No one uses retinol anymore—because this ingredient is better

 From mandelic acid to niacinamide, it appears that there's a constant influx of new, dazzling ingredients in the world of skincare. Some promise exfoliation, some aim to plump the skin, but none seem to capture attention quite like retinol.

Dermatologists regularly recommend it to their patients, influencers devote entire video content to its praise, and TikTokers are turning it into a viral sensation (just check out the 5.6 billion views under the hashtag #retinol on the app). It's undeniable; retinol is the holy grail.


When consistently used, retinol can work wonders in addressing sun-induced damage, like dark spots and fine lines, minimizing hyperpigmentation (such as the aftermath of acne-induced skin discoloration), refining skin texture (it can even help with acne), and boosting collagen production (rendering the skin more resilient and supple).


But what if we told you there might be something even better? Retinol will always have its place in skincare, but experts like esthetician Alicia Lartey and science-backed beauty brands such as Medik8, Youth To The People, and Avène are starting to favor an alternative.


Introducing: Retinal. Before you roll your eyes, give us a moment to explain. The name might differ by just one letter, but retinaldehyde is a supercharged version of the beloved skincare ingredient with even more impressive properties.


What exactly is retinaldehyde, and how does it differ from retinol? "Retinal should not be confused with retinol," states Dr. Osman Bashir Tahir, an aesthetic doctor and founder of Halcyon Aesthetics. Dr. Tahir clarifies that retinol and retinaldehyde are both forms of vitamin A, but "Retinal's potent ingredients allow it to achieve results akin to those achieved with regular retinol products and even enhance them."


Alicia isn't taking you to a chemistry class, but she explains that when retinol is applied to the skin, it gradually converts into retinoic acid, which brings about all the skincare benefits mentioned earlier. In contrast, Retinal bypasses some of these steps, enabling it to work faster and more efficiently.


What are the benefits of incorporating Retinal into your skincare routine? Daniel Isaacs, the director of research at Medik8, reveals that retinal (sometimes listed as retinaldehyde in ingredient labels) works a whopping 11 times faster than traditional forms of retinol. "There is an abundance of published research supporting its effectiveness. It not only remodels the skin's surface but also aids in collagen rebuilding," says Daniel, likening it to prescription skincare you'd typically only obtain from a dermatologist.


Compared to other vitamin A forms, retinal is an ideal choice for those with blemish-prone skin, as it possesses antibacterial properties that can combat acne-causing bacteria. Alicia elaborates: "Some people argue that retinal is more suitable for acne-prone skin due to its antibacterial properties, which help combat the bacteria known to contribute to acne development."


But Retinal isn't just a quick fix for acne; it's a skincare rejuvenation superstar and an excellent choice for mature skin. Dr. Tahir mentions that it accelerates the formation of new skin cells and stimulates collagen production, both of which can plump the skin, reduce the appearance of fine lines, and leave your complexion looking more even.


How should you use Retinal, and are there any side effects to be aware of? While retinol is highly effective, it can lead to skin irritation, resulting in symptoms like redness, flakiness, and sensitivity to the sun's harmful UV rays. So, are retinals any different? "In general, the potential for skin irritation is highest if you apply an excessive amount of vitamin A to the skin or use it too early," notes Dr. Tahir.


Dr. Tahir, Alicia, and Daniel suggest introducing Retinal gradually into your skincare routine to allow your skin to build up a tolerance to the ingredient. Dr. Tahir recommends starting with a product that has a lower retinal percentage or concentration (e.g., 0.03%). He advises using it once or twice a week for the first few weeks, then gradually increasing the frequency to every other night over the following two weeks.


Through this approach, your skin should slowly acclimatize to Retinal. Dr. Tahir explains that some individuals may use it nightly and eventually move up to a higher potency. However, due to its potency, retinal-based products may be better suited for those with more youthful-looking skin.


Nevertheless, Alicia points out that retinal formulas often boast higher quality, which means they are more likely to include additional skin-friendly ingredients like peptides (which aid in skin repair), ceramides (which help maintain the skin barrier), and emollients (offering moisturization and soothing benefits). Alicia suggests that these additives can reduce the likelihood of irritation compared to retinol products.


In case of any irritation or concerns, Alicia recommends applying a moisturizer before using Retinal to act as a buffer. As Dr. Tahir noted, it's best to use retinal products at night and, importantly, wearing sunscreen during the day is non-negotiable, especially when using retinoid products, as they can make your skin particularly sensitive to sunlight.


What are the top Retinal skincare products on the market? Retinal might not have the same recognition as retinol, but it's steadily gaining popularity, and several prominent skincare brands are incorporating it into their product offerings.


Alicia and Dr. Tahir highly recommend Medik8's Crystal Retina Night Serum, priced at £45. This serum is among the brand's best-sellers, and it's available in various strengths, allowing you to customize it according to your skin type.


Daniel suggests starting with strength 1 if you have very sensitive skin, but for those who want more potent effects, it's recommended to begin with strength 3 and gradually work your way up. What sets this product apart is that the retinal is encapsulated in moisturizing ingredients that release gradually upon skin contact. This means your skin receives a steady supply of retinal over time, reducing the likelihood of side effects commonly associated with stronger vitamin A formulations, such as flaking and redness.


Alicia frequently recommends Avène Triacnéal Night Moisturizer (£23) for acne-prone skin or Avène Physiolift Smoothing and Regenerating Night Cream (£34.99) for mature skin (with one client raving about the improvement in skin texture). If you're willing to splurge, Alicia also has a soft spot for Allies of Skin Retinal & Peptides Repair Night Cream (£115) or Youth To The People Retinal + Niacinamide Youth Serum (£64), which includes 5% niacinamide for added hydration and ceramides for moisture retention. On a budget? Give AHC Youth Focus Pro Retinal Lotion, priced at £22, a try; it has garnered plenty of five-star reviews.


In summary, Retinal is an exciting contender in the skincare world, offering faster results and potentially fewer side effects compared to traditional retinol. However, a gradual approach to introducing it into your skincare routine is recommended to avoid irritation. As always, wearing sunscreen during the day is crucial when using retinoid products, and the market now offers a variety of high-quality Retinal