A Beginner’s Guide To Retinal

Vitamin A is widely hailed as the anti-ageing hero ingredient. Its derivatives — retinoids — are some of the most talked-about actives in the skincare sphere. You’ve almost certainly heard of retinol, but retinal (or retinaldehyde) is its more potent, faster-acting sibling; the next generation of over-the-counter retinoid treatments. 

So, what is retinal, anyway? 

What is retinal?

To understand retinal, you need to know how retinoids work. The only form of vitamin A your skin can utilise, and the one that does all the heavy-lifting when it comes to cellular renewal, is retinoic acid. (You might know this as Retin-A or tretinoin, and it’s prescription only.) Retinal is the next strongest thing. 

When you apply retinol, your skin converts it to retinaldehyde before it can become the usable retinoic acid. By using retinal in the first place, you’re simply skipping a step, cutting the conversion process down from two steps to just one. Prescription-strength retinoic acid is the most efficient, though, as it doesn’t need converting at all. 

Retinoids become weaker and less effective the more times they convert, and the retinal to retinoic acid process is the quickest of them all. This means that retinal works significantly faster than retinol and retinyl esters, so you see results sooner. 

What are the benefits of using retinal?

The main appeal of retinal is that it has all the anti-ageing benefits of retinol — boosting your nightly repair cycle, fading fine lines and brightening your complexion — but gets to work faster. It’s thought that its effects on photoageing are comparable to prescription-strength retinoids, but because retinal is less potent, it’s much gentler. Studies are ongoing to compare its efficacy to that of retinoic acid, though. 

Here are some of retinal’s other talking points: 

Cell turnover

Its main benefit is increasing your cell turnover. On average, your skin cells are completely replaced every 28-30 days, increasing as you age, but retinoids reduce this time. This has an exfoliating effect, unclogging pores and revealing new skin that’s smooth, youthful-looking and more even.

Collagen

Retinal stimulates collagen production, working deep in your skin to increase elasticity and repair connective tissue. Not only that, but it prevents collagen degradation, too. It inhibits collagenase, which is the enzyme responsible for breaking down collagen in your skin. By stopping this, retinal makes your skin look firmer and can reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

Exfoliation

The uppermost layers of your skin are composed of dead skin cells, which form a protective barrier to prevent moisture loss, bacterial overgrowth and damage. Shedding this layer can improve hyperpigmentation, soften the skin and give you a radiant complexion. Topical retinoids can do this, and retinal is much more exfoliating than retinol while causing fewer adverse effects. 

Acne

Excess oil production and blocked pores are two causes of acne, and retinal combats both. Its exfoliating properties help reduce sebum production and unclog pores, resulting in a clearer, less oily complexion, so it’s ideal for skin that’s prone to breakouts. An early study indicates that it might also be anti-bacterial, which would eliminate another cause of acne. 

Pigmentation

With acne often comes hyperpigmentation — don’t worry, though, retinal can deal with that too. Studies have found that it reduces the activity of melanocytes, which are the molecules responsible for creating pigment in the skin. 

Antioxidants

Because it’s rich in antioxidants, retinal can limit free radical damage. Free radicals are produced naturally in your body, but environmental factors like UV rays, smoking, diet and pollution can increase them. Having too many of them in the body is linked with body cell damage and ageing, and retinal provides extra protection.

How to use it

Start your routine with a gentle cleanser — milk, cream or gel-based, preferably — so you don’t strip or dry out your skin. Apply your retinal serum to your entire face, rather than spot-treating. Retinal is preventative, as well as corrective, so using it everywhere means you’ll stop fine lines in their tracks before they’re even visible. The only place you should avoid is the delicate skin around your eyes — retinoids can be used to combat wrinkles in this area, but we’d recommend a specialised eye formula to prevent irritation. Then, follow up your retinal with a hydrating moisturiser to counteract any dryness.

As retinal helps reverse the effects of sun damage, we’d recommend only including it in your nighttime routine and make sure you use a broad-spectrum SPF 30 daily — you don’t want to undo all that hard work! This is particularly important if you’re using retinal to treat hyperpigmentation, as UV rays can worsen the issue. 

You should also avoid using retinal on irritated skin, and you shouldn’t use it 7-10 days before and after a chemical peel, laser treatment or microneedling. If you use tanning beds, wait one week after your session before resuming retinoid application. 

Are there any side effects?

Like retinol, retinal can cause irritation at first, but this is temporary. Cutting-edge formula technologies mean that, now, retinal can be just as gentle on the skin as less potent retinoids. Other side effects can include: redness, peeling, flaking and dryness. 

To limit side effects, you should introduce retinal into your routine gradually. Use a low concentration serum twice weekly for the first two weeks, increasing to every other night for the next fortnight. Once your skin has acclimated, you should be able to use it daily, or increase the strength. You could also use a buffering technique when applying — that’s where you apply a thin layer of moisturiser under your retinoid to dilute it and reduce irritation.

What ingredients can I use with retinal?

As with many actives, you should tailor your skincare routines to prevent ingredient interactions. You should never use AHAs, BHAs or vitamin C in the same routine as retinal — mixing retinoids with hydroxy acids risks over-exfoliating your skin, while layering it with vitamin C can cancel out both of their effects or cause a reaction. Likewise, products containing benzoyl peroxide can inactivate retinal, so they should be avoided.

Vitamin E and niacinamide can give you a youthful, glowing complexion, just like retinal, but you should layer them with caution, and separate them across your routines if you notice irritation. Peptides can reduce redness and hydrate your skin after retinoid use, and beta-glucan can help soothe sensitive areas. 

Who should use it?

We’d recommend trying retinal if your skin tolerates less potent retinoids like retinol or retinyl palmitate well, but you feel you could still get better results. Retinal is better tolerated than retinoic acid, so it’s a good alternative if your skin is sensitive, or you have irritation or flaking issues with prescription-strength retinoids. Because it works faster than retinol, retinal is ideal for mature skin types — however, many people choose to start using retinoids as early as their mid-twenties, or even as part of a teenage acne treatment. 

If you’re prone to rosacea, eczema or psoriasis, you should speak to your dermatologist for advice before starting retinal. It should be avoided completely if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. 

To see which ingredients are right for your skin’s needs, start a free online consultation with Dermatica today.

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Matthew Walsh
Originally published April 29 2022, updated April 29 2022

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