Everything You Need To Know About Retinol, Retinal & Tretinoin

By Lucy Slight
And the plant-based alternative that promises results, minus the side effects. Photo / Emma Lewisham

It’s time for a lesson in all things vitamin A, as Lucy Slight breaks down the differences between prescription and off-the-shelf formulations, alongside a natural alternative to this anti-ageing powerhouse.

Tretinoin has been trending on TikTok for some time, with users bypassing off-the-shelf vitamin A products such as retinol and

However, its downsides include potential skin irritation, dryness, and increased sensitivity to sunlight; in some people, the initial sensitivity can end up destroying the skin’s barrier, leading to ongoing complications such as the inability to use any active skincare without irritation. Naturally, the hashtag #tretinoinpurge has also been abuzz on the social media platform, as people document their worsening skin conditions while they await the breakthrough of clear and youthful skin.

This type of reaction, while expected, can be beneficial in the long run, but it’s far from ideal for many, and generally not an option for anyone already experiencing skin sensitivity. Hence the abundance of retinol and retinal products available on the market that promise more gradual, less sensitising results.

But what’s the difference between these three? And where does bakuchiol, the plant-based alternative to retinol, fit in? Let’s break it down.

Retinol, retinal and retinoic acid (tretinoin) are all part of the vitamin A family and are collectively known as retinoids. They boost cell turnover, unclog pores, improve tone and texture, while also stimulating collagen production to ward off fine lines and wrinkles.


Also known as all-trans retinoic acid, “tret” is a potent retinoid commonly prescribed for treating acne and reducing signs of ageing. It works by binding to retinoic acid receptors in the skin, which regulate gene expression and promote cell turnover. Tretinoin is available in prescription-strength formulations and is generally considered more powerful and effective than over-the-counter retinol products. However, it may cause skin irritation and sensitivity, especially during the initial stages of use.


Retinol is a less potent form of vitamin A that is widely used in non-prescription skincare products. Once applied to the skin, retinol undergoes a conversion process to become retinal and eventually tretinoin. This gradual conversion allows for a slower release of retinoic acid, making retinol products generally better tolerated by individuals with sensitive skin. Although retinol may provide noticeable results, it typically takes longer to achieve the same level of improvement as with tretinoin.

Retinol is 20 times less potent than retinoic acid and while it is less irritating than retinoic acid, some people still react to it. In general, you’re more likely to see products containing retinol (as opposed to retinal) because it’s a more cost-effective ingredient, it’s more readily available and it’s easier to formulate.


Retinal, also known as retinaldehyde, is the closest dose of vitamin A you can get without a prescription as it is a step closer to tretinoin in the conversion process compared to retinol. It is clinically proven to work 11 times faster than retinol in stimulating collagen production and improving skin texture and it’s also much less irritating on the skin compared with retinol and tretinoin.

Retinal has only recently made its way into the skincare spotlight, largely due to the higher cost of the ingredient (compared to retinol) and its history of being notoriously difficult to stabilise. Despite these obstacles, Katey Mandy, founder of New Zealand skincare brand Raaie, was determined to use retinal when she set out to formulate her vitamin A serum, Yellow Moonbeam Retinal Elixir.

“Recent developments in the world of science have meant that we are now able to encapsulate this wonderous ingredient, preserving its potent skin smoothing, firming and clearing abilities until the moment that it meets your skin,” explains Katey.

“In our Yellow Moonbeam Retinal Elixir, we have combined both retinal and bakuchiol because clinical research shows these two ingredients work synergistically together. Bakuchiol’s calming and stabilising properties let retinoids work better and are also able to increase the skin’s tolerance to this ingredient.”


Bakuchiol is a natural alternative to retinoids that has gained popularity in recent years. It’s derived from the seeds of the babchi plant and has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for centuries.

This ingredient is often mistakenly associated with the vitamin A family when in fact it has no structural similarity to retinoids. Rather, it mimics vitamin E by healing and hydrating skin, though it has also been shown to help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and photoageing, hence the comparison to retinoids.

Emma Lewisham’s Supernatural Face Oil combines bakuchiol with chloroplast extracts and is formulated to achieve the skin-health results for which retinol is renowned using only naturally derived ingredients. Independent in vitro test results obtained through a study in April 2023 showed Supernatural Face Oil is scientifically proven to outperform 1 per cent retinol (the industry standard concentration) at reducing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. It was proven to have 32 per cent higher fibroblast proliferation (fibroblasts are the cells that are important for making collagen) and was also shown to stimulate collagen synthesis at a cellular level.

This is not only a scientific breakthrough in the world of natural skincare but also welcome news for anyone who cannot use retinoids in any form due to sensitivity or other skin conditions, or anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding, as vitamin A products are advised to be avoided during this time.

While tretinoin, retinol, and retinal all offer unique benefits, it is important to consider their varying strengths, potential side effects, and individual skin sensitivities when incorporating them into a skincare routine. Consulting a dermatologist or skincare professional is recommended to determine the most suitable retinoid for your specific needs and to ensure safe and effective use.

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