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Though not as common as people looking for gentler alternatives to retinol, there are in fact people looking for more potent alternatives to retinol. And that quest usually leads to a lesser-known skincare ingredient called retinaldehyde. Retinaldehyde products are the ones you should be looking into if you want to take things up a notch in your skincare routine. And if you’re wondering how retinaldehyde is different than others forms of vitamin A, we’ve put together everything you need to know. Keep reading to learn more about retinaldehyde, how it works, and the best retinaldehyde creams and serums to get started on.
What Is Retinaldehyde?
Retinaldehyde or retinal is a type of retinoid, a vitamin A derivative, used in skincare to treat signs of aging and because of its close proximity to retinoic acid, it is the most potent non-prescription retinoid (1).
On a side note, retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A, meaning that it’s the form your skin recognizes and knows what to do with. And though you can skip the middleman and go for retinoic acid creams such as tretinoin, it is available by prescription only.
So whatever vitamin A derivative you’re using, it has to transform into retinoic acid in your skin. And the reason why retinaldehyde is such a hotshot is that, unlike other over-the-counter retinoids, retinaldehyde goes through only one step transformation to become retinoic acid (2).
This short transformation journey means that retinaldehyde is stronger and more effective than other over-the-counter vitamin A derivatives, which take longer to become retinoic acid.
What Are The Benefits of Retinaldehyde For Skin?
As with all types of retinoids, retinaldehyde has major anti-aging benefits (3). Below are the most important benefits of retinaldehyde for skin:
- Retinaldehyde increases skin turnover, which results in the replacement of old skin cells with new, healthier ones.
- Retinaldehyde stimulates the production of important proteins like collagen. Not only that, but retinaldehyde also protects existing collagen from degradation.
- Because of its ability to increase collagen production, retinaldehyde helps reduce the look of lines, wrinkles, and keeps the skin looking more youthful.
- Retinaldehyde also helps reduce dark spots on the skin because it accelerates skin turnover, which gradually fades the look of surface hyperpigmentation.
- As a unique benefit resulting from its molecular structure, retinaldehyde is also anti-bacterial and is shown to be effective in reducing acne related to a certain bacterium called p.acnes (4).
How Is Retinaldehyde Different Than Retinol?
The difference between retinaldehyde and retinol is the process they go through to become retinoic acid (5).
Retinaldehyde is transformed into retinoic acid by enzymes. But retinol is transformed into retinaldehyde first, and then into retinoic acid. So it’s a one-step process for retinaldehyde, but a 2 step process for retinol.
What does this mean? It means that retinaldehyde is the closest to the actual thing and stronger than retinol, and retinol derivatives like retinyl palmitate.
So is retinaldehyde better than retinol? It’s not fair to say that retinaldehyde is better than retinol or vice versa. This is about matching the right type of retinoid with the exact stage of your retinoid journey. The end goal is always to find a retinoid that’s gentle on your skin so that you can continue using it.
What Are Some Side Effects of Retinaldehyde For Skin?
The most common side effects of retinaldehyde for the skin are irritation, dryness, and peeling. But this is true for all types of retinoids. Whether it’s retinoic acid or retinol, all vitamin A derivatives have the same side effects but with varying severity.
That being said, retinaldehyde is significantly gentler than retinoic acid. If we were to compare the two, you’d be on the winning side.
But if you were to compare retinaldehyde to retinol in terms of side effects, the two have a similar irritation potential with retinaldehyde being a little more irritating than retinol (6).
Who Should Use Retinaldehyde?
If you’ve successfully incorporated retinol into your routine and have been using it for some time, you might be a good candidate for retinaldehyde. As retinaldehyde is stronger than retinol, it offers an easy way to upgrade without needing a prescription.
Likewise, if you’ve tried retinol in higher concentrations as a way to maximize your results and you have no way of going upwards, you can switch to retinaldehyde products before considering retinoic acid.
Who Should Not Use Retinaldehyde?
There is no right answer to this. But generally speaking, you shouldn’t use retinaldehyde products if you’ve never used retinol before and you don’t know what to expect from it.
As retinol is right in the middle of the retinoid hierarchy, it’s better to start with it and then move on to retinaldehyde. This is especially important if you have sensitive skin and your skin isn’t familiar with vitamin A derivatives.
How To Use Retinaldehyde?
The best way to use retinaldehyde, or any other retinoid for that matter, is by using it a few times a week at first. If you’ve ever used retinol before, then you know the drill.
But even if your skin is familiar with retinol, remember that retinaldehyde is a more potent version. So you still want to keep it safe and start slowly. Here’s my personal recommendation for incorporating a new retinoid into your routine.
Allocate a day of the week for retinaldehyde such as Monday. Use retinaldehyde on Mondays in your evening routine for two weeks. After that, use it on Mondays and Thursdays in your evening skincare routine for four weeks. This is enough time to slowly introduce the ingredient to your skin and observe if there’s any noticeable purging or peeling.
If there’s not, then start using retinaldehyde on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday evenings. Personally, I try not to do it more often than that. This way, I can use other active ingredients like hydroxy acids and manage purging or peeling before it gets out of control.
Remember to apply retinaldehyde on clean, dry skin and only use a pea-sized amount to avoid irritation. As always, wear sunscreen to protect that glorious skin.
From creams to serums, below are the best skincare products with retinaldehyde.
First of all, this is the first brand that should come to mind when looking for a retinaldehyde product. Because Medik8 offers varying strengths of retinaldehyde to accommodate the varying needs of your unique skin. And a personal favorite of mine, I think this is the best retinaldehyde product you can get your hands on. First off, it’s a retinaldehyde serum, so it’s more absorbing than creams. Second of all, this is very beginner-friendly with its concentration of 0.01% retinaldehyde. And lastly, retinaldehyde is encapsulated to avoid irritation too. The serum has a light, replenishing base made with hyaluronic acid and squalane and also packs antioxidant vitamin E for maximum anti-aging benefits. On a side note, you can skip this and jump to Crystal Retinal 3 if you don’t have particularly sensitive skin.
This is a retinaldehyde night cream formulated with retinol. So you get cumulative benefits from both vitamin A derivatives to target wrinkles, lines, and uneven skin tone. The cream delivers these anti-agers into the skin with a very moisturizing base. Plus, it has both instant and long-term benefits. Argireline, a neuropeptide, smooths out wrinkles instantly while antioxidants like vitamin E and resveratrol work to undo free radical damage in the skin.
If you’re hesitant to exfoliate while using a retinoid product, this night cream offers both. It’s an exfoliating night cream made with glycolic acid as well as retinaldehyde. So you reduce the likelihood of skin peeling, which is common with vitamin A derivatives. As a bonus of glycolic acid, the cream brightens the skin tone, evens out the skin texture, and fades the look of skin discolorations. By combining retinal with an exfoliant, you can target several skin concerns with one single product.
Another brand that offers retinaldehyde in different products is Avene. And the best part about this one is that it’s fragrance-free, which is great if you have reactive skin. It’s also suitable for oily and acne-prone skin because its base is non-comedogenic. As we’ve established, retinaldehyde has anti-bacterial properties. So you can utilize this one to unclog pores, and diminish acne and acne scars without worsening congestion or causing breakouts. Besides retinaldehyde, the cream packs soothing thermal water, skin-plumping peptides, and antioxidant vitamin E.
This is for both AM and PM use. And it’s an impressive anti-aging serum formulated with retinaldehyde as well as amazing multi-taskers. It has lactic acid for gentle exfoliation. It has niacinamide, which is incredibly helpful in protecting the skin barrier and preventing dryness from retinal. And it has a compound derived from Centella Asiatica, which soothes the skin and prevents inflammation too. And lastly, the serum boosts collagen with the help of signal peptides.
Another microencapsulated retinaldehyde product is this one. But this one has a very moisturizing base, which is great if you’re looking for a gentle formula to use on dry skin. Emollients like argan oil moisturize the skin and mitigate dryness, keeping your skin barrier happy. Besides retinaldehyde to target wrinkles, the cream contains plant-based antioxidants like resveratrol, ellagic acid as well as signal peptides to soften wrinkles and the overall skin texture.
Last but not least, you can try this medical-grade formula to rejuvenate the look of aging skin. It combines retinaldehyde with the potent antioxidant combination of vitamin C and vitamin E. So you boost skin turnover and also prevent free radicals from causing future damage. And of course, all thanks to vitamin C, the fragrance-free serum evens out the skin tone and brightens your complexion.
So this is how retinaldehyde works and the best retinaldehyde products on the market. If you’ve been using retinol for a while and you think you need an upgrade, definitely try retinaldehyde for enhanced anti-aging benefits.
- Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348. https://doi.org/10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327
- Motamedi, M., Chehade, A., Sanghera, R., & Grewal, P. (2022). A Clinician’s Guide to Topical Retinoids. Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, 26(1), 71–78. https://doi.org/10.1177/12034754211035091
- Zasada, M., & Budzisz, E. (2019). Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii, 36(4), 392–397. https://doi.org/10.5114/ada.2019.87443
- Pechère, M., Germanier, L., Siegenthaler, G., Pechère, J. C., & Saurat, J. H. (2002). The antibacterial activity of topical retinoids: the case of retinaldehyde. Dermatology (Basel, Switzerland), 205(2), 153–158. https://doi.org/10.1159/000063903
- Belyaeva, O. V., Adams, M. K., Popov, K. M., & Kedishvili, N. Y. (2019). Generation of Retinaldehyde for Retinoic Acid Biosynthesis. Biomolecules, 10(1), 5. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom10010005
- Draelos, Z. D. (2015). Chapter 38: Retinoids [E-book]. In Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures (2nd ed., p. 309). Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118655566