Retinal vs Retinol

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Retinal vs Retinol

When it comes to anti-ageing skincare, vitamin A is the absolute gold standard in keeping your skin looking younger for longer. Nothing even comes close to vitamin A in terms of the clinical evidence for its results and the amount of benefits it provides the skin. Two of the most well known forms are retinol, the tried and tested form and most popular in skincare; and retinaldehyde, the next-generation vitamin A. Let’s explain a little further the exceptional importance of vitamin A in the skin, the key differences between retinol and retinal, and how to know when your skin is ready to move up our vitamin A ‘ladders’.


Vitamin A is a vital part of any anti-ageing skincare routine because it can:
• Boost the production of collagen and elastin, for plumper, more youthful-looking skin
• Enhance the rate of cellular turnover, for a smoother skin surface
• Decrease melanin production for a more even skin tone
• Reduce sebum production to minimise blemish formation
• Help with UV repair, contrary to popular belief

Vitamin A or ‘retinoids’ is the family term for all vitamin A molecules and their derivative forms, including retinol and retinal, or derivatives like retinyl palmitate. Medik8 has a large range of vitamin A products to suit every skin type and need, and as a science-led brand, we focus all our attention on the forms of vitamin A that are clinically proven to provide great results; retinol, retinaldehyde and retinyl retinoate.


In order to have an effect in the skin, vitamin A must be converted along the ‘vitamin A pathway’ to reach its biologically active form called retinoic acid. So whichever form you apply, it ultimately needs to reach retinoic acid before any of the benefits can happen. There are four steps to the conversion into retinoic acid; beginning with retinyl esters - the weakest form of vitamin A that we don’t use at Medik8, into retinol, then to retinaldehyde, and then finally retinoic acid. To summarise; retinol is two conversion steps away from retinoic acid, retinaldehyde however requires just one conversion step to retinoic acid. The fewer conversions required, the more benefits delivered to the skin. Simple.

So now we understand the benefits of vitamin A, and how it is converted into its active form, let's get into the two most popular types we use at Medik8 and the differences between them. These two sound very similar but they are two very different molecules.

Retinol Ladder

Our Intelligent Retinol ladder allows you to slowly build up tolerance to vitamin A, by introducing it slowly into your skin care routine. Starting with medium strengths, like Intelligent Retinol 3TR™ (0.3%), to minimise any irritation and redness that you may initially experience with use. This ‘retinol ladder’ helps to slowly introduce the new percentages to your skin, again to minimise irritation.

We also recommend a process of phase-in with both retinol and retinal introduction so your skin is never overwhelmed and any sensitivity is minimised. Simply use twice a week for the first 2 weeks, every other night for the next 2 weeks, and then every night. Always remember to wear sunscreen the following morning when using vitamin A.


Retinaldehyde is a rare form of vitamin A that is even more powerful than retinol. As explained earlier, the key difference is that retinaldehyde is much closer in power to retinoic acid, but without the infamous side effects. It therefore acts up to 11x faster than retinol at providing anti-ageing, radiance-boosting and clarifying benefits to the skin[1]. Retinaldehyde is also the only directly anti-bacterial form of vitamin A, able to target the bacteria which causes blemishes to promote a clearer, more decongested complexion.

Key differences between Retinal and Retinol
• Retinal has antibacterial properties, making it perfect for oily or blemish-prone complexions
• Retinol is 2 steps away from retinoic acid, whereas retinal is just the one (read: faster, elevated results)
• Retinal is as gentle on the skin as retinol
• Both improve skin texture and tone

Our Crystal Retinal range harnesses the power of this next-generation molecule, innovatively encapsulated in a crystal structure for enhanced stability. So, if you’re looking for fast, visible results - this lightweight, serum-cream is the one for you.


Crystal Retinal Ladder

At Medik8, we offer 4 different strengths of retinaldehyde, 0.01% in Crystal Retinal 1™, 0.03% in Crystal Retinal 3™, and you get the picture with Crystal Retinal 6™ and 10. Our lowest strength gives the opportunity for very sensitive skin to get started on the retinaldehyde ladder, but most users will start on a Crystal Retinal 3 and work their way up the ladder slowly when wanting to power up.

Similar to our Intelligent Retinol range, we always advise phasing in the use of Crystal Retinal - using twice a week for the first 2 weeks, every other night for the next 2 weeks, and then every night.


We recommend to finish the serum you are on before moving onto a higher strength, and to be comfortably using it every night without any irritation. This usually takes around 6 to 8 weeks.

However, if you’re happy where you are with your Medik8 vitamin A, you can always stick with the level that works best for you. We advise moving up for accelerated, more powerful results - but this is not necessary - it’s not a race! Everyone's skin is different, and it’s important to find what works best for you. So which side are you on - team retinol or team retinal?


[1] G. Siegenthaler et al., Retinol and retinal metabolism, Biochem J., 1990, 268, pp 371-378

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