Is It Better Than Retinol? – Beautiful With Brains

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Are you curious about the benefits of Retinaldehyde, the new retinoid on the block? Lately, I’ve been cheating on Retinol with its cousin, Retinaldehyde. I know, I know. But, hear me out before judging me. I first met Retinol in my mid-20s. It promised to help me fight those pesky crows’ feet that were already starting to creep up around my eyes and keep wrinkles away. What could I do but fall in love?

But retinol isn’t the gentlest lover. Yes, it keeps its promises, but it can be so irritating. Flaking, stinging, redness… you go overboard a little and you’ll regret it. Retinaldehyde is gentler. It fights wrinkles as well as retinol, but it doesn’t leave you with a red, peeling face. What can I say? It knows how to win a girl’s heart.

Here everything you need to know about the anti-aging benefits of retinaldehyde for your skin – and why so many beauty lovers and editors are making the switch from retinol:

What Is Retinaldehyde?

Retinaldehyde (more commonly called Retinal) and retinol belong to the same family: Retinoids. Retinoids are forms of Vitamin A. The pure form is called Retinoid Acid (the active ingredient in Tretinoin), but it’s super harsh on the skin. That’s why scientists have been working on gentler derivatives, like retinol and retinaldehyde.

To work their magic on wrinkles, both retinol and retinaldehyde have to be converted to Retinoid Acid. Retinaldehyde converts in one step. Retinol takes two. Like this:

Retinyl Palmitate > Retinol > Retinaldehyde > Retinoic acid

As a rule, the closer a form of Vitamin A is to Retinoid Acid, the better and faster it works. That’s already one reason to favour retinaldehyde over retinol.

Related: What’s The Best Form Of Vitamin A For You?


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Retinaldehyde Benefits For Skin

Like all forms of Vitamin A, retinaldehyde is a multi-tasker that helps fight wrinkles, dark spots, and acne. Let’s find out more about its benefits for skin:

1. It Boosts Collagen

Retinaldehyde makes sure more of your collagen stays in your skin. Let me explain. Collagen is the protein that keeps your skin firm. After the age of 21, you lose 1% of collagen a year – and its degradation speeds up even more once you hit menopause. Cue wrinkles and sagging.

Retinaldehyde insist collagenase, the enzyme that breaks down collagen. By preventing its degradation, your skin has more collagen and stays firmer for longer. Plus, topical retinoic acid (a.k.a Tretinoin, the strongest member of the Vitamin A family) has been found to increase Type I collagen by 80% in photoaged skin!

Retinaldehyde is less powerful, so you won’t experience an 80% increase. But you’ll definitely see a noticeable improvement. A 1999 French study tested a Retinaldehyde 0.05% cream against an emollient cream without Retinaldehyde. The results were clear. Retinaldehyde make skin thicker and more elastic. 

A study conducted by Dr Boisnic went a step further and researched the effects of a 0.05% Retinaldehyde cream on sun damaged skin. The results were impressive: “in all UVA-exposed and then Retinaldehyde-treated skin specimens, collagen and elastic fibers were restored to the level of nonexposed skin. It has been shown that Retinaldehyde has many of the properties of Tretinoin” in treating photo aging.

Retinaldehyde does this even better than Retinol. According to a 2006 study, 0.05% retinaldehyde is as effective as 0.05% Retinoic Acid (Tretinoin) for the treatment of photoaging. In comparison, retinol is 20 times less potent than Tretinoin and it requires further conversion to Retinoic Acid (in vivo*)”.

*In human skin.

Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol: What It Is, What It Does, And Side Effects

medik8 crystal retinal 6

2. It Helps Fade Away Dark Spots

Like all forms of Vitamin A, retinaldehyde speeds up cell turnover, i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliating process. Your skin exfoliates on its own. It’s a process that takes 28 days to complete when you’re young. But as you age, this process takes longer. You have more dead cells on the surface of your skin, leading o dull, dry skin and even clogged pores.

Retinoids can speed up the process to 14-16 days! These new cells are softer, smoother to the touch and even brighter. If you have dark spots, the uppermost layers of your skin are the darkest. Retinhaldehyde helps to peel away a few layers, where these dark spots are lighter in colour. Overtime, this exfoliating process makes both wrinkles and dark spots less visible.

Retinaldehyde will help keep pores clear and will speed skin cell turnover for a smoother and more even complexion. This is a great ingredient for improving skin texture and tone if used correctly,” says Noëlle S. Sherber, MD, a board-certified dermatologist.

3. It Has Antioxidant Properties

The third and final way Retinaldehyde fights wrinkles? It has antioxidant properties. Unprotected sun exposure, smoking, an unbalanced diet, and pollution all cause free radicals, nasty little molecules that destroy collagen, and elastin, and cellular DNA. Cue wrinkles, saggy skin, and dark spots.

Antioxidants are your skin’s police. They patrol your skin, looking for free radicals to destroy. When they spot one, they neutralise it before it wreaks too much damage. By destroying these free radicals, retinaldehyde helps prevent the formation of new wrinkles.

4. It Fights Acne

Vitamin A doesn’t just fights wrinkles. It fights acne, too. Retinaldehyde does the job particularly well. Here’s why:

  • It has antibacterial properties: Unlike other forms of Vitamin A, Retinaldehyde can kill P.Acnes, the bacteria that causes acne.
  • It speeds up cellular turnover: We already talked about it, but here are this work for acne. When dead cells don’t shed fast enough, they end up in your pores, clogging them up. By speeding up the exfoliating process, retinaldehyde prevents pore clogging. Clear pores = clear skin.
  • It’s gentle: Most anti-acne treatments are pretty harsh on the skin. Retinaldehyde is a lot gentler and can safely be used both alone or with other anti-acne treatments, such as BHA.

FYI, retinaldehyde won’t single-handedly get rid of acne. But, it’s a powerful ally in the fight against it.

Related: Adult Acne: Why It Happens And How To Treat It


Retinaldehyde Side Effects

Retinaldehyde is gentler than other forms of Vitamin A, including retinol and tretinoic acid. But that doesn’t mean it’s without side effects at all. It can still cause redness, dryness, peeling, and irritation if used too much too often. Start with a small concentration twice a week and increase dose and frequency from there.

Can Retinaldehyde Cause Breakouts?

No. Retinaldehyde doesn’t cause breakouts. But it can cause purging. The difference?

Breakouts happen when your pores get clogged. Retinaldehyde doesn’t clog them (FYI, that doesn’t mean another ingredient in the product won’t). Purging happens when you exfoliate skin at a faster rate. This brings to the surface the breakouts that were brewing underneath.

BUT, while a breakout lasts for as long as you’re using the offending products, purging is over once all the breakouts have come to the fore. It usually takes 4-6 weeks. After that, your skin is CLEAR.

Related: Purging VS Breakouts: How Can You Tell The Difference?

Is Retinaldehyde Safe For Sensitive Skin?

Retinoic Acid, the active form of Vitamin A, is irritating as hell. That’s why it’s available by prescription only. OTC forms, like Retinaldehyde and Retinol, are gentler. But, as you well know, Retinol can still make your skin flake and peel if you use too much too soon or if your skin is sensitive.

Is Retinaldehyde as irritating, too? A German study compared the irritation potential of both Retinaldehyde and Retinol and concluded they are both gentler than Retinoic Acid.  But, they both can still cause some irritation. You may want to start slowly with Retinaldehyde, too.

Is Retinaldehyde Safe During Pregnancy?

Short answer: we don’t know. Research shows that high doses of Vitamin A cause birth defects in rats. Human studies on this can’t be done (for obvious reasons!!). Those animal studies are enough for experts to recommend you don’t use any forms of Vitamin A while pregnant or breast-feeding. It’s true that the risk with retinaldehyde is infinitesimals small. Retinaldehyde isn’t Retinoic Acid. Plus, it’s used in very tiny doses in skincare. Still, why take the risk?

Related: What Skincare Ingredients Should You Avoid During Pregnancy?

How To Use It

Like all forms of Vitamin A, you should never use retinaldehyde every day. It’s just too much for skin. “Your skin will need to build up a tolerance to the ingredient before you can start to use it in higher doses,” says Dr Osman Bashir Tahir, aesthetic doctor and founder of Halcyon Aesthetics. “Perhaps use it one or two times a week for the first couple of weeks, before stepping it up to every other night for a further two weeks,” says Dr Tahir. 

Start with a low concentration a couple of nights a week and increase both dose and frequency slowly. Ideally, I want you to get to the point of you using retinaldehyde every other night, after cleansing, but before hydrating serums and moisturiser.

On nights you don’t use retinaldehyde, exfoliate. Retinaldehyde speeds up cellular turnover, which is a form of exfoliation. Doing both on the same night is too much for skin. By alternating them, you get the benefits of both worlds without the irritation. Why at night? Retinaldhyde makes skin more prone to sun damage (ironic, as it helps repair it), so use it when the sun’s not around.

Who Should You Use Retinaldehyde?

Anyone who wants to slow down premature aging. It’s particularly useful for those of you who also want to fade dark spots and treat acne. It can tackle all of them at the same time.

Who Should NOT Use Retinaldehyde?

There are three cases in which you should NOT use retinaldehyde:

  • You’re pregnant: Wait until you’ve finished breastfeeding before you incorporate retinaldehyde (or any other form of Vitamin A) to your skincare routine.
  • You have super sensitive skin: Retinaldehyde is one of the gentlest forms of Vitamin A. But if even this is too irritating for you, don’t use it.
  • You’re using Tretinoin (or other prescription retinoid): Retinaldehyde is less strong than prescription forms of Vitamin A, so it’d be a step back for you.

How Often Should You Use Retinaldehyde?

No more than every other day. If your skin is very sensitive, use it only once or twice a week. As a rule, if your skin gets irritated, cut back usage. Once a week is better than nothing at all or every other day with irritation!

What Should You NOT Mix Retinaldehyde With?

Like all forms of Vitamin A, you should not use retinaldehyde on the same night you exfoliate. It doesn’t matter if you use an acid exfoliant or a scrub. Retinaldehyde accelerates the skin’s natural exfoliating process, so it’s too much to use them on the same nights you exfoliate. Use them on alternate nights instead.

How Long Does Retinaldehyde Take To Work?

When it comes to treating acne and fading away dark spots, you should start seeing some visible results within 4 weeks. If you’re using it to reduce wrinkles, expect the time frame to be much longer. We’re talking to at least one year.

Retinaldehyde VS Retinol: Which One Is Better?

Retinaldehyde and Retinol are both forms of Vitamin A. They have some benefits for skin: they both boost collagen, fight free radicals, treat acne, and fade away dark spots. Retinol is the most common type of Vitamin A used in skincare products because it’s stable and cheaper to formulate with. Retinaldehyde is trickier to work with, but takes fewer steps to convert, so it works better and faster. Yet, it’s better tolerated even by people with sensitive skin. I always recommend you use retinaldehyde over retinol, if your budget allows it.

What Are The Best Skincare Products With Retinaldehyde?

And here comes the catch. Retinaldehyde is expensive and very hard to formulate with. That’s why so few brands use it. Heck, even The Ordinary hasn’t been able to bring it to market at an affordable price (yet).

If you want to try retinaldehyde, here are your best options:

  • MaeLove Moonlight Retinal Super Serum ($39.95): This retinal serum has a niacinamide + ceramide base to counteract the potential dryness and irritation from retinaldehyde. It also has fragrant oils that could irritate sensitive skin. But if your skin doesn’t react badly to them, it’s an effective and affordable option to consider. Available at MaeLove.
  • Medik8 Crystal Retinal 10 Serum ($107.00): It has 0.1% retinaldehyde, one of the highest concentrations found in skincare products. Plus, antioxidants to fight premature aging. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, Medik8, Net-A-Porter, Sephora, and SpaceNK
  • Medik8 r-Retinoate Ultimate Night Serum ($272.00): Yes, this is outrageously expensive – but truly one of the best retinoid serums you’ll ever come across. It contains two forms of Vitamin A (retinaldehyde and Retinyl Retinoate) to fight wrinkles and signs of aging. Plus, it’s moisturising. Available at Dermstore.
  • Murad Retinal ReSculpt Overnight Treatment ($105.00): This retinal serum is enriched with moisturising shea butter and soothing ingredients to treat the signs of aging while keeping skin soft and irritation-free. Available at Look Fantastic, Sephora, SpaceNK and Ulta.

The Bottom Line

Retinaldehyde is my fave OTC form of Vitamin A. It fights wrinkles, acne, and dark spots without irritating skin (unless yours is super sensitive or you’re using too much of it). It’s more expensive than retinol, but if your wallet allows it, your skin will thank you for making the switch.

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