Breaking beauty news: Not all retinoids are created equal. And while the term "retinol" is often used as an all-encompassing, blanket term, it's actually one very specific ingredient. Allow us to explain: Retinoids are a group of vitamin A derivatives, all of which work similarly in the skin to boost cell turnover and improve tone and texture, while also stimulating collagen production to ward off fine lines and wrinkles. Of all the retinoids, retinoic acid (AKA tretinoin) is the only retinoid in its pure form that your skin can actually utilize—it's also available by prescription only. The other retinoids that are most commonly found in over-the-counter products—namely retinyl palmitate, retinol, and retinaldehyde—have to undergo a conversion process in order to turn into retinoic acid before your skin can make use of the ingredient. The process goes in just that order, which also correlates with the retinoids' potency and efficacy; the more steps in the conversion process, the weaker the retinoid is. Translation: Since retinaldehyde is the final stop before the hard stuff, it's as strong of a retinoid as you can get without going into prescription-strength territory. Ahead, dermatologists Suneel Chilukuri and Marnie Nussbaum weigh in on what else you need to know about this particular retinoid.
Meet the Expert
- Suneel Chilukuri, MD, FAAD, FACMS is a board-certified, internationally recognized expert on cosmetic and reconstructive surgery with 20 years of experience. He has been published in over 30 medical journals and has over 160 abstracts and presentations around the world.
- Marnie B. Nussbaum, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in non-invasive aesthetic rejuvenation. She has received numerous awards and accolades for her work including being selected as one of New York’s SuperDoctors and recognized as one of the New York Rising Stars.
TYPE OF INGREDIENT: Exfoliator
MAIN BENEFITS: Promotes skin cell turnover, improves skin tone, helps unclog pores, thickens the dermis to slow down the formation of wrinkles.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Anyone looking for the anti-aging effects of a retinoid, especially those who have used and can tolerate retinol or retinyl palmitate, but aren't seeing the results they want. In this case, you can up the ante to retinaldehyde, which can be more potent and effective at jumpstarting your skin cells, says Nussbaum.
HOW OFTEN CAN YOU USE IT: While it’s important to ease into things in order to let your skin gradually acclimate to the ingredient, it can ultimately be used daily.
WORKS WELL WITH: Alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids have commonly been used with retinoids to help further increase skin cell turnover, says Chilukuri (though it's important to make those separate parts of your routine, more on that in a minute). Using antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and niacinamide can also help improve the skin brightening effects, he adds. And if your skin is easily irritated, Nussbaum recommends applying a light moisturizer with ceramides to act as a buffer before applying the retinaldehyde product.
DON’T USE WITH: Avoid using any retinoid at the same time as products with vitamin C, AHAs, or BHAs, as this can up the likelihood of sensitivity and irritation, says Nussbaum. She recommends using the former in the morning (under SPF, of course) and reserving the retinoid for nighttime use.
What is Retinaldehyde?
Put simply, retinaldehyde (which often appears as retinal on skincare labels) is a vitamin A derivative that is a pre-cursor to retinoic acid. “In order for retinoids to work their magic—increase skin cell turnover, boost collagen production, decrease fine lines, decrease acne and minimize hyperpigmentation—they have to be converted to retinoic acid, which binds to skin cell receptors and elicits a call to action,” explains Nussbaum. The more conversion steps required before a retinoid can reach that end goal, the weaker and less potent it becomes, which is why the straight-up, retinoic acid you get with a prescription is far more intense than anything over-the-counter. Because retinaldehyde is only one step away from reaching that end goal, it delivers stronger effects than its other OTC counterparts, which require additional conversion steps before they turn into retinoic acid.
Still, at the end of the day, all retinoids have a similar effect on skin, albeit in varying degrees. And while they often get lauded for anti-aging, retinoids are a good pick for all ages: “Retinoids, including retinaldehyde are superpower ingredients, extremely effective at combatting blackheads and whiteheads, as well as fine lines and wrinkles, and can be used by everyone from acne-prone teenagers to those with more mature skin who are seeking to unlock the anti-aging benefits,” notes Nussbaum.
Benefits of Retinaldehyde for Skin
Like any retinoid, retinaldehyde delivers a long list of benefits, no matter your complexion concern.
Speeds cell turnover: Our skin cells naturally turn over every 28 days on average, though this process takes longer as we age. By causing the skin cells on the outermost layer of skin to turnover faster, new cells can emerge, resulting in smoother, more even skin.
Stimulates collagen production: Along with working on the surface of the skin to speed up cell turnover, retinoids, including retinaldehyde, also work on the deeper layer of the skin, where it boosts collagen synthesis for anti-aging benefits, increases elasticity, and repairs connective tissue in the skin, says Chilukuri.
Keeps pores clear: In speeding up cell turnover and acting as an exfoliant, it also helps unclog pores to keep them clear, which is why it's often found in acne treatments. “Retinaldehyde also balances oil production, thus shrinking the pores to prevent them from getting clogged and inflamed,”adds Chilukuri.
Retinaldehyde vs. Other Retinoids
As mentioned, it all goes back to that conversion process. Because retinaldehyde only requires one conversion step, it’s going to give you the closest effects of retinoic acid. At the end of the day, “Tretinoin, or retinoic acid, is the most potent and best-studied retinoid, but it can also be quite irritating which limits patients acceptance and usage,” says Chilukuri. “For this reason, many dermatologists prefer less irritating but comparably effective retinoids like retinaldehyde.” If you’ve never used any retinoid and your skin is super sensitive, you may still want to scale back to a retinol or retinyl palmitate. But, if you’ve been using those and want to see more effects without having to get a prescription, kick it up to retinaldehyde.
Side Effects of Retinaldehyde
No matter whether it's prescription-strength or over-the-counter, any retinoid carries with it the potential for the same type of unpleasant and unsightly side effects: redness, peeling, dryness, flaking. Oh and FYI, retinoids are off-limits when you’re pregnant or breast-feeding.
How to Use It
It’s extremely important to use just a pea-size amount for the entire face, no more. Start out using it every third day, gradually working your way up to nightly use. “I usually recommend my patients work up to nightly application, however that can be done over the course of a few weeks or even months,” says Nussbaum. The bottom line: Don't rush the process. And if you do start to get red or flaky? “Scale it back to every other night or a few times per week,” she suggests. Don’t worry that it isn’t doing anything; the cumulative effect over time will benefit the skin, she says.
The Best Products With Retinaldehyde
Nussbaum recommends this serum, since it contains both retinaldehyde to help speed skin cell turnover, as well as anti-inflammatory bisabolol. Niacinamide also delivers soothing benefits, and brightens your complexion, too.
The addition of soothing ingredients—namely ceramides, aloe, allantoin—work to combat any potentially irritating side effects from the retinaldehyde in this serum. Derm tip: If you want a higher concentration of an active ingredient, look for how high up it's listed on the ingredient label. Here, retinaldehyde is fourth, ensuring that you're actually getting plenty of the good stuff.
"This is a great face serum that contains retinaldehyde to brighten the skin and smooth texture, plus hyaluronic acid to maintain the moisture barrier," says Nussbaum. We're fans of the targeted applicator, which makes it easy to apply on particularly stubborn lines and creases.
FYI, the skin around your eyes is the thinnest on the body, making it the most susceptible to damage and where signs of aging can show up first. That's why using a dedicated eye cream is always a good move, particularly when it's this one. The eye version of Nussbaum's all-over go-to, it's specially formulated to also help firm and de-puff, as well as fight fine lines using retinaldehyde.
Retinaldehyde is paired with a laundry list of other proven anti-aging ingredients in this formula. We're talking line-smoothing peptides, hydrating hyaluronic acid, and brightening lactic acid. The result: A do-it-all serum that minimizes the look of line and wrinkles, while also leaving your complexion smoother, brighter, and plumper.
If you want the wrinkle-fighting benefits of retinaldehyde, but your skin is on the sensitive side, try this pick. It touts calming chamomile extract which can help reduce redness and irritation, says Nussbaum.
Retinaldehyde gets an added boost from the addition of bakuchiol, a plant-derived ingredient that's recently gotten major attention for delivering similar effects as retinoids, but without the potential for irritating side effects. Rounding out the active ingredients is a New Zealand red algae, a potent, skin-protecting antioxidant that's even more powerful than vitamin C.