All About Skin

Retinoids, retinol, retinal: making sense of it all

retinoids retinol and retinal

We don’t love the word “should,” nor do we love to make sweeping generalizations.

But if you were to ask, “Which ingredients should I really think about using on my skin?” for example, we’d say:

1. Sunscreen
2. Something hydrating and/or moisturizing
3. Antioxidants

And then, if you’re over 30ish and really want to put the pedal to the metal in terms of seeing change in your skin:

4. Retinoids — in other words, some form of Vitamin A, like retinol, retinaldehyde, or retinoic acid (available by prescription only, for good reason, because it’s quite strong). For an excellent primer on retinoids, we highly recommend reading this interview with the beloved SF dermatologist, Dr. Seth Matarasso, who can be credited with getting Dara to incorporate them into her regular skincare routine.

The short story: Retinoids, like retinol, have been the gold standard in skincare for most age-related skin conditions for decades; they’ve long been proven to correct photoaging, increase elasticity, even skin tone, clear pores and breakouts, and smooth fine lines and wrinkles. We’re big fans. Huge.

And because we consider retinoids to be so helpful, we have a lot of retinol and retinaldehyde products on our shelves, just like we have a lot of sunscreen, hydrating/moisturizing products, and antioxidants on our shelves: everyone’s different, and it’s good to have options. It turns this incredible but sometimes scary-seeming ingredient into something that’s accessible to more people, as it should be. Even if you’re a delicate flower, one of these products might fit you perfectly.

Below, we’ve included some suggestions to help you choose the right retinoid for your particular complexion. But first, the eagle-eyed among you might have noticed that Dr. Matarasso’s excellent explanations don’t specifically cover retinaldehyde, so let’s take a quick detour to discuss.


What’s retinaldehyde, and why is it interesting?

Retinoic acid, or tretinoin, is the strongest form of Vitamin A that’s used on the skin, and it’s the kind you’ll get in a prescription. Its precursor, as Dr. Matarasso notes, is retinol: in order to be bioavailable for the skin, it needs to be converted to retinaldehyde (a.k.a. retinal), and then retinoic acid. This makes retinol an excellent ingredient to look for in a “starter” retinoid product.

Retinal, that in-between form of Vitamin A, is the most potent type of retinoid available without a prescription: it tends to work up to 11x faster than retinol, and it delivers the same punch at much lower concentrations. 

So, does that mean that it’s more aggressive and therefore not for sensitive skin types? This is where things get complicated, because the answer is, “No, not really.” There are some chemists and dermatologists who find that retinal is actually better for sensitive skin, noting that retinol’s two-step conversion process to retinoic acid can result in more irritation than retinal’s single-step process. At the same time, others opine that retinol’s longer conversion process can allow for gentler treatment of the skin. Still others have stated that retinol and retinol are equally easy on the skin. Obviously, it’s murky.

Our opinion? At the end of the day, it’s all about how a given formula works on your skin. Here’s how we suggest sorting through the options.


If your skin tends to be a little sensitive

You’ll see this collection includes a lot of variations, from BioRecept’s Lyco’Vitamine A (which uses retinyl palmitate, a step back from retinol — it gets converted to retinol, then retinaldehyde, then retinoic acid) to Luzern’s luxe Crème NUIT, which puts retinol in a lovely, creamy base, to de Mamiel’s marvelous Gravity Fix, which includes a touch of retinal in addition to other elasticity-boosting plant extracts. Generally speaking, these are the gentler choices on our shelves.

BioRecept Lyco'Vitamine A: The French pharmacy inspired, super-gentle starter formula

Augustinus Bader Retinol Serum: This luxe, lightweight formula really impressed us with its gentle approach

Marie Veronique Gentle Retinol Night Serum: We love this longtime best-seller with retinol and Vitamin C, and a loyal following means a lot

Luzern Creme NUIT: With bakuchiol added to retinol in a luxe, creamy base, this one's extra gentle but gives fabulous results 

de Mamiel Gravity Fix: A touch of retinal, blended in with a whole bunch of other goodies

Dara Kennedy Sea Retinal: Developed by our sensitive-skinned founder, this formula tends to be well tolerated by most skin types, and you can make it less zingy by layering it over a hydrating serum. 


If you’re thinking, “Give me the stronger stuff! But…not too strong”

For those of you who prefer more active-feeling products, these are worth checking out. Huge variety here in terms of ingredients, price, and feel on the skin; if you’re not sure what to go with, there’s always our Custom Sample Service.

Marie Veronique Multi-Retinol Night Emulsion: A super-charged retinol in a creamy base

Ursa Major Lunar Bloom Retinal Serum: A super-efficient retinal in a sinks-right-in base

The Organic Pharmacy Retinol Night Serum: A no-frills retinol in a straightforward serum

Dara Kennedy Sea Retinal: This flexible formula sits in this section, too, because you can easily bump up its power by applying it directly to clean skin (and further bump it up by layering some Sea Serum on top).


If you’re thinking, “Thanks, but no thanks”

Do you need to use retinoids if you have super-sensitive skin, eczema, or rosacea, or you’ve had trouble with it in the past? Absolutely not. If you still want to give your skin a collagen-boosting treat, try one of the options below.

Dara Kennedy Sea Serum: its sea fennel has retinoid-like effects, with no irritation (and extra soothing, firming, and brightening friends in the formula)

Luzern Firming Collagen Booster: these peptides can help firm like nobody's business, too

TWELVE Plant Perfection Gel Serum: made for the Y-zone, where many of us notice sagging first


And don’t forget

Our Guides are always happy to talk you through the options. Schedule a 15-minute chat with one of them here.


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