RetinAL rules, part 1: With 4,000+ types of retinoids, here’s how to confidently choose the right one for you

March 1, 2023

Retinal vs retinol: what’s the difference?

You may have caught wind of the many skin-boosting benefits attributed to retinoid products, and now you want to give them a try—but when you step into the retinoid market, you may feel overwhelmed by the number of options available. You don’t know the difference between retinoid and retinol. You may even find yourself wondering: is retinol and retinoid the same?

Both retinal (with an A) and retinol (with an O) are types of vitamin-A derivatives known as retinoids. They’re highly lauded for their smoothing and rejuvenating benefits that influence the skin in different ways. Each offers unique pros and potential downsides—but how do you choose between retinal vs retinol? The answers depend on your skincare goals and your skin’s unique needs.

Introduction to retinoids

Retinoids have a long history of use in skincare products and link to success stories across the board for people seeking various remedies for their skin challenges. Research has shown their capability to support skin health, boost skin-firming effects, and even fight blemishes.

Some expert medical journals have concluded that there are over 4,000 compounds that are structurally related to vitamin A, making its appearance in skincare robust. But the most common retinoids you’ll find in skincare products fall into these categories:

  • Retinol 
  • Retinaldehyde (AKA retinal) 
  • Retinyl palmitate 
  • Isotretinoin 
  • Adapalene 
  • Tazarotene 
  • Tretinoin, also known as retinoic acid (available only by prescription) 

Each type of retinoid has its own potential benefits and drawbacks to keep in mind. Most importantly, not every retinoid product works the same way for every person, so testing out what works best for you may take a little trial and error. To learn more about the transformative effects of retinoids and read a personal success story, check out this blog post on how retinol changed a beauty editor’s skin.

What are retinoids? How do they work?

All retinoids work by increasing cell turnover and supporting the appearance of firmer skin. The benefits of retinoids include improving uneven skin tones and skin texture, reducing the appearance of dark spots, fine lines and signs of aging.

However, not all retinoids are equal. Tretinoin, or retinoic acid, is available by prescription only. This is retinoid in its most potent form and can be absorbed and used by the skin directly. The other forms of retinoid must be converted to retinoic acid before they can start working their rejuvenating magic.

Retinal: Benefits and drawbacks

Retinal, also known as retinaldehyde, is just one step removed from retinoic acid, making it more immediately effective than other retinoids. Retinal can be ideal for those who wish to improve skin texture, tone, and return their skin to a more youthful-looking state.

However, retinal has the potential to bother sensitive skin types or people with pre-existing skin conditions. Retinal may strip the moisture from your skin, leaving it dry and irritated. Redness is a common side effect as well, in addition to sensitivity to the sun that can cause your skin to become more prone to sunburn.

Retinol: Benefits and drawbacks 

Retinol is one step further removed from retinoic acid than retinal. Before it can get to work, it must be converted to retinaldehyde, then to retinoic acid. Although this means retinol may take a little longer to appear, it also means that retinol is less likely to cause irritation. To better understand this process and dispel common misconceptions, explore more about retinol myths.

Retinol offers the same skin-refreshing benefits including:

  • Improved skin tone
  • Smoother texture
  • Faster skin cell turnover
  • Better hydration
  • Smaller pore size appearance
  • Reduction in blemishes

This is a wonderful option if you’re new to retinoid products. It gives you a gentle option to start, allowing you to test your skin’s tolerance to the potential drying factors in retinoids before you dive into the more intensive products like retinals.

Comparing retinoids

Despite their names being nearly identical, retinal and retinol behave differently—especially against the unique factors of every person’s skin. As you’re making the choice between retinal vs retinol for your skin, consider these factors. 

Retinal may be a good choice if you: 

  • Wish to regain more supple, smoother skin
  • Want to see results quickly
  • Are showing more dramatic signs of skin aging 
  • Have more resilient skin and are looking for the most potent ingredient 

On the other hand, you might prefer retinol if you:

  • Have sensitive skin 
  • Are a retinoid first-timer wanting to target less intense signs of aging like fine lines and dullness 
  • Are using a topical retinoid as a proactive part of your skincare regimen

Will retinoids irritate my skin? 

All retinoids have the potential to cause side effects such as dry skin patches, flakiness and irritation. These side effects are typically temporary and can be managed in a few ways: 

  • Talk to a dermatologist: Discuss which form would be the best fit for you, whether it’s a prescription, retinal or retinol 
  • Start low and slow: Start with just a small amount of retinal and try alternating days between application. This is especially beneficial for sensitive skin types or a skin condition like rosacea or eczema 
  • Create a “moisture sandwich”: Start with a moisturizer, apply your retinoid, then finish with another layer of moisturizer to help seal in hydration and prevent flakiness 
  • Never skip SPF: Retinoids may increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Wear a moisturizer with sunscreen with at least SPF 30 during the day when using these ingredients 

You may find the sensitivity of your skin changes over time, too. Throughout your skincare journey, you may need to adjust the amount of product you use, when you use it, or how often you use it. Always keep track of your skin’s reactions, sensitivity, and overall progress when working with retinoid products.

Can retinal be layered with other ingredients?  

Wondering how to layer your skincare products? Here’s a cheat sheet on how to sandwich the other tools in your skincare kit with retinal without triggering unwanted side effects:

  • Hyaluronic acid: This ingredient binds water to the skin and can be layered underneath your retinal product to offset potential dryness and boost line-plumping effects
  • Ceramides: This ingredient prevents moisture loss. Layer with retinal to offset potential dryness and help keep your skin barrier strong 

Certain ingredients, on the other hand, may interact poorly when used in combination with your retinoid products. Use the following with care:

  • Vitamin C: Guarantee the efficacy of vitamin C and retinal by using them separately. Consider using vitamin C in the morning and retinal at night. Always follow with an SPF during the day.
  • Benzoyl peroxide: This ingredient deactivates retinal’s efficacy. If you have acne-prone skin and want to keep using benzoyl peroxide while adding retinal to your regimen, use benzoyl in the morning and retinal at night 
  • AHAs/BHAs: Use these with retinal and you may suffer extreme dryness, redness and burns. Don’t layer AHA and BHA with retinal, but rather stagger their application for maximum effectiveness while minimizing skin damage  

Of course, there are countless other skincare products and ingredients out there, and it’s impossible to know how retinoids will interact with each and every one. This is why it’s important to patch test any new skincare products, ensuring that you won’t have a reaction when combining different ingredients in your skincare regimen.

Using retinoids to reach your skin goals

When deciding whether retinol vs retinal will benefit you the most, take a look at your unique skin goals and your skin’s overall sensitivity level. Don’t overestimate your tolerance or ignore signs that your product is too strong for your skin.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to switch things up if it seems like something isn’t working for you. Retinoid products have vast potential benefits, and just because one type doesn’t seem to work for you, that doesn’t mean a different retinoid won’t. 

When you start testing retinoids on your skin, monitor your skin’s progress carefully. Before you know it, you could be enjoying supple, smooth skin all year round. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Murad, and are for informational purposes only, even if the advice of physicians and medical practitioners are included. This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, and should not be considered specific medical advice.  

References for this information: 
Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, 2010, volume 62, issue 13, pages 1285-1298
Advances in Dermatology and Allergology, 2019, volume 36, issue 4, pages 392-397 
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology Website, Retinoids, topical  
Linus Pauling Institute Website, Micronutrient Information Center  
Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 2018, volume 17, issue 8, pages 471-476 
Advances in Dermatology and Allergology, 2019, volume 36, issue 4, pages 392-397
The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 2013, volume 123, issue 9, pages 3941-3951
Clinical Interventions in Aging, 2006, volume 1, issue 4, pages 327-348

Learn more about retinal and skin here:
Retinal rules, part 2: The ultimate antidote to fix signs of advanced aging and stressed skin

About the Author

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Jacki Marzano is SoCal-based storyteller and head copywriter at Murad Skincare. She's shaped the voice of some of the most recognized beauty brands in the business, has a penchant for sharing homemade cookies, and believes SPF is the secret to getting carded well into your 40s.