Retinol vs Retinal: What You Need to Know

When it comes to looking for the best anti-ageing skincare ingredients, you won’t go far without stumbling across retinol. Retinol is a hero skincare ingredient for its tried-and-tested ability to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, skin tone and texture. But you may have also seen “retinal” products, which can be confusing as the ingredients have similar functions as well as similar names. But don’t worry—we’re going to cover everything you need to know about retinol. 


What is retinol?
Retinol is a form of vitamin A that is an essential nutrient for the body. In fact, it's one of the few nutrients you can't live without because your body actually makes it from other vitamins like beta-carotene and alpha-carotene. The most common way to consume retinol is through food sources such as eggs, milk and liver, but these foods only contain small amounts of vitamin A compared to what you would get from a skincare product containing retinol.  

Retinol can be used by all skin types, including sensitive. It's been scientifically proven to stimulate collagen production, reduce wrinkles and fine lines and improve the overall appearance of skin tone. Retinol has also been found to help fade age spots and acne scars, as well as prevent them from forming in the first place. 


What’s the difference between retinol and retinal?
Retinol and retinal are the two main types of vitamin A, but there are a few key differences that make one more suitable for your skin and lifestyle than the other. 

Retinol is a powerful antioxidant that can be used to treat acne, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and promote healthy skin. When applied to the skin, it converts to retinal and then retinoic acid. Retinol is best suited to those with sensitive skin types as it’s more gentle than retinal. 

Retinal is more potent than retinol as it’s only one step away from retinoic acid. It also has anti-bacterial properties, making it more beneficial to acne-prone skin, those who can tolerate stronger formulas and those seeking faster results. 


How does retinol work?
Unlike exfoliators which remove dead skin cells, retinol works by increasing skin cell turnover and stimulating collagen and elastic production, essentially renewing skin to give it a fresher, brighter and more youthful appearance. Think of it as the ultimate skincare “makeover” ingredient, helping to revitalise skin at its deepest level rather than treating or masking topical skin conditions. 


What are the benefits of using retinol?
Retinol is known to be an effective acne-fighter, which is why retinoic acid is sometimes prescribed to treat acne. Retinol can also help improve the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, as well as hyperpigmentation (dark patches), texture and tone, resulting in plump, clear, youthful skin. 


At what age should I start using retinol?
Retinol is a safe and effective way to revitalise skin. It can be used on all skin types, including sensitive skin. However, it’s important to start using retinol when your skin is mature enough to tolerate it. While this varies from person to person, most dermatologists recommend using retinol after your mid-twenties, when collagen production starts to slow down and signs of ageing start to appear. However, it’s never too late to introduce retinol to your skincare routine and you will still see benefits. 


Which strength retinol do I need?
The strongest retinoid is retinoic acid (also known as Retin-A or Tretinoin) which is a prescription-level retinoid that’s often used to treat acne, followed by retinal (retinaldehyde), retinol and then retinol esters (such as retinyl palmitate). There's no right or wrong answer to which strength you should use because it really depends on your skin type, but generally speaking, it’s best to start with a low strength and phase it into your routine to monitor any potential irritation. Medik8’s beginner-friendly Crystal Retinal strengths make it easy to progress to higher concentrations. 


Are there any retinol side effects?
The side effects of retinol are typically mild and subside after a few weeks of use—you might not even get any side effects at all. Redness, peeling and flaking are typical side effects that are usually nothing to worry about—it’s just your skin renewing and will settle down. However, stop using the product if you experience “retinol burn” which is when your skin becomes particularly irritated or sensitive. Always bear in mind that your skin will be more vulnerable during retinol use so always use an SPF and be cautious of chemical exfoliators (AHAs and BHAs). 


How to use retinol
To reduce the risk of sunburn and get the best benefits, you should always use retinol at night as it makes your skin more sensitive to UV and sunlight decreases its efficacy. Nighttime retinol use also capitalises on the skin repair that occurs while you sleep. Finally, always use SPF for its anti-ageing benefits but especially when using retinol.