The Many Flavors of Vitamin A

Vitamin A is one of the best and abundantly used ingredients in skincare. It is beneficial for the reduction of fine lines,  improves skin texture, promotes cell turnover, neutralizes free radicals, and calms acne. What’s not to love?

There are several forms of vitamin A that either exist in the body or can be added to products. This can be tricky when choosing which is best for you and your skin/health concern. To clear things up, I’ve broken down the many flavors of vitamin A.


Prescription Forms

Retinoic acid: naturally occurring component in cells.

Skincare products use synthetic derivatives of retinoic acid called “retinoids.” Retinoids help regulate cell behavior and promote the shedding of dead surface cells, clearing out congestion and prompting rapid cell turnover. They also help reduce fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating the growth of new cells, collagen production, and hyaluronic acid, inhibiting enzymes that degrade collagen and elastin. Retinoids can also eliminate unwanted pigmentation and support the action of brightening agents. 

Tretinoin is synthetic retinoic acid. Prescription products include Renova and Retin-A. Retin-A was the first vitamin A prescription product approved by the FDA. Today it’s most popularly used for clearing hyperpigmentation and treating acne. Other popular prescription brands include Tazorac, Differin and Epiduo.

Non-Prescription Forms

  • Retinoic acid is the acid form of vitamin A. It is the strongest, but also the most irritating for skin. The body uses this directly, and when taken in other forms, it must be converted to acid in order to be useful to cells. Most skin types get aggravated using this form topically, but some can handle it.
  • Retinol is the alcohol form. It has the same effects as the acid, but with less irritating properties. It serves as a powerful antioxidant and cell-communicator. It tells other cells to produce new skin cells, encouraging the skin to exfoliate and thus increasing cell turnover. It also triggers glycosaminoglycan production and is one of the few topical ingredients thought to stimulate elastin production. This is great for anti-aging skin because it increases skin thickness. The downfall is that it works slower than retinoic acid, but will be less irritating. Retinol is unstable in light and oxidizes quickly, so is best used at night. If applied during the day, make sure to use lots of SPF! This form is recommended for skin that is NOT sensitive. Upping a prescription strength slowly is key – this helps cells gradually build vitamin A receptors, allowing for more uptake of the vitamin over time.
  • Retinyl Palmitate and Retinyl Acetate are ester forms. They are weaker than retinol, and even less irritating. They function mostly as antioxidants. Retinyl Palmitate makes up about 80% of vitamin A in skin! It is safe for most skin types, especially sensitive skin.
  • Retinaldehyde (Retinal) is the aldehyde form. It’s the transitional form when retinol is converted to retinoid acid. This is a less common skincare ingredient.
  • Beta Carotene is an antioxidant and pre-cursor to vitamin A. It belongs to the carotenoid group of pigments including lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin and astaxanthin. Foods with orange, yellow and red pigment are packed with beta carotenes. This form is extremely stable and neutralizes free radicals, supports vitamin C and has great advantage for reducing redness in the skin. [perfect for helping along a bad sunburn!]

Some Tips

For acne, I recommend taking 10,000 IU vitamin A in beta carotene form. I’ve seen huge improvements when taking this as a supplement! It greatly reduces inflammation. I also suggest fish oil and zinc, which reduces oil production and helps inflammation.

Vitamin A is a large molecule, so in acid form it takes longer to work, but the added benefit is that it prompts cell proliferation and thickens the skin a bit. Perfect for aging skin with no breakout issues.

Other acids such as glycolic, lactic, and salicylic are made up of smaller molecules, making them more sharp and quick to exfoliate. The difference is they don’t do anything to encourage cell turnover the same way vitamin A does. For anyone struggling with acne, I always recommend using salicylic or glycolic because these acids will shed more skin and thin it out a bit, which is ideal for treating acne!


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