Retinal vs Retinol: Which Is Better For Your Skin?

You’d be forgiven for thinking retinol and retinal are the same ingredient. They sound almost identical, and they both have highly effective anti-ageing and skin-boosting properties. 

However, their molecular differences make them unique, and they behave differently when they interact with the skin. 

That’s why we’ve demystified the science behind these two powerful ingredients to give you a clear picture of what they offer, so you can make informed choices to suit your skin’s unique needs.

What is retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that belongs to the retinoid family. Retinoids cleverly stimulate skin cell renewal and encourage collagen production – enhancing the skin’s radiance, tone, and texture for a more youthful appearance overall. Vitamin A travels through several stages known as the ‘vitamin A pathway’. When applied to the skin, retinol first converts to retinal, and then to retinoic acid. It’s at this stage the ingredients become ‘active’ and visible results begin to occur.

What is retinal?

Retinal (short for retinaldehyde) is also a retinoid and form of vitamin A. However, it’s further along the vitamin A pathway than retinol, and just one conversion step away from becoming retinoic acid – which means it acts faster on the skin than retinol and boasts other added benefits. However, retinal degrades quickly and is notoriously difficult to stabilise. It is therefore rare to find retinal products on the market that deliver truly noticeable results. That’s where our breakthrough patented stabilisation system comes in.

6 key differences between retinal and retinol

We understand that retinal converts to retinoic acid quicker than retinol. But what does this mean in practice?

1. Retinal works 11x faster than retinol

One of the most significant differences is the amazing speed at which retinal works. This incredible molecule delivers rapid, visible skin improvements, so you can see the results sooner.

2. Retinal is antibacterial

Retinal is the only retinoid with direct antibacterial properties, which make it perfect for blemish-prone skin. With continued use, it helps to diminish the bacteria responsible for breakouts to leave the skin looking clear and radiant.

3.  Retinal is less irritating on the skin

Although it’s closer to the active form retinoic acid, retinal is proven to have the same low irritation potential as retinol. This means that you can have a more potent product, without compromising your skin's comfort.

 4. Retinal products are harder to make

Retinal presents many challenges during production. Because it’s an unstable molecule and can lose its potency if exposed, it requires innovative stabilisation systems. Therefore its effectiveness relies on the sophistication of these technologies.

5. Retinal doesn't have as much clinical evidence (yet)

Retinal hasn’t been studied to the same extent as retinol and, as such, it isn't as well understood. However, thanks to new developments and research in the beauty industry, this is changing rapidly. At Medik8, we are continuously conducting independent research studies into the effectiveness of the molecule and Crystal Retinal.

Who is retinal suitable for?

Blemish-prone skin: Retinal

Unlike retinol, retinal has antibacterial properties. As such, it can help to fight the bacteria that causes breakouts and clogged pores, supporting a clearer complexion.

Mature & ageing skin: Retinal

Retinal is faster to deliver collagen boosting effects than retinol. So you could see a reduction in visible signs of ageing in a shorter amount of time. This makes it particularly popular with those with more mature skin.

Sensitive skin: Retinal

As mentioned previously, retinal is an unstable molecule, so needs to be stabilised to protect it from losing its potency. As part of our patented stability complex, we encapsulate retinal which not only ensures that the molecule’s power is preserved, but also that it’s gradually released into the skin throughout the night to minimise irritation.

Younger skin: Retinal

For younger skins, retinal can deliver a multitude of benefits. It can help to prevent the visible signs of premature skin ageing, whilst clarifying the complexion for smoother, brighter and healthy-looking skin.

Why might I use retinol over retinal?

Typically, we recommend everyone to use retinal as it is a more potent form of vitamin A than retinol, to get faster and better results. The main reason someone might go for a retinol product instead is if they prefer the format or texture; for instance we have a line of retinol serums which many prefer as an oil-based liquid texture.

What about side effects?

Retinoids can have the potential to cause dryness and irritation if applied to skin that isn’t used to it. So, we always recommend introducing retinoid products gradually and slowly increasing the strength over time. This way, the potential for irritation is minimised as your skin can naturally adapt over time.

At Medik8, our retinoid products are carefully formulated to further reduce the potential for discomfort. We use our Time Release Technology™ delivery system to gently release retinol or retinal into the skin, to avoid overwhelming skin and to prolong the effects overnight.

So, is retinal better than retinol?

Retinal is BETTER and FASTER than retinol …This next-generation rare form of vitamin A acts up to 11 times faster than classic retinol.[1] Providing remarkable anti-ageing, radiance-boosting and skin-smoothing visible benefits to the skin. Expect transformative results, fast.

Tips for choosing retinal products

When it comes to selecting the best retinal-based skincare, there are a few key things to look out for. This way, you can protect yourself from buying ineffective products. We recommend choosing retinal products that:

Offer a choice of strengths so you can build up your tolerance

Have proven retinal stability to ensure effectiveness

Contain hydration-boosters such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid or plant oils

Come in air-tight pump dispensers that are NOT transparent (this protects the retinal’s stability)

Have been tested on real people with proven results

Recommended retinal & retinol products from Medik8

Crystal Retinal 

Crystal Retinal is the serum that reinvented retinoid skincare; formulated with our patented retinal stabilisation technology, to ensure optimal potency for visible age-defying results while remaining gentle on the most sensitive skins. Available in a choice of 5 strengths (0.01% - 0.2% retinaldehyde), this next-generation vitamin A allows you to work your way up for progressive results and no irritation.

The CSA Kit Retinal Edition

The CSA Kit Retinal Edition is the perfect introduction to Medik8’s pioneering CSA Philosophy which provides vitamin C plus sunscreen by day and vitamin A at night for optimal skin health and age-defying results.

The latest addition to the Crystal Retinal franchise, Crystal Retinal Ceramide Eye is expertly optimised to deliver all the renowned benefits of retinal while remaining ultra gentle on the delicate eye area, in the form of an all-in-one eye cream. Available in a choice of 3 strengths, it ensures progressive visible results that promote a more youthful-looking eye area.

Retinal is 11x faster-acting than retinol.

[1] G. Siegenthaler et al., Retinol and retinal metabolism, Biochemical Journal, 1990, 268, pp 371-378

Learn more about how to choose the best retinoid
with Dr Sapna