Posted on: December 20, 2023 Posted by: Comments: 0

You’ve probably heard of retinol, but have you heard about retinal or even tretinoin? With #retinol amassing a huge 6.3 billion views on TikTok, interest around retinol products is only growing. After all, retinols have been heralded for their ability to not only treat lines and wrinkles but to help with acne too. But retinol is only one family member in the group of retinoids in skincare. Let’s be real: skincare ingredients can be really confusing at times, which makes shopping for them even harder. Understanding what skincare ingredients are and how they work is key to achieving results and ensures that the products you buy are money well spent, rather than left gathering dust in the back of your bathroom cabinet. This is why I’ve called upon dermatologists and skin experts to break down the key differences between retinol, retinal and tretinoin, so you can decide which is best for you and your skin’s needs. Scroll ahead for everything you need to know on retinal vs retinol (and tretinoin).

Retinoids is the umbrella term given to the family of chemicals that are derived from vitamin A, which includes retinol, retinal (also known as retinaldehyde) and tretinoin (or retinoic acid) to name just a handful. Below, we break down these three main types of topical retinoids that you’ve most likely heard of before or seen in skincare products. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you’ll want to avoid using any kind of retinoid product, and if you’re currently using or planning to start using retinoids, make sure you’re applying the product at night (sunlight breaks down the formula), starting gradually, and always use an SPF during the day, as retinol increases the skin’s sensitivity to the sun. 

Retinol is probably the most recognised retinoid ingredient out there. “Retinol and retinal [more on that ahead] are vitamin A derivatives commonly found in skincare products and also known as retinoids,” says Look Fantastic skincare pharmacist Aruj Javid. On application to the skin, retinol is converted to retinal and then to retinoic acid as it gets to work. “Both retinol and retinal are great for helping to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, can help to improve uneven skin tone and texture, and can also help with blemish-prone skin,” she says, adding, “If you are trying retinoids for the first time, retinol is available in various percentage concentrations so you can build up your use and tolerance accordingly,” she says. “Remember, you only need a pea-sized amount each time you apply retinol. If you would like to help prevent the first signs of ageing, then retinol is suitable for beginners and is available in many different types of formulations.”

As with any form of retinoid, it’s best to start “low and slow” when beginning treatment, gradually building up your skin’s tolerance. If you’re a beginner, start with a lower percentage of retinol, applying it once or twice a week. As your skin adjusts, you can increase your applications and eventually move on to a stronger formula if your skin tolerates it well.

Temple Spa’s formula has become a huge hit, with reviewers saying that they’ve seen visible differences in their skin, particularly on lines and wrinkles, to the point that they get compliments on how great their skin looks.

Price shown is members’ price.  Beauty Pie brings us luxury-level formulations at a more affordable price point, and this retinol serum has become one of the brand’s hero products for its incredible results; lines are less visible and skin is plumped and firmer. This is a stronger form of retinol, so it’s best used by those who are already tolerating the ingredient well.

Yes, this retinol serum is more expensive than most. However, I’ve heard and read countless glowing reviews about how well it performs. It works on fine lines and wrinkles as well as smoothing skin texture whilst leaving your complexion glowing.

One brand that everyone trusts is Paula’s Choice. This 1% retinol formula contains liqcorice root to brighten, peptides to plump and retinol to overhaul skin texture and help clear acne.

This is one of the more affordable retinol formulas around, and it’s ideal for those who have sensitive skin, are breakout-prone or want to fade post-acne scarring. 

Another applauded budget-friendly retinol comes via The Inkey List. Ideal for beginners, it helps to fade pigmentation, even skin texture and keep breakouts at bay too. The addition of squalene means this formula is also hydrating and nourishing.

Retinal (AKA retinaldehyde) is another form of vitamin A. Unlike retinol, which is two steps removed from retinoic acid, retinal is one step removed, meaning your skin converts it from retinal to retinoic acid as it gets to work on your skin. Like retinol, you can also buy retinal in skincare products over the counter.

“It is a closer precursor to tretinoin than retinol (only one conversion required to become tretinoin) and theoretically should have at least as much benefit as retinol,” says Dr Beibei Du-Harpur, dermatologist at Skin + Me.”Retinaldehyde has only been developed for use in cosmetic skincare products more recently, so there is technically less clinical research demonstrating its effectiveness as an anti-ageing product or anti-acne product. Anecdotally, it appears to be better tolerated than many retinol formulations,” she says.

As such, retinal is ideal for those who haven’t previously gotten on well with retinol formulations, or are yet to try tretinoin, or find tretinoin too strong for their skin. “Retinaldehyde and retinol are both good options for those who struggle to tolerate tretinoin, or wish to try something gentler first,” she says.

“However, I would caveat that there are more and less gentle retinol and retinaldehyde options, so ultimately how they perform does come down to the specific formulation and product,” she adds. For example, some formulations may feature a lower dosage, and some products might have encapsulated technology, meaning the ingredient is released more slowly, which reduces the chance of irritation.

This is one of my favourite retinal formulas of all time (and it just so happens to have won a Who What Wear UK Next In Beauty Award, too) and its practically a beauty industry icon. Medik8 has several strengths that you can progress onto once your skin is used to the first level. Honestly, the reviews speak for themselves. 

Naturium’s sustained-release retinal means its both gentle yet effective, helping to firm, brighten and smooth. It’s a fairly new launch, but it has already won over customers.

Acne and signs of ageing often go hand-in-and, which is why Trinny London’s formula is ideal if you want to treat both in one fell swoop. The addition of niacinamide helps to control oil production, while the retinal formula gets to work to clear pores while adrdessing skin firmness and wrinkles.

Sunday Riley’s A+ formula features a higher strength of 5% retinoid esthers, which work in tandem with antioxidants to leave skin brighter, firmer and clearer from breakouts.

Alongside retinal, this serum has 5% niacinamide and antioxidants to help reduce irritation, all while helping to keep breakouts at bay and address the first signs of ageing.

If lines, deep-set wrinkles and skin laxity are concerns, then Murad’s formulation helps to firm while addressing crepey skin to overhaul the appearance of the skin. Expect a smoother, radiant complexion.

Tretinoin (also known as all-trans-retinoic acid) is a prescription drug and the active form of vitamin A, which is taken up by cells in the skin,” says Dr Du-Harpur

“This then binds with retinoid receptors to unravel areas of DNA, thus altering the cell’s behaviour. This ultimately leads to increased cell turnover, promoting a more compact stratum corneum (the top layer of skin) and collagen production amongst other things,” she says. As such, it’s often prescribed for treating acne and signs of ageing. However, tretinoin is a prescription drug, you’ll need a dermatologist to prescribe it for you, as it is not available over the counter.

“Whilst having remarkable effects on the skin, tretinoin is notorious for causing irritation and its gradual acclimation is often necessary,” explains Dr Du-Harpur. “There are various strategies to improve tolerability and decrease the symptoms of this initial retinisation process [of getting your skin used to retinoids]. Technically, tretinoin can be used for even the most sensitive of skins; careful guidance is key,” she says. “Lower percentages of tretinoin tend to cause less irritation, whereas higher percentages are more irritating but may yield results more rapidly,” she adds.

While you can’t buy tretinoin over the counter, your are able to access to via a dermatologist, who can prescribe the drug. Can’t make it to a derm? Skin + Me offers online consultations where you can upload images of your skin and its dermatology team can dispense the right treatment for your skin, which is then sent in the post. It works out very affordable compared to visiting a private dermatologist in-clinic.

Up Next, This Holy-Grail Product Treats Everything From Acne to Wrinkles

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