Retinol vs Retinal vs Retinoic Acid - What is the difference? | ellé derm

September 02, 2021 3 min read

retinol vs retinal

Vitamin A has been extensively studied and is proven to be the mainstay therapy when it comes to antiageing and acne. 

With so many forms of Vitamin A derivatives out on the market, which one is more suitable for you?

Vitamin A or retinoid is the umbrella term that encompasses all the different form you hear about. Think of it as the family unit and within this family unit exists different family members. Regardless of which family member you choose, Retinoic Acid is the active form (with one exception) and this is what goes on to exert its novel antiageing effects.


Retinoic Acid 

You may have heard of Tretinoin or Isotretinoin - these are also known as Retinoic Acid. They have the ability to bind directly to Retinoic Acid Receptors in the skin and hence their effects are fast acting. These are often not well tolerated and can cause a lot of irritation, dry mouth and dry, flaky skin.  

They are also only available on prescription only.  These are more suited for normal to combination skin type. For those with sensitive skin, we recommend titrating slowly until tolerated.


Retinal or Retinaldehyde 

Retinal is a precursor of Retinoic Acid and requires one conversion to become active. For this reason, their effects are seen much more quickly compare to Retinol (which requires two conversion steps to become active).

It is interesting to note that 0.05% Retinal has clinically demonstrated to exhibit similar antiageing benefits to 0.05% Tretinoin but with much better tolerability. The lower side effect profile is thought to be due to Retinal's ability to be metabolise from Retinal to Retinoic Acid in skin cells that are differentiating, hence the release of Retinoic Acid is much more steady and controlled. This results in less irritation when compared to Tretinoin and other Retinol. 

Although much better tolerated than Retinol, Retinal is much more expensive compare to Retinol. For this reason, Retinol is still widely use in cosmetic formulations.

For those with sensitive skin or rosacea, this would be the ideal retinoid to start with. Retinal has also found to exhibit anti-microbial activity against P.acnes, making them ideal for those acne prone skin. 


retinal vs retinol hydroxypinacolone retinoateRetinol 

There are also extensive studies to show Retinol exhibits antiageing effects on human skin. However, retinol is found to be 20x less potent than Tretinoin. Due to it's irritating profile, we do recommend to proceed with caution in those with sensitive skin.




What is this Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate?

Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate is an all-trans retinoic acid ester, a synthetic Vitamin A derivative created to act directly on Retinoic Acid receptors without conversion into Retinoic Acid (Figure 1). 

This direct activation can enhance gene expression and turn on a cascade of cellular functions to improve collagen production, improve skin elasticity and reduce fine lines whilst having minimal adverse effects on the skin. 

That said, more studies are required to compare its effectiveness against prescription strength Retinoids such as Tretinoin and Tazarotene.

Their benefits however, make them ideal for people with sensitive skin. Due to their less irritating nature, they can also be combined with low strength Glycolic Acid, Vitamin C and BHAs with minimal irritation compare to Retinol. We do recommend that this combination is introduced under supervision or reserved for the well seasoned user. 



Author: Helen Huynh (B Pharm) MPS

Pharmacist & Cosmetic formulator




      1. Antiageing effects of Retinoid Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate on skin models. Journal of American Academy of Dermatology.  Published September 2018. Available from:
      2. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Journal of Clinical Interventions in Aging 2006:1(4) 327–348. Available from:
      3. Belyaeva, O et al. Generation of Retinaldehyde for Retinoic Biosynthesis. Journal of Biomolecules. 2020 Jan; 10(1): 5.
      4. Babamiri, K et al. Cosmeceuticals: the evidence behind retinoids. Aesthetic Surgery Journal, Volume 30, Issue 1, January 2010, Pages 74–77,