By now, you’re probably familiar with retinol and its litany of skin benefits, from evening out skin texture and tone to fading and preventing fine lines and wrinkles. For decades, retinol has been lauded as a powerhouse anti-aging skincare ingredient by dermatologists and skin experts, and it has plenty of scientific evidence backing up its efficacy. But what about retinal, retinol’s more potent older sister?
As a regular retinol user myself, I’ve been on the hunt for something stronger, which is when Maelove’s Moonlight Retinal Super Serum caught my eye. Launched in 2020, this award-winning formula boasts a 0.11% concentration of stabilized retinal to smooth skin texture, fade signs of photoaging, and even help with acne. It also contains a blend of nourishing ingredients like niacinamide, bisabolol, ceramide, tea extracts, hyaluronic acid, and squalane to help counter any irritation and calm the skin.
Maelove has earned quite a buzz over the last couple of years, and rightfully so. Its products are cleanly formulated and packed with high-quality actives and other skin-nurturing antioxidants and botanicals, yet they’re surprisingly affordable. Its Glow Maker Serum—formulated with vitamins C and E, ferulic acid, and hyaluronic acid—has become a fan favorite for its brightening and smoothing abilities, yet it rings in at a mere $30 (ahem, making it a pretty solid dupe for another much more expensive cult-favorite product).
I’ve also personally been a fan of Maelove for some time now, regularly using Glow Maker and its NIA 10 Calming Serum (also $30) during the day, so I was definitely curious to try its retinal serum in my evening routine. I got my hands on a sample and tested it out for three weeks.
Before trying it out, I caught up with board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, to get the lowdown on what exactly retinal does compared to traditional retinol formulas.
“Retinal, referring to retinaldehyde, is a type of retinoid—or vitamin A derivative—that gets converted to retinoic acid to help regulate skin cell turnover and boost collagen production, improving overall texture and tone,” she says. “Retinaldehyde is considered more potent compared to retinol, given there are fewer steps to convert to retinoic acid as compared to retinol. In general, all retinol derivatives need to be converted to retinoic acid in order to be effective—and the more steps involved, the less potent and the gentler it is.”
That said, being a retinal serum, Moonlight falls somewhere between retinol and prescription retinoic acid in terms of strength, making it one of the more powerful products you can buy over the counter. “It can be used by anyone wanting to start a retinoid, but it may be especially good for someone who has already used a retinol and tolerated it well but isn’t noticing significant improvement,” adds Garshick. “Additionally, if someone isn’t quite ready or isn’t able to tolerate a prescription retinoid, this is a great option.”
At 31, I’ve been using retinol over the last few years to help combat the fine lines that have started to crop up in my under-eye area. I have a bit of sun damage from time spent in the sun without proper SPF (this was way before I became a beauty editor, of course), and retinol has also helped fade some of those freckles and dark spots that started appearing in my late 20s. I also deal with texture and dullness issues—especially during winter time—so I rely on retinol to help smooth out my complexion and maintain a healthy glow.
Because my skin can be finicky when it comes to powerful actives, I use a gentler formula with encapsulated retinol that doesn’t irritate like most other traditional formulas. This would be my first time opting for something more potent like retinal, and it was likely going to cause some sensitivity at first.
I was delightfully surprised at how gentle this serum felt upon application—it felt refreshing and didn’t have any sting to it. It comes out of the dropper a milky and vibrant yellow liquid that very quickly sinks into the skin leaving behind little, if any, residue. It’s free of synthetic fragrances, but it has the most heavenly citrus scent thanks to the formula’s grapefruit and orange-peel oils.
As expected, I did experience subtle irritation the next morning after the first few times I used it, leaving my cheeks slightly red and dry for a day or two afterward. I waited for my skin to calm down before my next application, slathering on skin barrier–healing moisturizers regularly and skipping out any harsher products like chemical exfoliators in the interim. I ended up applying it every three to four days.
By my fourth time using it, I experienced no irritation whatsoever and woke up the next morning with baby-like skin—it was so soft and healthy-looking. My once-dull complexion now had a lively glow to it, and any rough spots were significantly smoother. By the end of the three weeks, I was hooked.
Now, I didn’t notice too much of a difference in terms of my existing fine lines, but my freckles were slightly fainter. Keep in mind retinoids can take up to six months to show any dramatic results. It took a few months for my regular retinol to really start working, and I imagine it’ll be the same for this product.
My final verdict? I’m obsessed. While it took my skin some time to adjust to retinal from my usual gentler routine, any redness and dryness quickly subsided, and the texture and radiance improvements after three weeks are already pretty impressive. And for the price compared to other clean, potent formulas out there? So, so worth it. Needless to say, this serum has earned a spot in my nighttime routine.
Keep scrolling to check out Maelove’s other must-have products and a few other retinal serums and creams on the market.
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