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Understanding Retinaldehyde: The Game-Changer Ingredient for Skin

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Today, most people believe the game-changer ingredient in anti-aging is retinol. It’s almost impossible you haven’t heard of this magnificent element because literally, eve-ry-one recommends it for aging signs, acne, and hyperpigmentation. OK, most people say retinol, even if they mean its derivatives, aka retinaldehyde or retinoic acid. Although they are all retinoids (vitamin A derivates), they are not the same thing, and you’re about to find out the differences and why retinaldehyde stands above.

Over the years, an ingredient named “retinaldehyde” has been storming the skincare industry. This superpower compound has already stolen the gold-standard badge from retinol. Not only this, skincare products that are inclusive of retinaldehyde are becoming as practical as sunscreen today. And that is why it’s high time to know about this special ingredient before you can finally add it to your daily skincare regimen. Or nightly. OK, so is retinaldehyde really better than retinol? Do we use it in the same way? Let’s just find out what retinaldehyde is and how it works for skin.

What is Retinaldehyde?

If you are fond of reading over-the-counter product labels, then you might have come across an ingredient named retinal. Retinal is another abbreviation for retinaldehyde – a vitamin A derivative, just like retinol, that can help you keep an everlasting glow, clear and youthful skin. But that is not all! There’s a lot more this magic ingredient can do for you — it’s primarily present in products that promise to fix concerns like photoaging, clogged pores, uneven skin tone, and imbalanced oil production. Now, here’s how retinaldehyde actually works and how it’s different from retinol.


Retinaldehyde skin benefits

Improves aging skin

Retinaldehyde has some fancy skills that can help improve aging skin, and probably the most researched one is its capacity to encourage skin cell turnover. When it penetrates the skin’s outer layer, retinaldehyde sheds old skin cells and let room for new ones to grow. The skin does that process naturally, but it usually takes +/- 30 days to complete it, which is OK. However, with age, the shedding process slows down, and because of this, your skin may become dry, dull, and more prone to develop premature wrinkles. Retinaldehyde fixes this issue pretty well! It was found that this exfoliation effect increases skin thickness, and over time, it may improve aging skin and reduce wrinkles.

Stimulates collagen production

Research also found that retinaldehyde prevents collagen degradation in naturally and photoaged skin. Collagen is the protein responsible for skin firmness and elasticity, and with age, your body starts to produce less and less of it. This usually reflects in more visible wrinkles and saggy skin. By preventing its degradation, you’ll thicken and tighten your skin which helps to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

Antibacterial activity

Retinoids are often used to treat acne due to their antibacterial properties. Studies observed that out of retinol, retinoic acid, and retinaldehyde, retinaldehyde demonstrates the highest antibacterial activity upon topical use. Other research found that 0.5% retinaldehyde is well-tolerated and confirmed a direct antibacterial activity of retinaldehyde against P. acnes

Reduce acne

Besides antibacterial activities, retinaldehyde may treat mild acne and reduce breakouts by regulating excess sebum and prevent dead cells from clogging pores. Studies show that retinoids are effective for both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne. 

Fades hyperpigmentation

Another benefit of speeding up the skin’s cell turnover, aka the shedding of dead cells, is that it removes the hyperpigmented skin. This makes retinoids a solid treatment in reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation and dark spots. Although there’s little to no data about the effects of retinaldehyde on hyperpigmented skin, existing research about retinoids suggests they are indeed able to fade hyperpigmentation. For the best, use retinaldehyde in conjunction with other treatments for hyperpigmentation if you want to achieve an even skin tone. Plus, don’t forget about your sunscreen, as UV exposure is the primary cause of hyperpigmentation. 

Is retinaldehyde better than retinol?

So what’s the difference between retinol and retinaldehyde? Well, before retinol and retinal can affect your skin cells, they first need to be converted by special enzymes into the active form of vitamin A (retinoic acid). Basically, this conversion process affects the retinoids’ potency and efficacy: the more steps in the conversion process, the weaker the retinoid is. That makes everyone believes that retinal is more potent than retinol because it requires fewer conversion steps.

types of retinoids retinol
Types of retinoids and their ranking order

Retinol is first oxidized to retinaldehyde and only after into retinoic acid. On the other hand, retinal needs to be converted just once before it gets into retinoic acid, so it works more effectively. Since retinaldehyde is the final stop before retinoic acid, it’s considered the strongest retinoid you can get without going into the prescription-strength territory.

So is retinaldehyde better than retinol? Yes, retinaldehyde is about 20 times more powerful than retinol due to its proximity to retinoic acid that makes it need only one conversion to retinoic acid.

Is retinaldehyde safe to use on my skin?

Retinaldehyde is considered a moderate-risk ingredient for skincare use. Studies indicate that topical retinal has biological activity and is well tolerated, thus, it will work quite effectively on people with delicate or sensitive skin — even if people with sensitive skin might undergo skin irritation and dryness issues initially. However, as you progressively use retinaldehyde, your skin starts to build tolerance little by little. One research on over 200 people determined that 1% retinaldehyde was tolerated by up to 70% of individuals, while 0.5, 0.1, and 0.05% concentrations are tolerated by most people. 

Retinaldehyde side effects

One thing about retinoids is for sure. Whether they are prescribed or OTCs, retinoids are known to cause irritations, redness, dryness, and flaking. This mostly happens because of the accelerated shedding process that makes skin cells produce at a rate skin is not accommodated with yet. That’s why most derms recommend introducing retinoids in your routine in lower concentrations: to build up skin tolerance. One study found that compared with retinol and retinoic acid, retinaldehyde has a good tolerance profile, in contrast with the irritating potential of the others two retinoids. Another retinaldehyde side effect? It increases photosensitivity. Hence, if you want to stay on the safe side, use your retinaldehyde product at night. And never skip sunscreen during the day! 

How to use retinaldehyde 

How retinaldehyde should be used mostly depends on the type of product applied and the concentration used. You may find retinaldehyde in serums, creams, or masks, but no matter the product, you always use retinaldehyde at night. Retinaldehyde is one of those ingredients that break down with sun exposure and make your skin photosensitive. Besides, for the same reason, sunscreen every day is mandatory when using retinoids!

If you have never used retinoids before, it would be best if you start with low concentrations. For retinaldehyde, concentrations of 0.5% are generally considered safe and should be a good start. Once you build your tolerance towards retinoids, you can go for stronger products. How often should you use it? Well, again, it depends on how sensitive your skin is. Some can tolerate retinaldehyde every day even in higher concentrations, while others get irritated even when they use it once weekly. It never hurts to do a test patch before to see how your skin reacts to retinaldehyde.

The next step would be to use a moisturizer. Because retinoids may dry out your skin, which leads to irritations, it’s recommended to use a moisturizer, preferably with hyaluronic acid, after your retinaldehyde product. This will counteract the dryness effects of retinoids and will diminish the chances of irritations. In case your skin still gets irritated after retinaldehyde, despite all of your efforts, stop using retinaldehyde every day. Scale it back to a few times per week, and if it still doesn’t work, you should go back to gentle retinoids or give up retinoids at all. Remember, if you always get irritated, it means your retinoid product doesn’t work.

The do’s and don’ts of retinaldehyde

  1. Start using your retinaldehyde product twice weekly to see how your skin reacts and let it build tolerance.
  2. Skip retinaldehyde on the day before you exfoliate.
  3. Don’t take your retinaldehyde product on vacay where you may spend more time in the sun.
  4. Use your retinaldehyde products only at night.
  5. Don’t mix retinaldehyde with products that contain AHAs or BHAs. Since these are exfoliants too, you risk over-exfoliating your skin.
  6. Never layer retinaldehyde with a product rich in vitamin C. You risk irritating your skin and cancel both element’s effects.
  7. Don’t mix it with benzoyl peroxide either since it reacts with retinol and inactivates it.
  8. Don’t use retinaldehyde 7-10 days before and after a chemical peeling, laser treatment, or microneedling.
  9. Don’t use tanning beds at least one week prior to your retinaldehyde product.
  10. Don’t use retinaldehyde on irritated skin.
  11. Moisturizer your skin after using exfoliants such as retinaldehyde.

Best retinaldehyde products for skin

People looking for OTC retinoids should definitely go for retinaldehyde. It is the most proximate substitute in terms of potency and efficacy. That’s why you need these best retinaldehyde products in your skincare routine:


Osmosis Retinal Serum

Osmosis Retinaldehyde Serum

A great serum made with mandelic and lactic acid and niacinamide to dissolve dead skin cells, helping reveal brighter and smoother skin. The retinal in it reaches deep down within your skin to promote cellular growth. Cucumber, grapefruit, rosemary, and other botanical extracts help condition, hydrate, and soften your skin. Another secret? It also contains advanced peptides to aid in skin rejuvenation.

Eau Thermale Avène RetrinAL Cream

Eau Thermale Avène RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream

With 0.1% retinaldehyde, this cream promises to plump the skin while brightening it. That’s not it! It includes relastide — a peptide that boosts retinaldehyde’s action — vitamin E, to protect against free radicals and Avene thermal water to fill your skin with minerals. Now you’ve just got vacation-ready skin!

Medik8 Crystal Retinal Serum

Medik8 Crystal Retinal Serum

This isn’t just an ordinary serum. It features multiple anti-aging ingredients, such as encapsulated retinaldehyde, hyaluronic acid, squalane, vitamin E, and glycerin, to name a few. The blend works to plump your skin and resurfaces its texture for a softer look. Wake up with happy skin!

MyChelle Dermaceuticals Retinal Serum

MyChelle Dermaceuticals Retinal Serum

Giving this advanced serum a shot might be the best decision for your skin, especially if you face hyperpigmentation, blemishes, or fine lines. With 1% retinal, ceramides, orange plant stem cells, and a healthy blend of oils and flower extracts, MyChelle Remarkable Serum promotes healthy skin renewal and helps diminish skin discoloration. Dermatologist, allergy tested, and EWG-verified so that you stay at peace when using it.

 MyChelle Dermaceuticals Retinal Night Cream

MyChelle Dermaceuticals Retinal Night Cream

You can even pair the Remarkable serum with the Remarkable night cream; they have similar formulas and work well together. If you want to pick just one, the serum has a more concentrated formulation, while the night cream gives more moisture, FYI. The addition of Monk pepper caught my eye in this formula — it helps reduce fine lines apparition.

Retinal Mask

1A Retinal Overnight Mask

Speed up cellular repair, nourish skin, plump fine lines, and reduce inflammation with one product. Formulated with Ally-R™ (an encapsulated form of retinal), this vegan mask aids in smoothing wrinkles look and fade hyperpigmentation. It does that with 0.05% retinal, 13.5% peptide complex, nine antioxidants, and five brighteners. And it does everything while you sleep!

DermaQuest Sensitized Retinaldehyde Cream

DermaQuest Sensitized Retinaldehyde Cream 

Get all the benefits of retinal without any risk of irritation. DermaQuest Cream is made with 0.05% retinaldehyde, sepicalm extract to decrease pigmentation, green tea leaf extract as an antioxidant, antibacterial agent, and a mix of botanicals to refine skin tone. Besides, it gives your skin a healthy glow as soon as you apply it.

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