Why, out of all the retinoids, I chose retinal

Of all the anti-ageing skincare products retinoids are probably the most discussed and widely recommended.

By retinoids I’m talking about a group of vitamin A derivates in three main forms – retinol, retinal and retinoic acid.

So what’s the difference between them?

Well though the source is the same, they each work at different paces and intensity to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and help clear your skin.

Each of them will speed up the life cycle of skin cells making them divide faster and die faster so that newer healthier cells can take their place.

The aim is to achieve smoother looking skin but it’s helpful to understand how they work before deciding which form is right for you.

Retinol is a natural form of vitamin A so it’s milder than the other forms and is available without a prescription.

Tretinoin (also known as retinoic acid) is a synthetic version of vitamin A.

It’s stronger and acts much more quickly than retinol and is only available with a prescription – but those are becoming increasingly easy to come by without even seeing a dermatologist through online prescription sites in the UK.

Tretinoin is not as well tolerated by users and is more likely to cause significant irritation, dryness and skin peeling, especially when you first start using it.

The trick there is to begin on a low strength and build up the concentration over time.

I used tretinoin for nearly a year and, after pushing through the initial irritation, I did notice skin smoothing benefits.

But it also caused ongoing dryness for me and in the end I decided to opt for the middle ground – retinaldehyde.

More commonly known as retinal, this retinoid bridges retinol and retinoic acid and that’s because in order to have an effect on the skin vitamin A must first be converted to reach its biologically active form (retinoic acid).

So when you apply retinoic acid/tretinoin topically it’s already in that biologically active form and it will get to work straight away so it’s going to act more quickly but then, because it’s acting so directly, it can cause greater irritation.

Retinol is two conversion steps away from retinoic acid whereas retinal/ retinaldehyde is just one conversion step from retinoic acid and the fewer conversions required the faster it works on the skin.

What I find with retinal is that it offers visible skin-smoothing results but without the irritation and that’s why I love it.

Even better, you don’t have to use it daily to see results, but it is best used in the evenings.

That’s because ultraviolet light can break retinoids down and make them less effective.

Using any retinoid also makes your skin more sensitive to the effects of UV light so you should wear sunscreen daily when using it.

I use a retinal serum after cleansing and before moisturising every other day and find my skin thanks me for a little break in between uses.

So if you want to dip into the world of retinoids, a low-strength retinal is a great place to start and you can build intensity from there.


I have two tried and tested favourites when it comes to retinals.

The first, by boutique skincare brand Geek & Gorgeous, is at the lower end of the price range.

The second, by Medik8, has a silkier, more luxurious feel but is considerably more expensive.

The idea with each is to start on a lower strength and build up to the higher ’10’ strength.

Geek & Gorgeous A-Game Retinal, £17.95/ $19.90, Medik8 Crystal Retinal 6 £66/$81