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This Ingredient Is More Potent Than Retinol — Should You Be Using It?

Hannah Frye
March 20, 2022
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
By Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.
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March 20, 2022
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If you're looking to make significant changes to your skin, whether that be reducing fine lines or combating dark spots, retinol is one powerhouse ingredient—but finding the right retinol product for your skin type is no easy task. For example, those with dry or sensitive skin may want to use gentler derivatives buffered with hydrating actives; on the flip side, acne-prone individuals may need a stronger, sometimes prescription-strength formula. 

And then there are those that fall somewhere in between—ever wished there was a middle ground? Well, you're in luck: Retinaldehyde may be the answer.

What is retinaldehyde?

"Retinaldehyde is a type of vitamin A and is the strongest form of over-the-counter retinoids," board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, M.D., FAAD, tells mbg. Retinol in general is a precursor to retinoic acid, meaning it converts to retinoic acid when applied topically. However, retinaldehyde requires fewer steps to be converted to retinoic acid as compared to retinol, which is why it's considered more potent. "[Retinaldehyde] only requires one step to be converted to retinoic acid in order for it to have its effect on the skin," Garshick explains. 

How does retinaldehyde affect the skin?

Like other forms of retinol, retinaldehyde is a great ingredient to encourage healthy skin aging1 and may be effective for treating acne2 as well, especially when used alongside an exfoliating active, such as glycolic acid. (Just not on the same night! That's a recipe for irritation.) "As a retinoid, [retinaldehyde] helps to regulate skin cell turnover, preventing pores from becoming clogged, as well as improving overall skin tone and texture while boosting collagen production," Garshick adds. 

Many people look to prescription-strength retinoids for acne treatment, and for a good reason: These formulas (most notably tretinoin) are stronger than OTC options. But some people, especially those with sensitive skin, may not be able to tolerate prescription-strength products, as they can be drying and irritating. For many, retinaldehyde functions as a strong (yet not too strong) middle ground. 

Who retinaldehyde is best for. 

Say you've used OTC products but haven't seen the results you're looking for—in this case, retinaldehyde may be a great option to bump up the potency just a bit. On the other hand, if you've used prescription-grade retinoids and found that they irritate your skin, this ingredient may be a better option for you to test as well. "While it can be used by all skin types, [retinaldehyde] is especially great for someone who is unable to tolerate a prescription retinoid, as may be the case for someone with dry or sensitive skin," Garshick explains. 

What to look for in an OTC product.

Of course, there are tons of OTC products out there—to streamline your search, we asked board-certified dermatologist Rebecca Marcus, M.D., how to spot a winning formula. "Formulas that contain skin barrier-boosting and hydrating ingredients, such as glycerin, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid, will help to make retinaldehyde more tolerable," she says, especially if your skin already runs a little sensitive. 

So the best practice is to pair this powerful active with hydrating ingredients to simultaneously pamper your skin barrier. Our pick? The Youth to the People Retinal + Niacinimide Youth Serum, which combines niacinamide, essential ceramides, and adaptogens to buffer the potent active and provide even more antioxidant support. 

That being said, any form of vitamin A may cause irritation, especially if used incorrectly. If you haven't used any form of retinol before, it's best to start with a more gentle product and work your way up. "If you 'start low and go slow' (start with a gentle retinoid and slowly work your way up to a stronger one), most people will be able to have a long and happy relationship with retinoids that will keep their skin looking fresh and smooth," Marcus says. Meaning, retinaldehyde may not be for you if you haven't tried any form of retinol before. If this is the case, it's best to start with a super-gentle retinol serum

How to use retinaldehyde in your skin care routine.

You'll want to apply your retinaldehyde serum at night to dry, clean skin (a general rule of thumb for any type of retinol). Use a pea-size amount to avoid irritation, and apply the product to both your face and your neck

Again, the most important thing to remember when applying any retinoid is to ease your way into it, as using the serum every night right off the bat is more likely to cause irritation. Most derms recommend starting with a once-a-week cadence, gradually increasing to everyday use as tolerated.

In addition, make sure you're limiting other active ingredients in your nighttime routine when using retinaldehyde. "Avoid mixing other acids, such as vitamin C or AHAs, in the same product or even in different products used at the same time," Marcus says. Don't worry: You can still use your favorite exfoliating serums, just not on the same night. (Here's a derm-approved skin-cycling routine if you need help shuffling through your actives.) You don't have to ditch your vitamin C serum either—simply use it in the morning. 

After you apply the serum, always follow up with a moisturizer. Also be sure to avoid slugging (aka, applying a highly occlusive moisturizer to the face) after using any form of retinoids, as it can increase irritation. And remember: You should be extra diligent about wearing SPF daily when using retinoids, as they can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. 

The takeaway. 

If you've hit a wall with your OTC retinol products or find that your skin can't tolerate prescription-grade products, retinaldehyde is a great middle ground. This ingredient can help increase cell turnover and prevent clogged pores, leading to smoother skin and fewer breakouts—but as with any vitamin A derivative, it's best to start slowly and increase your use of retinaldehyde as your skin tolerates it. If you're not an experienced retinol user, don't fret: There are tons of classic retinol serums to help you along the path to using stronger, more potent forms of vitamin A, if you fancy. 

Hannah Frye author page.
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor

Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty & Health Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including skin care, women’s health, mental health, sustainability, social media trends, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends and innovations, women’s health research, brain health news, and plenty more.