Retinol Versus Retinal: What's the Difference?

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If you’re a skincare fanatic like us, you’re probably already pretty in the know about retinol. The bottom line is that retinol is the derivative of vitamin A that stimulates the metabolism of skin cells and encourages collagen production. In short, it’s a powerhouse wrinkle buster, and it can make your skin brighter, plumper and all-around dreamier than ever before.

However, you might’ve also noticed that as our beauty shelves see an increase in the number of products that contain retinol, there’s also been an increase in products containing retinol-like ingredients. Case in point? Retinal. Whilst you might be forgiven for thinking that these ingredients are the same, there are, in fact, differences between the two.

We reached out to Megan Felton, a skincare consultant from Lion/ne who helped explain the difference to us. “The benefits of both retinol and retinal are pretty much the same, but it is more the speed in which each product works that is the difference,” she says. Mark Curry, co-founder of The Inkey List adds, “In short, retinal gets there quicker; however, it can be quite harsh and could cause inflammation easier because it gives most of the active benefits quickly versus traditional retinol, which actually slowly converts it over time.” Still, retinol can still cause sensitivity for certain skin types.

So who would retinal be suitable for? A study carried out by Medik8 found that retinal can work up to 11 times faster than traditional retinol. This makes it good for mature skin types who want to see a significant improvement in fines lines and wrinkles as quickly as possible. Of course, taking a more aggressive approach to skin rejuvenation isn’t suitable for everyone, so those with younger skin or more sensitized skin may want to stick with retinol for now.


Ready to set up your retinol game? Then it’s time you tried out these retinal serums…

Crystal Retinal
Medik8 Crystal Retinal 6 $60.00

Medik8’s Crystal Retinal 6 is perfect for those who are already seasoned retinol users and want to ramp up the results. This overnight serum is formulated with 0.06% stabilized retinal. Working up to 11 times faster than retinol, it visibly minimizes fine lines and wrinkles; firms and plumps the complexion to resurface skin texture and soften your skin.

Allies of Skin 1A Retinal + Peptides Overnight Mask
Allies of Skin 1A Retinal + Peptides Overnight Mask $109.00

With a potent cocktail of retinal, peptides and nutrient-rich argan oil, this creamy balm works to reverse the daily damage caused by stress, pollution, smoke, and alcohol. It brightens and hydrates the skin whilst studies (according to the website) have shown it also has a dramatic impact on acne, as it reduces it by 43% in 28 days.


Still not sold on retinal? Keep things simple with these great retinol serums…

Retinol Serum
The Inkey List Retinol Serum $10.00

The Inkey List’s retinol contains 1% stable retinol and 0.5% granactive retinoid, which is slightly stronger than retinol. This converts into retinoic acid (the stuff that targets your skin) more slowly and therefore minimizes irritation whilst still providing effective results. With this one, it’s a case of slow and steady wins the race…

Pixi Retinol Tonic
Pixi Retinol Tonic $23.00

With jasmine flower extract to help soothe, repair and protect and added peptides to help boost collagen production, this low-irritation tonic will soften fine lines and help reduce acne without any of the irritation commonly caused by retinol use.

Next Up: Vitamin F Might Be the Glow-Giving Ingredient Your Skin Is Missing

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019 Aug;36(4):392-397. doi: 10.5114/ada.2019.87443.

  2. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatmentsPostepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392‐397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443

  3. Jeong S, Yoon S, Kim S, Jung J, Kor M, Shin K, Lim C, Han HS, Lee H, Park KY, Kim J, Chung HJ, Kim HJ. Anti-Wrinkle Benefits of Peptides Complex Stimulating Skin Basement Membrane Proteins Expression. Int J Mol Sci. 2019 Dec 20;21(1):73. doi: 10.3390/ijms21010073.

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