Just when you thought you got your head around retinol, along comes retinal as a star age-proofing ingredient. But what exactly is retinal and which are the best retinal serums?

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Tomay-to, tomah-to, potay-to, potah-to…. retinol, retinal? You’d be forgiven for feeling slightly bemused by the hype over a ‘new’ anti-ageing and acne-busting skincare ingredient that sounds practically the same as the other one, and appears to offer the same benefits as well. But the new kid-on-the-block retinal is different from its sibling retinol and worth knowing about for quite a number of reasons. So here they all are.

What is retinal?

Retinal -  also called retinaldehyde- is a form of vitamin A, and therefore a member of the retinoid family. It’s safe to say this is the ‘royal family' of skincare ingredients, all with the potential to normalise skin function, with a wide range of pleasing results: fewer lines and wrinkles, fading pigmentation, a reduction of spots and oiliness, and healthier-looking, more radiant skin. The family’s most famous denizen is retinol, which is the entire vitamin A molecule – all other retinoids are either fragments of vitamin A, or compounds (vitamin A grafted to something else).

The actual active ingredient - the bit that does all the work- in retinol and other retinoids is retinoic acid. This is considered a medicine that only doctors can prescribe as a cream, usually under the trade name Tretinoin or Retin-A. It’s the most potent of retinoids and is backed by decades of clinical research.

Now, retinal is a relatively new cosmetic retinoid that appears in some studies to be just as effective as the medicine retinoic acid – but without the irritation and flakiness that is almost inevitable with the latter, especially when you first start using it. “It's a skin rejuvenator and works a treat to prevent and manage acne,” says cosmetic physician and author of The Face Bible Dr Raj Arora.

Retinal is even less irritating than retinol, the long-established cosmetic retinoid. That is big news and the reason why people are going doolally over the ingredient. Visibly skin-transforming but without any drawbacks? We’ll have some of that.

How does retinal work in the skin?

Like other retinoids, retinal is a ‘cell-communicating ingredient’ that normalises healthy skin function, helping restore it to optimal, youthful ‘settings’. In practice, this means it speeds up the rate at which skin regenerates and old cells shed, bringing fresh, glowing cells to the surface faster. As a result, wrinkles plump out, brown spots lighten, and you get what’s often called the ‘retinol glow.’

Oil production in the skin is also normalised, meaning fewer oil slicks, greasy T-zones and spots. And there’s more: “They help strengthen the skin barrier, reduce water loss, and protect existing collagen fibres,” says facialist Fiona Brackenbury.

So far, so many similarities between retinal and retinol….

So why is retinal ‘better’ than retinol?

Well, for starters, retinal works faster. Once absorbed into the skin, explains cosmetic chemist and founder of skincare consultation service Renude.co. Pippa Harman, all retinoids must convert into active ingredient retinoic acid in order to be used by the body. This happens in steps – and where retinol is two steps away, retinal needs just the one step to become retinoic acid. “Because every step reduces the effectiveness of the retinoid, this means retinal can deliver more retinoic acid into the skin than retinol,” says Harman. 

One published clinical study showed that the rate of this conversion is 11 times faster than that of retinol. Impressive, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your skin will change in a month rather than a year. “The study was done in a petri dish,” says Harman. “Inside living skin, you get lots of variables, such as individual cell turnover and metabolism.” Brackenbury adds that “the health of our skin, our age and our lifestyle including external stresses from pollution and the sun all influence skin’s ability to convert the ingredient.”  So while you will get top-speed results from retinal, we can’t quantify its speed of impact versus retinol with a headline-grabbing number; it’ll be different for each of us.

There’s another reason why retinal wipes the floor with retinol: like pure retinoic acid, retinal is antibacterial whereas retinol is not. So, while retinol, with its ability to clear away clogging skin cells and reduce oil production, is great for reducing breakouts, retinal, with the added benefit of nuking bacteria, is better. “Fewer bad bacteria mean less of a chance to develop spots and acne, and overall clearer skin,” says Brackenbury.

How come retinal is not more irritating than retinol?

If retinal is so much closer to pure retinoic acid than retinol, and acts faster than retinol to get skin to slough off dead cells and dry out oil, how can retinal possibly cause less irritation than retinol and prescription Tretinoin?!

Retinaldehyde is a bit of an enigma in that respect,” admits Dan Isaacs of Medik8. But there is a good explanation: retinal, being incredibly unstable (meaning it loses its potency or ‘goes off’ the moment it’s exposed to oxygen, light or water), has to be encapsulated, i.e. formulated in microscopic protective bubbles. This doesn’t just protect the ingredient, says Isaacs, it protects the skin as well, as the potent active isn’t dumped into the skin all at once, but slowly released instead and, importantly, "allows it to reach the correct layer of the skin before breaking down into retinoic acid," says Dr Arora.

That said, “Both retinol and retinal can cause some irritation, particularly when first introduced,” says Harman. “So they should be applied to the skin gradually, starting with a low concentration two evenings per week, and building up every two weeks until you’re using each evening. From then on, be consistent: "Compliance is key with retinal when it comes to lasting results," says Arora. It’s the same, of course, for retinol, which has benefitted from the encapsulation technology necessitated by retinal: today, there are a lot of advanced, encapsulated retinols as well, bringing the irritation potential down and making it much more user-friendly for all skin types.

If it’s so amazing, why are there not more retinal products?

Because retinal is (still) a very expensive ingredient, affecting brands’ profit margins, and because it’s a b*tch to formulate with. “It comes with many challenges, requiring not only encapsulation technology but a sophisticated delivery system as well,” says Brackenbury. It’s why not every retinal product will be equally amazing: its effectiveness stands or falls with how good these technologies are, and for the time being, a very cheap retinal product might offer a hint that it’s not great.

Why do most doctors recommend retinol for a cosmetic retinoid?

After the medically sanctioned retinoic acid or Tretinoin, retinol is the retinoid with the vastest reams of clinical proof behind it. It makes it, understandably, a fail-safe product for medics to recommend, and that’s why it’s the one routinely fingered by dermatologists for anti-ageing and anti-breakout purposes. But retinal and its other sister r-retinoate are coming on strong, with increasing research to back them up and big brownie points for causing very little damaging inflammation in the skin. In future, we may see them on a par with retinol in terms of being the darlings of the medical skincare community.

What is the most effective concentration of retinal?

Oh, the vexed percentage question. Brands will likely tell you that choosing the right formulation is much more important than a high percentage of any ingredient – and they would be right, for all the reasons discussed above. But in the case of all retinoids, it’s actually helpful to know something about the right percentage level of the active – because it means the difference between it working as a nice, healthy antioxidant versus an ingredient that’s visibly going to improve the look of your skin in a matter of months. To give you the shortest answer, “for impressive results from an over-the-counter product you need a percentage between 0.01 per cent and 0.1 per cent retinal,” (yes, we’re talking tiny percentages here) says Isaacs. The ‘sweet spot’ percentage (big results, little irritation) seems to be 0.06 per cent.

These strengths are much lower than those needed for retinol to have the same effect. To get retinol’s anti-ageing benefits, it’s best to start at 0.1 per cent while 1 per cent is about as high as you should go without professional guidance, so we’re looking at ten times the concentrations for retinol. But as ever, more is not more: the key for both these retinoids is to build up the strength, so skin can get accustomed to them. A brand that offers a ‘step-up’ choice of concentrations, like Medik8 does, is really helpful here.

And watch out if a brand boasts of a much higher than 0.1 percentage of retinal: they are likely talking about their retinal complex, or blend of actives including retinal. Either that, or you’re talking a product that ought to be sold under professional guidance, like Medik8’s clinic-only Crystal Retinal 20 (0.2 per cent retinal).

What should I look for in a good retinal product?

Look for talk of ingredient encapsulation and stability complexes. Because, like most retinoids, retinal can cause some dryness, hydration boosters such as glycerin and plant oils are a welcome addition to your cream or serum. Honesty about the percentage level of retinal is also good (why hide anything?), as is a choice of strengths so you can build up your tolerance. Avoid transparent bottles and look for air-tight pump dispensers: both are essential for keeping the ingredient stable. And if your product is a lurid yellow or orange (while not having any colourants in the formula), that is a good thing: the ingredient is naturally the colour of a ripe banana.

Are there any downsides to retinal?

Apart from having to take some heed and introduce it slowly, retinal works for pretty much everyone, except pregnant women: like the majority of retinoids, it’s contra-indicated in pregnancy. As UV light degrades it, you should only use it overnight, and because it brings so many baby-fresh cells to the surface, you should always wear an SPF50 during the day – but you did that already, didn’t you? Lastly, Harman points out that if you’re looking for more affordable skincare, retinol might be the better choice: “retinal formulations will typically be more expensive than retinol, and you can still get fantastic retinol products for a very reasonable price,” she says.

xx great retinal creams and serums to try

The vegan retinal: Naturium Retinaldehyde Cream Serum, £32

Boasting a good 0.05 per cent retinal, the active is ‘sustained-release’ which points to it being encapsulated to keep it from oxidising. It’s a pale yellow (retinal is yellow in colour) and very light-textured cream that will suit oily skins, with added fermented oligopeptides to supercharge the retinal’s skin texture-refining and brightening powers. Like all Naturium products, it’s vegan, cruelty and fragrance-free.

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The combo-retinal: Skin Rocks Retinoid 2 Vitamin A Face Serum, £75

Caroline Hirons’ retinoid serum for advanced users has 0.05 per cent retinal, 0.5% hydroxypinacolone retinoate (a retinoid with less of the clinical backing than retinol and retinal enjoy) and plant-derived retinol alternative bakuchiol, and is perfect for maintaining a radiant, even complexion. Relatively rich and moisturising so as to off-set any potential dryness, this can be used on its own as your nighttime treatment.

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The firming retinal: Murad Resurgence Retinal Resculpt Overnight Treatment, £105

Promising noticeably more lifted skin and less-deep wrinkles backed by impressive unretouched before and after images, this has an undisclosed amount of retinal  in a delivery system designed to make sure the active penetrates deeply and stays at peak potency. Given that it’s Murad, it’s probably quite sophisticated. The serum is not yellow like other retinals, but our tester reported that it was pretty strong and that she had to dial back from using it every night. There are botanicals to work synergistically with the retinal and oat lipids and alpha glucan to boost ceramide production and help calm skin and fortify the barrier, all in a weighty, recyclable glass bottle.

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The affordable retinal: E.l.f. Youth Boosting Advanced Night Retinoid Serum, £22

An impressive 0.06 per cent retinal plus 1% granactive retinoid (like retinol but a lot milder) to smooth skin and tackle acne, plus antioxidants from licorice and acai to protect skin. It’s mildly scented and not too greasy and users are giving it the thumbs-up despite there being no mention of an expensive encapsulation system to keep the product effective. If you use it up relatively swiftly, it’s probably a very good buy.

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The retinal-for-all: Medik8 Crystal Retinal, £33.75- £71.20, depending on strength

Medik8’s helpful ‘ladder system’ offers four retinal strengths (numbered 1, 3, 6 and 10) you can pick up off the shelf. It allows everyone to find their entry point and progress without sensitivity, with most people starting at Crystal Retinal 3’s 0.03 per cent retinal. If you’re very sensitive, try CR1 (0.01 per cent), and once you’re all good with the high-strength CR10 (0.1 per cent) you might want to go wild with the clinic-only, super-strength Crystal Retinal 20, £74.25. Powered by a patent-pending encapsulation system the brand are justifiably proud of, and enriched with plant oils, antioxidants and vitamin C, these are light, fool-proof moisturisers with superpowers.

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The aromatherapeutic retinal: De Mamiel Gravity Fix, £165

Billed as a ‘clean clinical stress-response serum’, this deep-moisturising lotion is teeming with biotechnological and plant-derived actives including ‘bio-fermented retinal’. It uses a retinal complex called Retinal 05 - the brand don't disclose the percentages - but it's best to think of this more as an antioxidant rather than a  powerful age-proofer. It feels silky smooth – an absolute treat – and out tester didn't heed moisturiser on top. Other hero ingredients include collagen-boosting glycoin, ceramides and vitamin C-rich white truffle, and there is a soothing aromatherapy scent to help tackle skin-destroying stress.

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The overnight skin-softening retinal: Allies of Skin Retinal + Peptides Overnight Mask, £115

A skin-cosseting night cream that fights ageing from all angles: it has an encapsulated 0.02 per cent retinal (a percentage that should suit the majority of skins comfortably), high levels of antioxidants for damage repair, firmness-boosting peptides, softening oils and hydrating hyaluronic acid. Leaves skin baby-soft by daybreak and comes in quite a large tube that goes some way to justifying the price.

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The Korean retinal: AHC Youth Focus, £29

From the top-selling aesthetic skincare brand in glow-obsessed Korea, this 0.02% encapsulated retinal serum is the power player in their new Pro Retinal 11x retinal range. It’s light and milky, fragrance-free and an accessible strength for beginners. It’s also much more affordable than it looks, and the only one with its own range of compatible products.

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The on-the-double retinal: Strivectin Advanced Retinol Nightly Renewal Moisturizer, £92 

A two-timing night cream featuring a double dose of retinoids (retinal and retinol - both encapsulated, but the brand won’t say at what strength), this also has soothing peptides and StriVectin’s patented NIA 114TM, which the brand say is a superior form of barrier-boosting, brightening, anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory niacinamide to enhance the efficacy of the retinoids and minimise sensitivity. The brand’s own study shows reduced forehead lines and reduced pores after four weeks of using this rich cream that can nonetheless cause some dryness initially.

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The refillable retinal: Trinny London Retinal+ Overnight Sensation, £69 (refills £55)

Another double-retinoid blend: this time it’s retinal plus granactive retinoid (a non-irritating but lesser-proven member of the vitamin A family) and 0.25% for the complex. The silky, vivid-yellow (that’s a sign there’s a good dose of retinal in there) lotion promises to counteract sagging skin in your 40’s and upwards, and incurs no sensitivity but does cause yellow stains on your pillowcase if you don’t watch out: give it a few minutes to sink in. Extra points for the eco and purse-friendly refills.

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The highest-strength retinal available over-the-counter comes courtesy of this ethical Californian brand: at 0.15 per cent, it’s not to be sniffed at. Teamed with 5% niacinamide and ceramides to off-set the potential irritation, it also has de-stressing adaptogens like ashwagandha, just to be on the safe side. Promising to tackle pores, spots, wrinkles, pigmentation and texture issues, fast, this is one that should be introduced with much caution. Start very slowly, once a week, follow with moisturiser or oil to counteract dryness, and only build up as your skin acclimatises.

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