The Ordinary’s New Serum Is Pretty Special; Take It From A Serious Retinoid Fan

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My bathroom cabinet is something of a graveyard for half-used serums. Vitamin C? I don’t get on with it. Hyaluronic acid? It’s in most skincare products anyway. But retinal is something I’ll rarely — if ever — leave on the shelf. 
Not to be confused with retinol, retinal is revered among dermatologists for its ability to speed up skin cell turnover. As such, it unclogs pores, minimises hyperpigmentation, kickstarts collagen production and smooths out skin texture. Retinal is an all-rounder, so it makes perfect sense that it happens to be the star component in The Ordinary’s latest skincare product.

What is retinal and how is it different from retinol?

Without taking you back to chemistry class, retinal comes under the retinoid umbrella — essentially, skincare ingredients which are derived from vitamin A. Unless you’re a serious skincare enthusiast, you might find the world of retinoids confusing, and I don’t blame you. To make things easier, I imagine the retinoid family as a three-tiered pyramid: At the bottom, you’ll find retinyl palmitate or retinyl esters, which are the weakest form of retinoid found in skincare products. In the middle you have retinol, which is stronger and arguably the most popular version on the market. Retinal, also referred to as retinaldehyde, sits above that, making it a more potent ingredient than the rest. As such, it’s a lot more efficient than traditional forms of retinol; experts say that it works at least 11 times faster. It’s no wonder, then, that The Ordinary is tapping into its value. 
The percentage of retinal in this serum is 0.2%, and for a retinoid, it’s quite a high concentration. The star ingredient is suspended in an “emulsion” that boasts a lightweight, gel-cream texture that sinks into the skin quickly. It also features synthetic oat analogues: a component found inside (you guessed it) the humble breakfast oat. But don’t underestimate it. According to the brand, oat is a substantially moisturising ingredient that helps to mitigate the discomfort and dryness that can occur when using retinoid serums. Interestingly, countless brands are beginning to harness the power of oats in soothing skincare like Aveeno and The Inkey List.

Is The Ordinary’s Retinal 0.2% serum any good?

Now that the science is out of the way, I’ve tried countless retinal serums over the years but none of them has swayed me enough to make a repurchase until now.
Since this serum landed on my desk, I’ve been using it three times a week in the evening. Overall, my nighttime routine consists of a double cleanse using The Ordinary Glycolipid Cream Cleanser to remove all traces of makeup and sunscreen, followed by the retinal serum, then 30 minutes later, a generous layer of The Inkey List Bio-Active Ceramide Plumping Moisturiser. I’m so impressed by the results; the tiny under-the-skin bumps that I could feel when washing my face have all but disappeared and my skin is much smoother to the touch. I have nothing against injectables having had Botox in the past, but thanks to this serum (combined with gransil blur, an ingredient in the above Inkey List moisturiser), I don’t think about them; both are working overtime to minimise my faint forehead lines. 
I’ve noticed the most difference in my skin tone. In my experience, it usually takes months for the red skin staining left behind by spots to fade entirely, but this is certainly speeding things up. Retinal is especially useful for those with acne-prone skin, as aesthetician Alicia Lartey — a huge advocate for the ingredient — recently told R29. “The reason some people would say retinal is better for acne-prone skin [in comparison to retinol] is because it has a property that allows it to be antimicrobial and kill bacteria,” said Lartey. “As we know, bacteria is a component that affects acne-prone skin. Killing this bacteria can be a way to reduce acne."
Don’t just take my word for it. Refinery29’s senior writer Karina Hoshikawa has also been using the serum and is equally as excited by it: “I’ve been using prescription and OTC retinols, retinoids, and retinals since my early 20s, so I consider myself pretty well-versed in the ingredient and how my skin tolerates it,” says Hoshikawa. “I tend to be oily and acne-prone, so I love retinols for the increased cell turnover and texture- and tone-improving properties. I’ve jokingly referred to myself as having ‘rhino skin’ and have tried several of The Ordinary’s retinoids — one favourite being the Retinol 0.5% in Squalane. I got to test a very early sample of the Retinal 0.2% Emulsion during a trip to The Ordinary’s Toronto HQ, and it’s been a game changer in my nighttime routine."
Hoshikawa started using this every other night for a week before working up to nightly application. “I didn’t personally experience any redness or flaking,” she says. “I loved the lightweight yet creamy texture, which my skin drank up readily before going in with my moisturiser. I’m all about products that do what they say, and I definitely noticed less texture after about three weeks of consistent use. The bright yellow colour can take some getting used to, but this is totally natural and isn’t uncommon if you’ve tried other retinal serums. All in all, The Ordinary has set the bar high; it’s not just a great retinal at its price point, but a great retinal period. There, I said it!”
Aside from a handful of cosseting ingredients to prevent irritation, it’s the price point that makes this product unique. Retinoids are typically expensive, not to mention unstable, so they can lose potency when exposed to air. It’s why plenty of retinal serums are housed in air-tight packaging, though this often drives the price up even further. This bottle is airtight like many others on the market, but it doesn’t come with an eye-watering price tag. At $25.50, it’s currently one of the cheapest products in my skincare routine but quite easily the most effective. Just don’t let the virtually neon yellow colour put you off. Retinoids are yellow in their purest form and seeing as retinal is a pretty forceful version, the shade checks out. In my experience, it doesn’t stain the skin nor does it ruin pyjamas or white bedding. 

Who is The Ordinary’s Retinal 0.2% Emulsion for?

Fans of The Ordinary will know that this isn’t its first foray into the world of retinoids. Its Granactive Retinoid 2% In Emulsion is a favourite among skincare obsessives and experts alike, while the Retinol 1% in Squalane is TikTok viral for a reason. According to the brand, its new Retinal 0.2% is best suited to seasoned retinoid users looking to step up their skincare game. In other words, if you aren’t seeing good results from your current retinol serum, this makes for a swift upgrade. 

Are there any side effects of retinal?

Like all retinal serums, this is powerful, so regardless of whether you’ve used retinoids before, the advice is to go slow. The brand recommends applying it once a week at first — always in the evening — then, if your skin seems to be tolerating it well, you might like to build up to twice-weekly use with a few days in between. If you’re a retinal regular like me, you might be able to get away with using it more frequently, like every other day. Don’t ignore your skin, though. If it’s becoming red, feels uncomfortable or you’re peeling lots (all common side effects of using high strength retinoids) stop or scale back.
Considering that retinoids — all of them — make skin sensitive to sunlight, it’s important to wear a high-factor, broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day.
Refinery29 called it recently: Retinal is about to explode — and this affordable serum is a great place to start if you want to get ahead of the curve. You can purchase it directly from The Ordinary’s website for $25.50.
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