The Benefits of Vitamin A For Skin: What Does This Supplement Do For Your Complexion?
If you’ve been keeping up with beauty and skincare trends, you’ve probably come across vitamin A as one of the latest antiaging buzzwords.
Retinol (a vitamin A derivative) seems to be the ingredient on every beauty editor’s list. Skincare gurus have been talking for years and years about retinol and the antiaging benefits of vitamin A for skin, but it also doesn’t seem to be an ingredient that is right for every skin type. You may be keen to try it but are wary of the negative side effects that can come with it.
That’s not to mention all of the different varieties of vitamin A out there – between beta carotene, tretinoin, isotretinoin, retinoic acid, and retinol to name just a few, it’s not always easy to understand which form of vitamin A is best for your skin and achieving that enviable glow.
So how can you know if vitamin A is right for you?
If you’re thinking about incorporating more vitamin A into your skin care routine, it’s important you understand the types of vitamin A out there, and the risks associated with each. We’re here to talk about all things vitamin A and skin care, including where your daily dose of vitamin A comes from, what types you may use to your advantage, and what effects it can have on your complexion.
What Do Vitamins Do For Your Skin?
We all know that vitamins keep us healthy and that we should be eating our 5-a-day of fruits and veggies. But why are they so important to a vibrant and youthful complexion?
Each vitamin is essential for the proper function of your vital organs, like your heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver. Your skin is the largest organ in your body, so vitamins also play an important role in keeping your skin healthy and strong.
Vitamins can help protect your skin against sun damage and environmental toxins, boost your natural radiance, minimize scars and stretch marks, and even support your body’s collagen levels.
Learn more about stretch mark removal here.
Collagen is the essential protein responsible for creating the structure of your skin. Without it, our skin would wrinkle and collapse. The degradation of collagen over time is the reason for our skin sagging, wrinkling, and losing its youthful appearance as we age.
Vitamins play a vital role in producing and maintaining collagen. Vitamin C is the most important cofactor of collagen, but other vitamins will also support your skin’s structure. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, while vitamin D has anti-inflammatory effects. Then there’s vitamin A, which is touted as an antiaging favorite in both supplements and topical skin care solutions.
Including the right balance of vitamins in your diet and skin care routine can pay off in the form of:
- Smooth and supple skin
- Improved skin tone and texture
- Reduced pigmentation and age spots
- Reduced acne symptoms
- Reduced dryness and rashes
- Protection against sun damage and environmental toxins
What Is Vitamin A?
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in our skin, eyes, bones, joints, hormonal health, and immune system. It is an antioxidant that can help prevent sun damage and protect collagen in the dermis.
Vitamin A may be obtained in our diets, through supplements, and in topical products that are absorbed through the skin.
Types of Vitamin A
The various forms of Vitamin A and all of its derivatives can be confusing at the best of times, so here is a quick explanation of its various forms to help you understand your skincare and supplement labels better. Vitamin A may be broken down into two simple categories:
Preformed Vitamin A (Retinoids)
Preformed vitamin A, otherwise described as retinoids, is vitamin A in a form that is ready to use by our bodies i.e. it does not need to be broken down.
Retinol is the most common retinoid in over-the-counter skincare, and other examples include retinoic acid (tretinoin), isotretinoin, and alitretinoin.
Preformed vitamin A is found in animal products, and it may be obtained in our diets through meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products. It is also available in supplements and in topical skin care products.
Proformed Vitamin A (Carotenoids)
Proformed vitamin A, otherwise known as provitamin A or carotenoids, is a category of ingredients that can be converted to vitamin A by the liver.
There are more than 600 types of carotenoids, but the most common type of proformed vitamin A is beta carotene. Other examples include lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
Carotenoids may be obtained in our diets through plant-based sources like fruits and vegetables. Beta carotene is also the most common form of vitamin A supplement available, and you will often find carotenoids in topical skin care products too.
What Does Vitamin A Do?
Vitamin A is essential for the healthy development of various types of tissues, including bones, teeth, mucus membranes, and the dermis. It is also important for your eyes, fertility, and immune system, and research suggests that vitamin A can even be effective in reducing the risk of cancer.1
It is particularly important in the process of skin cell turnover. Vitamin A works on both the epidermis and dermis to encourage new skin cells to form and thus protect your precious collagen levels. This process is essential to radiant, clear skin and it can aid in improving skin elasticity and reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
So how do we know if we are getting enough of this good stuff?
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the recommended daily intake of vitamin A is 700 mcg for women and 900 mcg for men. Pregnant women should aim for 770 mcg per day, while someone who is breastfeeding will need 1,300 mcg.2
If you follow a relatively healthy and balanced diet, you are probably getting enough vitamin A through your food intake. Vitamin A deficiency may, however, stem from problems absorbing and digesting fat, or from liver damage. Long-term vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness, digestive issues, respiratory infections, and skin problems.3
If you suspect you may have a deficiency, talk to your doctor who can provide you with a nutrition plan and advise if dietary supplementation is necessary.
The 6 Best Sources of Vitamin A
So where does your daily fix of vitamin A from?
1. Meat & Dairy Products
Meat is a prominent source of vitamin A in our diets. Liver contains particularly high levels of vitamin A, with a 3 oz portion of beef liver containing 6,582 mcg of vitamin A.4
If liver doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you may also get your vitamin A fix from poultry and dairy products like cheeses, eggs, and milk.
Certain types of fish are also a great source of vitamin A, and you will find high levels of this vitamin in salmon, herring, mackerel, and tuna. One of the most potent sources of vitamin A is cod liver oil, which you can also take as a dietary supplement.
3. Fruits & Vegetables
Good news for vegetarians and vegans; it’s not all about animal products. In fact, plant-based sources account for the majority of vitamin A in our diets.
Dark leafy greens and orange, yellow, and red vegetables like carrots, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, and red peppers are all rich in carotenoids. One baked sweet potato contains a powerful 1,403 mcg of vitamin A, while a half cup of spinach contains 573 mcg.
Carrots are particularly rich in beta carotene, while tomatoes are a very good source of lycopene – both of which are essential for clear, radiant skin.
You may also find vitamin A in abundance in fruits such as apricots, mangos, watermelon, grapefruit, and tangerines. So make sure you include a wide variety of colorful fruit and vegetables into your diet to get your daily dose of this skin-loving vitamin.
4. Fortified Foods
Many foods are fortified with essential nutrients in order to improve our daily intake. These foods include certain breakfast cereals, oatmeal, wheat flour, fruit juice, and milk.
Vitamin A is commonly found in these kinds of fortified foods alongside folic acid, zinc, iron, calcium, the B vitamins, and vitamin D.
5. Topical Treatments
Skin is a retinoid responsive organ, meaning it can absorb and use vitamin A when it is applied topically.
Examples of these topical treatments include serums, ointments, moisturizers, sunscreens, and antiaging treatments containing vitamin A or one of its derivatives. Topical retinoids are available over the counter and on prescription.
The most common form of topical retinoid available without a prescription is a low-dose retinol night cream or serum, while prescription skin care products may contain more potent levels of retinoids (such as tretinoin or isotretinoin) designed to target specific skin concerns.
6. Vitamin A Supplements
Vitamin A is commonly found in dietary supplements. It can be found as a standalone supplement, or as part of a multivitamin formula.
Vitamin A supplements can contain a mix of carotenoids and retinoids, or you may find beta carotene as a standalone supplement. Retinoid supplements containing retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate are also available.
It’s important to be careful when choosing vitamin A supplements or oral medications, as an overdose of vitamin A, specifically retinoids, can have dangerous side effects on your long-term health (including nausea, headaches, joint pain, birth defects, and more). Talk to your doctor about which type of vitamin A supplement is right for you.
Top 5 Benefits of Vitamin A For Skin
So what exactly does vitamin A do for the skin, and is it right for you? Let’s take a closer look at the positive impact that vitamin A can have on your skin:
1. Reduces Blemishes & Acne
Vitamin A is commonly used as an acne treatment as it can stave off blemishes and reduce oiliness in the skin. Vitamin A promotes healthy skin cell turnover, which helps to remove dead skin cells while also reducing the occurrence of clogged pores. This turnover of cells helps to prevent the build-up of sebum in the pores and reduce the appearance of acne blemishes like pimples, pustules, and papules.
Retinoids are the most common form of vitamin A prescribed for acne. Topical tretinoin (retinoic acid) is a safe and effective treatment for mild and moderate cases of acne, while severe acne is treated with oral medications containing isotretinoin (e.g. Accutane).
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2. Prevents Dry Skin (& Eyes)
Vitamin A is also an effective treatment for dry skin. Vitamin A deficiency can cause dry, itchy, or bumpy skin, and it can even be the root cause of eczema or psoriasis. A vitamin A deficiency can also cause dryness and discomfort in the eyes.
Oral medication containing alitretinoin has been proven to be an effective treatment for eczema, reducing the itching, dry skin, and rashes that come with the condition.5
3. Evens Skin Tone
Vitamin A, particularly retinoids like tretinoin, can also assist in the wound healing process by speeding up the production of new skin cells, helping to heal acne scars, reduce inflammation, and improve your skin tone.
As an antioxidant, vitamin A also reduces the levels of toxins in the body, which in turn can protect your skin against UV damage, brighten your complexion, and reduce dullness or redness. Carotenoids, particularly beta carotene and lycopene, are common ingredients in skin serums that are designed to boost your skin’s health and radiance.
4. Reduces Fine Lines & Wrinkles
Perhaps its most revered benefit in the beauty industry today, vitamin A can have powerful antiaging effects on the skin. Vitamin A in the form of retinol is particularly popular in antiaging night creams designed to tighten and firm the skin and reduce wrinkles.It’s a popular chice for anyone who wants to get rid of forehead wrinkles, remove crow’s feet, and reduce sagging.
Topical retinoids like retinol and tretinoin work by encouraging your skin to produce new cells, allowing your skin to become thicker and stronger at the dermis layer. This in turn protects your collagen from breaking down too easily, strengthening your skin’s layers and preventing the appearance of wrinkles.
The downside of retinol is that it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun in the short term, and some people experience skin irritation known as “retinol burn” after applying it. It can take many weeks for your skin to adjust to retinol, and many people with dry or sensitive skin may struggle to use it, even at low levels.
For those who can adjust to it, however, it can be a powerful antiaging tool to have in your skincare collection, particularly when used in tandem with products and supplements that promote collagen production.
5. Fights Pigmentation
Vitamin A is a powerful skin care ingredient thanks to its antioxidant properties. Antioxidants fight against free radicals in the body – those dangerous molecules that can break down collagen, speed up skin aging, and cause age spots.
Free radicals accumulate in the body when we are exposed to UV rays or blue light, as well as other environmental toxins such as tobacco smoke or pollution. They trigger the process of photoaging, which can cause age spots, hyperpigmentation, and other signs of premature skin aging.
Vitamin A is used to treat pigmentation because it can interrupt the breakdown of collagen, strengthen skin, and help protect your dermis against UV damage and environmental toxins. Carotenoids like beta carotene, astaxanthin, and lycopene are all forms of vitamin A that research has shown to be highly effective in protecting the skin against sun damage and photoaging.6
Types of Vitamin A In Skin Care
When choosing vitamin A products to match your skincare concerns, here’s what you should look out for and why:
Retinoids (Retinoic Acid, Isotretinoin, Alitretinoin)
Retinoids are the best form of vitamin A to look out for if you want antiaging benefits like reduced wrinkles and tighter skin.
Retinoids are preformed vitamin A in a form that the body can use right away, and they are most effective at improving skin cell turnover and protecting your collagen.
Retinol – Widely available in over-the-counter antiaging products, particularly night creams and serums designed to target wrinkles and sagging skin. It is the highest potency of retinoid that is available without a prescription.
- Retinol – Widely available in over-the-counter antiaging products, particularly night creams and serums designed to target wrinkles and sagging skin. It is the highest potency of retinoid that is available without a prescription.
- Retinoic Acid – Also known as tretinoin, is used in topical creams specifically for treating acne or sun-damaged skin. Retinoic acid or tretinoin is typically found in prescription formulas issued by a doctor or dermatologist. Tretinoin is the primary ingredient in the popular acne treatment Retin-A.
- Isotretinoin – Can reduce blemishes and oiliness in the skin, and is commonly found in prescription medications for severe cystic acne.
- Alitretinoin – Can be found in both topical and oral medications to treat chronic dry skin, rashes, eczema, and lesions.
Carotenoids (Beta Carotene, Lycopene, Lutein)
Carotenoids (proformed vitamin A) are powerful antioxidants that can be converted to retinol once absorbed by the skin or ingested. These ingredients are best for lightening and brightening skin, fighting free radicals, and protecting your skin against external toxins and the sun.
Look out for the following ingredients in skin care products to help your skin achieve a brighter and more youthful appearance:
Beta Carotene – This ingredient can help maintain skin health and protect against radiation. Be careful not to overdo it though, as using too much beta-carotene can make your skin appear orange!
- Beta Carotene – This ingredient can help maintain skin health and protect against radiation. Be careful not to overdo it though, as using too much beta-carotene can make your skin appear orange!
- Lycopene – This carotenoid is found in tomatoes, which are a superfood worth including in your diet if you want radiant healthy skin. Lycopene can help reduce inflammation and redness, and it is renowned for its skin-brightening abilities.
- Lutein and Zeaxanthin – Both of these carotenoids are particularly good at inhibiting melanin production, protecting your skin from UV and blue light, and brightening skin.8
What Are The Downsides of Vitamin A Supplements & Skin Care?
While vitamin A has an array of benefits to our immune system, eyes, and skin health, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
We need to be careful not to overuse retinoids like retinol or tretinoin in our diets, skin care creams, or supplements because an excess of vitamin A (or any fat-soluble vitamin) in the body can lead to a condition known as hypervitaminosis.
Hypervitaminosis occurs when there is an overload of a vitamin that cannot be used by the body. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K cannot be flushed out from the body in the same way that water-soluble vitamins B and C can.
Taking or using too much preformed vitamin A (i.e. retinoids) can cause liver damage, headaches, nausea, joint pain, and bone thinning. It is also important to take extra care using vitamin supplements while pregnant, as hypervitaminosis can lead to birth defects.
If you are unsure, make sure you talk to your doctor for medical advice before choosing to supplement with vitamin A. This is the reason that many retinoid treatments like tretinoin or isotretinoin are available on prescription only, while over-the-counter options will contain lower and safer doses.
While the antiaging rewards of retinol can be big, the risk is also high.
When it comes to using retinol, retinoic acid, or other topical retinoids, negative skin reactions are common. A type of skin irritation known as “retinoid dermatitis” or “retinol burn” can occur, resulting in redness, peeling or flaking skin, and a general feeling of discomfort.
This happens because topical retinoids like retinol and retinoic acid stimulate new cell growth and remove dead skin cells, and this can cause a painful peeling if a strong dose is used or if your skin is too sensitive. For this reason, we recommend that anyone considering using retinoids builds up their tolerance gradually. Try using topical retinoids just once or twice a week, to begin with, and only proceed further if your skin can adjust to the product.
Because retinoids stimulate cell growth and reveal new layers of skin cells, they can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun. This is why topical retinoids are typically present in night creams only, and dermatologists will recommend following up your retinoid use with a high SPF the next morning to keep your skin fully protected.
The Best Antiaging Alternative To Retinol (Without The Side Effects)
Topical retinoids like retinol and tretinoin are amazing ingredients for treating acne, reducing pigmentation, and fighting the signs of aging, but the downsides may be off-putting, particularly if you have dry or sensitive skin.
If your skin can accommodate retinol, then lucky you! But if you can’t handle the retinol burn, or if you want to double the antiaging benefits for your skin, then collagen supplements are a great way to go.
While vitamin A can support your skin health by rejuvenating skin cells and protecting your collagen supplies from external toxins, collagen supplements can replenish your skin from within to achieve similar, if not better results.