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


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

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

Vitamin A or retinoid is the umbrella term that encompasses all the different forms 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, they need to be converted into Retinoic Acid.

Retinoic Acid is the active form (except Tretinoin) and this is what goes on to exert its novel anti-ageing effects. Once Retinoic Acid binds to its receptors, this turns on a cascade of cellular functions to improve collagen, improve skin elasticity, reduce fine lines and increase cell turnover. 


Retinoic Acid 

You may have heard of Tretinoin or Isotretinoin - these are also known as Retinoic Acid. They can bind directly to Retinoic Acid Receptors in the skin and thus, their effects are fast acting. These are often not well tolerated and can cause a lot of irritation, dry mouth and dry, flaky skin. For those with sensitive skin, we recommend titrating slowly until tolerated.

They are also only available on prescription in most countries (including Australia), making them less accessible. 


Retinal or Retinaldehyde 

Retinal is a precursor of Retinoic Acid and requires one conversion to become Retinoic Acid. 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 anti-ageing benefits to 0.05% Tretinoin but with much better tolerability. The lower side effect profile is thought to be due to the Retinal's ability to be metabolised 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 compared to Retinol. For this reason, Retinol is still widely used in mainstream cosmetic formulations. 

For those with sensitive skin or rosacea, this is the ideal retinoid to start on. 

Retinal has also been found to exhibit anti-microbial activity against P.acnes, making them ideal for those acne-prone skin.

retinal retinol serum



There are also extensive studies to show Retinol exhibits anti-ageing effects on human skin. However, retinol is found to be 20x less potent than TretinoinDue to its irritating profile, we recommend proceeding with caution for 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). 

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.  



Author: Helen Huynh (B Pharm) MPS





  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,


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