Retinaldehyde: Retinol Alternative For Sensitive Skin

It can be difficult to fight the signs of aging with retinol products without suffering from their side effects. Common side effects of retinol use include sun sensitivity, irritation, flaky skin, and peeling. However, there are alternatives to using retinol, such as its precursor, retinaldehyde. 

Retinaldehyde is a natural form of vitamin A like retinol and retinyl palmitate, is created by the body before being converted to retinol. 

However, retinaldehyde has been found to be gentler on the skin than other forms of retinol, which may give those with sensitive skin the opportunity to use a retinol-based product without suffering from the side effects that it typically causes. 

What are the Best Skin Care Products of 2024?

Retinaldehyde may have a number of advantages for individuals who want to use retinol for wrinkle reduction, even skin tone and even to support the treatment of acne. 

Retinaldehyde is approved for use by the FDA and products that contain it typically do not require a prescription.

As retinaldehyde is a precursor to vitamin A it is absorbed into the skin and converted to its active form, retinoic acid. Our skin cells contain receptors for retinoic acid which allow for the benefits such as faster skin cell turnover, reduction in the appearance of hyperpigmentation, and support of collagen production, to be achieved. 

Retinoic acid is a metabolite of vitamin A that is responsible for the functions that are associated with the vitamin such as its benefits to the skin. Other retinoids include retinyl palmitate, retinal, and tretinoin. 

Vitamin A or retinoic acid is used to improve the appearance of the skin. Studies have suggested that vitamin A may help to reduce visible fine lines, pigmentation, blemishes, and may help to improve skin cell turnover. This is why retinoid products, like retinol, are so widely used.


the good: Retinaldehyde helps to reduce the visible signs of aging, minimize hyperpigmentation and support the treatment of acne. It is a great alternative to retinol products as it is better for sensitive skin types.

the not so good: Retinaldehyde can still cause irritation and sensitivity but it is less likely to irritate the skin than other retinol products.

Who is it for? All skin types except those that have an identified allergy to it.

Synergetic ingredients: Works well with most ingredients, although proceed with caution when using harsh, drying, or exfoliating ingredients.

Keep an eye on: Keep in mind that there is a difference between retinaldehyde and other retinoids and they can vary in benefits and side effects.

What Products Contain Retinaldehyde?

While retinaldehyde is not as common an ingredient as other retinol forms, there are several products on the market that contain it.

Retinaldehyde is most common in anti-aging serums, but it can also be found in products such as eye creams and products that are formulated to rejuvenate the skin overnight such as masks. 

In most cases, the concentration of retinaldehyde in these products is anywhere from 0.05% – 0.1%, as higher concentrations may cause irritation in those with sensitive skin. 

While retinaldehyde is typically not as potentially irritating as other forms of retinol, it is important that you understand how it may affect your skin in the long term, and who would best benefit from its use.

What Are The Benefits Of Retinaldehyde?

As a class, retinoids are well-known to be one of the most powerful topically applied ingredients to address the signs of aging and improve acne symptoms. 



Retinaldehyde improves the appearance of your skin through several mechanisms. One is through the inhibition of collagenase, which is an enzyme that breaks down collagen. 

By preventing collagen degradation, the skin may appear more firm, and lines/wrinkles may be diminished. As we age our ability to produce collagen decreases. Collagen is one of the molecules that are responsible for giving the skin firmness and structure.

Retinoids, including retinaldehyde work on the upper papillary dermis where collagen content can be increased by inhibition of collagen degradation. Topical retinoic acid or tretinoin, the strongest of the retinoids has been found to increase Type I collagen by 80% in photoaged skin. Thickening of the skin was also observed which helps to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 


Skin cell turnover

Retinol has also been studied for its ability to initiate the increase of epidermal proliferation, which means it may help to support skin growth. The skin normally takes about 28 days from the first formation of a cell until that cell naturally sheds off. This process slows down as we age, which can lead to dry, dull skin as well as clogged pores – which can all exacerbate the look of fine lines. Retinol has been suggested to speed up this process to 14 to 16 days. This effect has been linked with thicker skin and improvement in the appearance of fullness in the skin. 



Additionally, retinoids ‘exfoliate’ the skin by supporting the natural shedding of the skin. 

The uppermost layers of the skin are typically composed of 14 layers of densely packed dead skin cells. These dead skin cells from the protective barrier that prevents moisture loss, bacteria overgrowth, and damage.

However, in some people, shedding this layer may help to improve pigmentation and reduce the frequency of blemishes. The use of topical retinol helps to slough off some of these surface layers.

The combination of rapid regeneration of cells may help to improve the appearance of aging skin and reduce the appearance of dark spots and blemishes. Over time these actions may improve the appearance of acne, soften the skin, lift dark spots and reduce the visibility of wrinkles.



Retinaldehyde functions as an antioxidant to limit oxidative damage caused by free radicals.

Antioxidants help to prevent free radical damage. Free radicals are produced by a natural process in the body called oxidative stress, however, environmental factors such as UV rays, smoking, diet, and pollution can increase the number of free radicals in the body. 

This increase can be detrimental, as free radicals have been linked with damage to the body’s cells and studies suggest that they may be linked to aging. The ability of retinol to work as an antioxidant may provide the skin with a little extra protection.



Retinoids are often used to reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation. Retinaldehyde works on hyperpigmentation in a couple of ways. The first is that it may speed up the skin’s natural shedding process, removing the pigmented skin from the surface.

It may also may work to influence the molecules that are responsible for the pigment in the skin, melanocytes, allowing for regular, even arrangement of pigment in the skin. 

The main thing to remember when using any retinoid product is that you need to use it in conjunction with sunscreen. This is particularly important when using retinoids for hyperpigmentation as the sun will contribute to the appearance of hyperpigmentation. 



In acne-prone skin, retinoids are often used to treat acne. It is thought that the retinol helps to reduce hormone-driven excess sebum production, think oily skin. It may also help to reduce blockages in the pores and reduce the inflammatory response.



Retinoids are widely used to reduce the signs of aging on the skin. While the aging processes of the skin are highly complex and depend on genetic and environmental factors, retinol and its retinoid counterparts have been shown to help reduce fine lines and wrinkles as well as improve skin texture and laxity. 

Many studies have been conducted on retinol specifically for its benefits to aging skin. Most of these studies demonstrate a significant reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Some studies have also indicated that retinol may reduce skin fragility and may help to support wound healing in aging skin. 



As a class of ingredients retinoids may have many other applications such as helping treat psoriasis, keratosis pilaris, stretch marks, scarring, and wound healing. However, the research on these potential benefits has not been conducted with retinol and has instead been conducted with one of the other retinoids.

How Does Retinaldehyde Work?

Vitamin A cannot be produced by the body so it is a vitamin we absorb from our diet. Retinol and retinoids are required for several processes in the body including embryogenesis, reproduction, vision, growth, inflammation, and cell regulation. So, retinol is an important molecule in the body and is involved in many other processes than just the skin.

Retinaldehyde is converted to retinoic acid in the body, this is the form of vitamin A that the body uses. 

How To Use Retinaldehyde

If you’re considering incorporating a retinol-based product into your skincare routine, the general rule of thumb is to start slowly as the products may cause redness, flaking, or irritation. Start with clean, dry skin and apply a pea-sized amount of product once or twice a week and see how your skin tolerates it. From there, you can gradually build up to using it more frequently.   

And be patient. It can take three to six months of regular use before improvements in the skin are apparent. The best results often take six to 12 months. 

Retinaldehyde should be used at night as it can break down with exposure to the sun. They should also be used in conjunction with sunscreens as they can increase the sensitivity of your skin to UV rays. 

When finding a retinol-based product, keep in mind that vitamin A is not stable- meaning it breaks down when exposed to sunlight and air. This often means that products have been formulated to increase the stability of the product so prices may vary depending on the concentration of the retinol, stability, packaging, and other ingredients.

What Are The Other Retinoids?

Other retinoids include retinyl palmitate, retinol, tretinoin, tazarotene, adapalene, and isotretinoin.

Who Should Use Retinaldehyde Products?

Those who would benefit the most from products that contain retinaldehyde are those who have experienced moderate to severe side effects with products that contain pure vitamin A (retinol) or who have thin or sensitive skin. Individuals who are sun-sensitive may also benefit from retinaldehyde-based products, as this form of retinol does not cause the kind of sensitivities that other forms of retinol tend to do.

Retinaldehyde is also becoming more common in acne products, as retinol has been proven to be effective in helping boost cell turnover, allowing dying and dead skin cells to slough away at a faster rate, which reveals new, healthy skin cells. Some acne products that currently contain retinaldehyde include formulations to fight blackheads, cystic acne, and acne scars.

If you have never used a product that contains this ingredient, you may want to consider your skin type and what type of skincare issue you want to treat, as while retinaldehyde is a form of retinol, studies have not conclusively proven that it is as effective as other forms.

How To Choose A Retinaldehyde Product

If you are trying to treat acne-prone skin and want to try a product with retinaldehyde because your skin cannot tolerate pure retinol, you should start out with a product that contains a low concentration until you understand how it might affect it.

 While it has been proven that retinaldehyde is gentler on the skin than pure vitamin A, it still has the potential to irritate the skin, so beginning a regimen with a product that contains the lowest concentration is always a good idea.

As you shop, keep in mind that the biggest drawback of retinaldehyde products is their cost. Most products that contain this ingredient tend to be more expensive than most retinoid products, which can be expensive as well, so this is something to consider, especially if you have a limited skincare budget.

Can You Use Retinaldehyde When Pregnant?

The American Academy of Dermatology advises that pregnant and breastfeeding people should avoid using all retinol-based products, including retinaldehyde. 

It is always best to discuss this with your doctor or specialist to determine if skincare choices may suit your situation or medical history.

Who Can Benefit from Using Retinaldehyde?

If well tolerated, retinaldehyde can be beneficial for anyone who is looking to improve the appearance of their skin but in particular those with sensitive skin.  Many people start using retinol products in their mid-twenties but it’s never too late to start using them. 

In general, retinaldehyde products are suitable for all skin types but as they can cause irritation, anyone with dry, damaged, or sensitive skin should proceed slowly. 

If you are experiencing sensitivity it may be best to reduce the frequency of use, or even the time you have it on your skin. For example, you can apply your retinol product for 10 mins then wash it off. 

Listen to your skin, if it is irritated or sensitive step it back or discontinue use and speak with your doctor or dermatologist.

What is Vegan Retinol?

You may have seen some skincare products listing “vegan retinol” or “natural retinol” as an ingredient. 

Of the plant-based retinol, one of the most commonly used is bakuchiol, which is found in the seeds and leaves of the Asian  psoralea corylifolia plant. 

While bakuchiol is not retinol, it is thought to work in a similar way to retinol, by boosting skin cell turnover. Bakuchiol tends not to be as irritating to the skin as retinol.

Retinaldehyde itself can be vegan as it can be derived from both animal and plant-based sources. If you are looking for a vegan product always check the brand’s information.

Are There Any Side Effects With Retinaldehyde?

While retinaldehyde is better for sensitive skin types it can still come with the same side effects as retinol. So here are some tips to avoid and manage the side effects when using a retinaldehyde product. 

Some people using retinol develop flaky, red, and irritated skin so incorporating a good moisturizer to help soothe the skin is a must. 

For some retinol users, the face can look worse before it starts getting better, in a process that is called “retinization.” Patience is key. If your skin looks particularly dry and flaky, resist the urge to exfoliate those dry spots away. It is also a good idea to avoid skincare products with alcohol, such as stringent toners, as they may be too drying.

Some retinol users adopt a rotation method where they switch between a ‘work’ night, meaning they use retinol on certain days, and take a break with a ‘nourish’  night where the focus is on soothing the skin with extra hydration through a mask or an oil-based serum.

Using retinol can also make the skin more sensitive to the sun, so it is critical to wear sunscreen with a high SPF every single day.

When using retinol pay attention to your facial cleanser and make sure it isn’t stripping your skin. You may want to switch to a creamy or milk-based cleanser that is extra gentle on the skin. Anyone with skin issues such as rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, or sensitive skin may find that retinol is too much for their face; check with a health professional first.

Some skincare professionals suggest skipping ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide and alpha hydroxy acids when using retinol as they can be too sensitizing or drying to the skin when used in combination with retinol.

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Shao Y, He T, Fisher GJ, Voorhees JJ, Quan T. Molecular basis of retinol anti-ageing properties in naturally aged human skin in vivo. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2017;39(1):56-65.
Buchanan PJ, Gilman RH. Retinoids: Literature Review and Suggested Algorithm for Use Prior to Facial Resurfacing Procedures. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2016;9(3):139-144.
Mukherjee S, Date A, Patravale V, Korting HC, Roeder A, Weindl G. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. 2006;1(4):327-348.



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