Best retinal creams: Supercharged skincare with anti-ageing results

Retinal vs retinol - which should you choose?

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Ellie Davis17 April 2024
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In the last 30 years, the beauty space has seen a retinol revolution.

While retinoids have been used as topical skincare since the 1930s, they only started to develop a reputation as an ardent anti-ager in the '90s. Over time, their formulation has advanced and in the last 10 or so years, we have been treated to efficacious retinol that is more easily tolerated – flaky irritation begone.

No self-respecting skincare savant would have a shelfie without the buzzed-about ingredient. The vitamin A derivative is continually lauded among the beauty community for its pore-minimising, texture-improving benefits and praised endlessly for its fine line-fighting properties. It has become one of the best-known components on the market and certainly, one that dermatologists and skin experts get asked about most.

Not to be confused (but easily done), retinal is an alternative retinoid in the skin spotlight. Look closely and you may find it’s already the main ingredient in your existing retinol arsenal – particularly if you’re a fan of Medik8. But if not, should you make the switch? We consulted an Aesthetics Doctor and Private GP at Harley Street’s Hannah London Clinic, Dr Kaywaan Khan, to find out.

What is retinal?

Dr Khan breaks it down. “Retinal, also known as retinaldehyde, is a form of vitamin A found in skincare products. It belongs to a class of compounds called retinoids, which are heralded for their anti-ageing effects such as reducing fine lines, wrinkles, and skin texture. As well as this, retinal can help enhance cell turnover and stimulate collagen production to help the skin maintain its elasticity and firmness for a youthful look”.

He continues, “The magic of retinal lies in its ability to convert into retinoic acid within the skin, when applied topically. Retinoic acid is an active form of vitamin A that directly interacts with your skin cells to promote skin renewal and rejuvenation”.

Much like its better-known contemporary, retinal should be applied at night and followed by SPF.

What is the difference between retinal vs retinol?

There is a simple but important distinction between them and it comes down to potency. Put simply, retinal is the stronger of the two.

The doctor explains, “Both retinal and retinol are retinoids, but the key difference lies in how quickly they convert to retinoic acid. Retinol is a less potent form of vitamin A which goes through several conversion steps in the skin to transform into retinoic acid (the active compound that influences skin cells).

“Compared to retinol, retinal is just one conversion step away from becoming retinoic acid. As retinal is structurally closer to retinoic acid, this means it gets converted quicker and starts working its magic on your skin much faster”.

He reveals that not only are likely to get speedier, more visible results in skin texture, the reduction of wrinkles and the softening of fine lines, but retinal is also “considered less irritating than retinol for the skin”.

How is this possible? Well, Dr Khan says “This is because the conversion process of retinol can generate byproducts that can irritate the skin. Since retinal converts faster and requires fewer steps, it’s likely better tolerated by those with sensitive skin”.

He adds, “Retinal is also the only retinoid with direct antibacterial properties, which makes it a good option for acne-prone skin. Over time, it can help to diminish the bacteria responsible for breakouts and leave the skin looking clear”.

Is retinal stronger than retinol?

“In terms of strength, retinal is typically considered stronger than retinol due to its quicker conversion into retinoic acid”, explains Dr Khan. “Although retinal is less irritating than retinol, its potency is stronger so there is a risk of irritation, as with any retinoid.

“Symptoms of irritation can include redness, dryness, flakiness and stinging sensations, especially when first introducing retinal into a skincare regimen or when using higher concentrations”.

How should you incorporate retinal into your skincare routine?

“Depending on which retinoid your dermatologist recommends for your individual skin tone and type, it’s advisable to start with a lower concentration of the ingredient and gradually increase usage over time as the skin becomes accustomed to it”, stresses Dr Khan.

When adding it to your regime, “It's essential to pair retinal or retinol use with a gentle and hydrating skincare routine to help support the skin's barrier function and mitigate potential dryness”, he recommends. “This will involve using a fragrance-free cleanser, a moisturiser rich in humectants, and a broad-spectrum SPF30+ during the day to protect the skin from sun sensitivity associated with retinoid use. With any retinoid, it is best to use before bed, so you are less likely to be exposed to sunlight after using it”.

Shop the best retinal-based skincare below

Medik8 Crystal Retinal 1 Stable Retinal Night Serum Gentle-Strength Vitamin A


The clever ‘retinal ladder’ system created by Medik8 allows users to progress through formula strengths, with Retinal 1, with the lowest amount of 0.01 per cent retinaldehyde, recommended as a starting point for those with sensitive skin. This particular version of vitamin A works eleven times faster and is as gentle as regular retinol, but said to be as effective as prescription strength when it comes to resurfacing skin and helping rebuild collagen.

The slow, steady release delivery system helps keep chances of redness reduced too. Vitamin E and hyaluronic acid ramp up moisture content and the peachy tint also gives the complexion a warm glow.

Buy now£45, Medik8

The Ordinary Retinal 0.2% Emulsion

The Ordinary

New to market is The Ordinary’s foray into the retinal space. The brand’s no-nonsense, one-ingredient approach to its collection continues with this unveiling that it calls its highest-strength retinoid formula to date. The emulsion, made to be used in the same way as a serum (after cleaning/toning and before moisturiser), is a treatment for dark spots, uneven skin texture and a dull complexion.

It has a quick-action approach using a 0.2 per cent concentration to tackle crow’s feet, fine lines and wrinkles. This is a product for those already well-versed in retinol products and is not designed for beginners without having preconditioned the skin to higher strengths. There is, however, the addition of synthetic oat analogues to prevent a reaction. It’s yellow in colour so leave it to settle before slipping into white sheets.

Buy now£15.20, The Ordinary

Skin Rocks Retinoid 2

Skin Rocks

Note that this retinal-based product is the second in Caroline Hirons’ Skin Rocks collection. It follows the beginner-level Retinoid 1 as a more potent and thus potentially more irritating formula. Hirons refers to it as an intermediate strength so this will not likely be the best option if you’ve not had any experience with retinoids in the past.

However, those who have built up their tolerance to the anti-ageing powerhouse will get on well with this exfoliating serum from the skin expert’s lauded offering. The active cocktail was created to be suitable for all skin types and tones and to tackle common concerns, from fine lines to breakouts to uneven texture and tone. Calling on 0.5% hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR) and 0.05% retinal, it has been clinically proven to increase skin firmness, reduce pigmentation and minimise the look of wrinkles. Best of all is the glow that follows.

Buy now£75, Skin Rocks

Murad Retinal ReSculpt Eye Treatment


High-performance skincare label Murad has introduced retinal into its range with both the Retinal ReSculpt Overnight Treatment and the newer ReSculpt Eye Treatment. The trademarked ReSculpt collection harnesses the power of an advanced pharmaceutical-grade encapsulation technology to maximise stability, delivery and thus, impact.

The brand suggests that this technology allows the star ingredient to be 2.5 times more effective than its retinol counterpart. For the eye treatment, it was designed to be used solely at night to transform the look of crow’s feet and lift drooping lids as you slumber, all while remaining delicate enough for the thinner skin around the periorbital area. Alongside the retinal is gentian root extract and oat sugar extract to combat sagging and encourage firming. One look at the before and after images and you’ll be sold.

Buy now£92, Space NK

Trinny London Overnight Clarity

Trinny London

The most potent formula in the Trinny London collection to date, the eponymous founder includes retinal in the ingredient line-up for Overnight Clarity. The active product is designed to encourage cell turnover to clarify and clear the complexion.

If you have found that hormones are causing breakouts or that recent stress has materialised physically in uneven texture, fine lines and redness, this serum treatment is on hand. Alongside retinal is niacinamide and azelaic acid to balance and brighten respectively, while reducing the appearance of pigmentation.

Buy now£75, Trinny London

Allies of Skin Retinal & Peptides Repair Night Cream

Allies of Skin

The powerhouse duo of retinal and peptides drive this cream from Allies of Skin. Both aggressive anti-agers in their own right, they combine in this formula to combat youthful complexion hinderers like stress and pollution. It achieves this by bringing moisture, brightening and blemish-busting properties to the table.

The cream texture offers a regenerative rehab, nourishing with the inclusion of argan, arctic cranberry seed and cloudberry oils. Layer up before catching 40 winks and wake to a hydrated, happy complexion. It has also been clinically proven to reduce acne lesions by 67 per cent in less than a month.

Buy now£92.20, Amazon

Sarah Chapman Icon Night Smartsome A³ X50³

Sarah Chapman

Thrice the retinoic power has gone into this night cream from Sarah Chapman. The expert facialist has composed this luxury cream with a potent hit of active ingredients that includes its own pioneering form of retinaldehyde vitamin A. It is presented in such a way as to maximise absorbency and the same is true for the peptides.

The latter has been suspended in a so-called ‘cosmetic drone delivery system’ to optimise its benefits. The result? Plump, perfected skin with an improvement in signs of ageing, pigmentation and a fortification of the skin barrier to give long-lasting effects. As you doze, the firming formula adds hyaluronic-rich X50 Hyalufiller, a pre/probiotic complex and vitamin C to the mix to nourish, brighten and hydrate.

Buy now£99, Sarah Chapman

de Mamiel Gravity Fix

de Mamiel

Stress presents itself on the complexion in many ways that end up causing further stress. You may notice an increase in wrinkles, dullness and sagginess and this is a result of the excess glucose that is produced when cortisol levels rise. For many, daily stressors are out of our control but what we can do is incorporate innovative creams into our skin routine to help with the former - name this glycoin-based formula from de Mamiel.

This ingredient is dubbed a ‘stress protection molecule’ by the brand for the way it re-energises the cells. It is set alongside a combination of plant actives and extracts like goji berry selected for stimulating collagen production and importantly, retinal for plumping, firming and encouraging cell turnover. The latter, combined with red algae and ceramides, work anti-ageing magic and protect the skin barrier respectively, while white truffle has a brightening effect and Acetyl Glycosamine promotes hyaluronic acid production for all-important hydration.

Buy now£165, de Mamiel

Naturium Retinaldehyde Cream Serum


Naturium is an affordable but efficacious skincare label that has taken the beauty world by storm. It recently launched its Retinaldehyde Cream Serum 0.05% to much acclaim, inspiring the label to create a spin-off at a higher percentage. Shop the serum at 0.1% as the next step in your evolving retinoid journey. Start with the less potent original or skip straight to the higher version of the advanced ingredient if you’ve already built up tolerance.

No matter which potency you opt for, you will be maximising the smoothing properties of the retinaldehyde-based product. The serum is designed to minimise the appearance of fine lines and leave skin brighter and more even. It has a creamy consistency and works by converting the named component into retinoic acid, making it suitable for sensitive or acne-prone skin types. It’s yellow in colour but glow-inducing when applied with a lightweight, easy-to-absorb texture.

Buy now£32, Space NK