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How To Compare Retinol, Retinal, and Retinaldehyde

07 Mar 2022

Is retinal more potent than retinol?

While some of us may be new to skincare, there are others among us who have mastered the basics (or the basics, and then some), and are ready to level up our routines. Here are some signs that you might be that person: You can list AHAs in alphabetical order; you’ve been using a topical vitamin C serum for weeks-slash-months-slash-years; you wouldn’t dream of leaving the house in the morning without sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher).

Ticking all the boxes? 

Then please allow us the honor of introducing you to the next must-have ingredient in your already stellar and consistent routine: retinaldehyde. 

The most potent non-prescription retinoid available, retinaldehyde differs from typical retinol-based products for a few reasons. 

“Retinaldehyde is a really exciting new skincare ingredient with a lot of innovation behind it,” explains Laura Cline, Youth To The People’s Senior Director of Product Development + Education. “It delivers faster results than your typical retinol but is gentler than an over-the-counter prescription Rx, so there’s less chance of irritation without skimping on benefits—like smoother skin, refined pore size, and less visible fine lines and wrinkles.”

To help you navigate the world of this new wunderkind ingredient, below, Cline details out the difference between retinol, retinal, and retinaldehyde–along with some handy tips on when to reach for each in your routine.

Click here to shop the Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum.


“All retinoids are chemical compounds related to vitamin A, and retinol is the alcoholic form of it. It is typically the most gentle retinoid found in skincare above retinyl esters, which take forever to work,” says Cline, adding that in order to be absorbed by the skin, every type of retinoid must be converted into bioavailable retinoic acid, which can mean going through longer or shorter convergent stages dependent on the original form. 

“Retinol is a super easy-to-use retinoid that’s mild, readily available–and a good starting point if you’re looking to boost your routine, but because it’s a few steps away from retinoic acid, it can take a while to see results.”

It may sound counterintuitive, but using a high percentage retinol won’t speed you along the way to achieving your skincare goals more quickly. You’re better off using something more potent at a lower dosage instead. 

“Using a 1% retinol is not as effective as a 0.025% retinoic acid, but it may prove more irritating,”  says Cline. The caveat there is that retinoic acid requires a prescription and also comes with some pretty unpleasant side effects–like redness, peeling, and very dry skin.

Retinal + Retinaldehyde

Retinaldehyde, interchangeably referred to simply as retinal, is the next convergent stage of retinol–which means it’s one step closer to retinoic acid and therefore more readily put to work by the skin.. Much like retinol, “retinal is amazing for minimizing the appearance of everything from dark spots to fine lines, and post-acne scarring,” says Cline, and because it’s that much closer to the stage that triggers all of the good stuff, you need less of it to see visible results. 

Retinal is stabilized and is known to help provide clearer looking and feeling skin. 

“Retinal is more effective than retinol and less irritating than a prescription Rx, which makes it reliable at delivering swift results,” says Cline. “Like all retinoids, you can start to use it at any age, but I’d particularly recommend it to anyone starting to notice the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, along with a lack of overall radiance or increased pore size.”

Just because it doesn’t require a doctor’s signature, doesn’t mean that retinal isn’t powerful stuff, though. 

“Start out using it slowly a few nights a week, monitor your progress–and remember to stay on top of your hydration levels to keep skin extra radiant and glowing,” says Cline. 

Written by Elsa de Berker for Youth To The People

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