The difference between skincare siblings retinol and retinal

It’s exfoliating but makes the skin sensitive. It’s the solution to uneven skin but you can’t wear it during the day, and where does it go in your multi-step skincare routine? These questions about the hailed retinol have baffled several beauty enthusiasts. Now, there is a similar sounding skincare active that is slowly showing up on skincare shelves and our Insta feeds—retinal.

We have two skincare experts to decode the difference between retinal and retinol before you make your next purchase.

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What’s the similarity?

“Retinol and retinal are both forms of vitamin A also known as retinoids. There are four forms with different levels of efficacy, two of which are these. Retinol is an alcohol form of vitamin A and is fat-soluble, and retinal is an aldehyde form, so there is a differentiation in the chemical properties and the efficacy. Tretinoin comes first, then retinal and retinol. Both make your skin sun-sensitive and you have to wear sunscreen indoors if you are using retinal or retinol,” says Chytra V. Anand, cosmetic dermatologist and founder, Kosmoderma Clinics and SkinQ.

Both are wrinkle busters as they promote collagen production and skin cell metabolism, says Dr Niketa Sonavane, dermatologist, founder, Ambrosia Aesthetics, Mumbai. In a nutshell, it’s a powerful wrinkle remover that can give you blemish-free skin and make it brighter and plumper. “Retinol has become popular recently because it really works on acne and your skin tone and helps you age gracefully. Both retinal and retinol can cause irritation when first applied to the skin, but these effects are temporary and usually occur when vitamin A is introduced too quickly or in excess. To avoid irritation, gradually introduce any active vitamin A into your routine and begin with a small percentage,” says Dr Sonavane.

Retinaldehyde or retinal is more similar to the prescription-strength retinoid, tretinoin, Sonavane explains. Technically, retinol is gentler than retinal, but advances in production techniques such as nano-encapsulation are resulting in retinal products that are just as gentle on the skin as retinol, she adds.

What’s the difference?

“Retinal has a more exfoliating nature than retinol, so more potent, almost 10-11 times. So retinal can cause purging, surface thinning and visible skin peeling but it is faster and more potent in its visual results compared to retinol. Most skin types are sensitive, so retinol works at entry-level, as it is less irritating, and once your skin is used to this and purged, and you need higher results, then you move to a retinal,” says Anand. So check if your skin can tolerate retinol first.

Sonavane recommends retinal for mature skin types who want to see a noticeable improvement in fine lines and wrinkles quickly. But retinal also makes your skin more photosensitive so you have to be cautious, especially if you live in a sunny and tropical country like India. If you are going on a beach holiday, stop using retinal at least a week before. Dermatologists always ask patients to discontinue the use of retinoids 72 hours before skin procedures and after, as they can cause further irritation to dry and eczema-prone skin. “For any product in the retinoid family, take care in the beginning by doing a moisture sandwich— moisturiser, then retinol and a moisturiser again. You can do this for the first few days to ease in or use it two times a week first and then up it. Use them only at night,” Anand suggests.

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