth wrinkles and fine lines, and prevent acne,” Dr. Hartman shares. But the benefits don’t end there.
A 2018 randomized controlled trial also found that retinal creams improved overall photoaging, reduced transepidermal water loss (TEWL), and increased hydration with twice-daily use over three months in female Korean participants. Moreover, an older study found that “retinaldehyde has beneficial effects on the vascular component of rosacea,” and more recent research in animals backs up its “significant depigmenting activity.”
If you have one or several of these concerns, a single retinal product can supercharge progress on your skin-care goals, packing a more powerful punch than other OTC options. “Retinal is stronger than retinol,” Dr. Hartman reiterates, “and is often found at a lower concentration than retinol due to its potency. The benefits are greater and faster than traditional retinols.” So long as your skin can tolerate its powerful effects, of course.
Why more brands are jumping on the retinal bandwagon
According to Rouleau, there are a few key reasons as to why retinal is up-and-coming in the skin-care world.
“The demand for vitamin A ingredients are at an all-time high because of their benefits and the consumers seeking them,” she says.“People are becoming more aware of retinoids and how they must be converted to retinoic acid within the skin in order to be usable by cells. The closer we can get to retinoic acid, the better.” In other words, thanks to a greater emphasis on skin-care education and ingredient deep dives—whether via social media, beauty editorials, or info from trusted derms—retinal’s star is clearly on the rise.
Rouleau also notes that retinal (and retinol, even more so) is historically unstable in products, which has made it challenging to formulate with. “However, more ingredient companies are now developing technologies to better stabilize retinal so that it can be more effective in formulations,” she explains. “Consumer demand is also helping push science further to meet what buyers are looking for,” which is fresher, clearer skin via products worthy of their hard-earned money.
Tips before adding retinal to your regimen
Retinol is infamous for causing the so-called “retinol uglies”—aka dryness, peeling, and purging before the skin-enhancing benefits you actually want kick in. For that reason, if you’re new to topical vitamin A, diving into retinal from the get-go may not be the best choice.
“Since retinals are stronger than retinol, they should not be used by those who are retinol naïve,” Dr. Hartman cautions. “But if you’ve acclimated to the class, then it would be an appropriate step up and just shy of the strength of a prescription product.”
In addition, Rouleau shares that consistency is key to yielding the greatest benefits. And even if you do tolerate retinol well and decide to experiment with a new retinal product, start slow and steady to allow your skin to acclimate to the new ingredient and minimize the risk of irritation. “I recommend using it in a ‘two nights on, one night off’ pattern throughout the week, for a total of four nights a week,” she says “On opposite nights, use an exfoliating acid serum to accelerate the removal of dull skin cells,” which she says will promote enhanced absorption of retinal. If your skin gets sensitized, further limit your use and/or consult your dermatologist to see if another product—vitamin A or otherwise—may be better for your skin’s needs.
Retinal skin-care products to try
Avène Retrinal Intensive Cream — $74.00
Don’t be confused by yet another slight variation in this product’s name, as it does, in fact, feature retinal as an active ingredient. Better yet, it’s also rich in plumping peptides and soothing Avène thermal spring water, which help to 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 “delivers benefits without compromising the skin barrier or causing irritation.”
Allies of Skin Retinal & Peptides Repair Night Cream — $118.00
A leader in “cleanical” skin-care, Allies of Skin offers its own patented form of encapsulated retinal to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles in this overnight mask. All the while, a 13.5 percent peptide complex reinforces the skin’s moisture barrier as antioxidant-rich organic oils recharge and replenish dull, thirsty skin for a fresher complexion by morning.
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