While they’re not a cure for acne, vitamins are important for the skin, and make one of the best and most powerful allies when it comes to ensuring overall good health. And while we have already covered the benefits of Vitamin E (including its oil and in capsule form), Vitamin C, and Vitamins B for acne, more vitamins remain. Today, we’ll go over the benefits and effects of Vitamin A for acne.
Vitamin A is actually not a single compound, but a group of several nutritional, organic and antioxidative compounds. Vitamin A is important for the development and the growth of the human body, as well as for maintaining good vision and strengthening the immune system.
Composed of retinoic acid, retinol, retinal, and several other provitamin A carotenoids, Vitamin A (and its constituent substances) are naturally available. Fruits and vegetables that are orange or yellow in color pack significant amounts of Vitamin A. But yellow and orange aren’t the only indicators for the presence of Vitamin A - it’s also found in other natural food sources, like leafy greens.
As an antioxidant, Vitamin A plays an important role in promoting better skin health and boosting our body’s immunity. It fights free radicals, and in doing so minimizes the naturally-caused damage caused to our cells and tissues. Additionally, Vitamin A can also ward off inflammation and has anti-aging properties, which means that it can help you achieve a younger look.
It is no wonder then that Vitamin A is widely used in many skin care or anti-acne products. You have probably heard the words retinol and retinoids used by dermatologists or in product commercials, so let’s see what all that is about.
The properties and effectiveness of Vitamin A for acne will largely depend on which of its compounds you are trying to use. Basically, there are two broad types of Vitamin A: retinoids and carotenoids. So what are the differences and how do they affect our skin, and our overall health?
This type of Vitamin A is also called a “preformed” Vitamin A. Why? Well, because its main sources come from animals, who have already formed it inside their bodies. Sources for retinoids include any kind of meat, dairy, eggs, and other types of animal products.
But why are retinoids so widely used in the skin care and anti-acne industry? Well, it’s because retinoids are the only type of Vitamin A that is so-called “biologically activated.” This means that after you ingest it, it begins working immediately. There are no additional steps for your body to take in order to harness the benefits of this type of Vitamin A, which also known as a retinoid.
Does that sound familiar? I bet it does. After all, it is specifically retinol (isotretinoin) that is used in some of the most powerful prescribed acne medications, like Accutane and Roaccutane. These medications are used in the treatment of cystic acne, the most severe type of acne, and are very effective. The treatments usually last long, but it’s worth it.
However, while Vitamin A is useful for treating acne, what about the effects of Vitamin A for acne scars? You should rest easy because medications like the aforementioned Accutane and Roaccutane, that contain Vitamin A can also cure acne scars of even the most severe type. However, there are a number of potential side-effects that can dissuade many people from undergoing therapy, because Vitamin A is indeed a powerful nutrient. But more on that later.
Remember this form of Vitamin A is also referred to as “preformed”, which makes complete sense - it is already complete and ready to be put to good use. It is for this purpose that retinols and retinoids are so widely used in skin care and acne products - they just work.
Remember when the doctors would tell you to eat more carrots so you can be healthy and improve your eyesight? Or was it maybe your parents who told you that if you need Vitamin A, you should grab a carrot or drink some carrot juice? And what about the famous beta-carotene compound, that you have undoubtedly seen slapped on some sunscreens?
See, carotenoids, also called tetraterpenoids, are organic pigments found in Vitamin A. Remember when we said that Vitamin A is mostly found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables? That is exactly because those plants are rich in carotenoids, which are in turn, a part of the Vitamin A complex of substances. Carotenoids are what gives those bright, intense oranges and yellows of carrots, bananas, oranges, corn, daffodils, and even egg yolks.
However, while carotenoids aren’t really as effective and useful for the skin as retinoids are, they still provide us with many health benefits. There are over 600 different variations of carotenoids in existence, but our bodies can only make use of a small selection of those. Which, thankfully, we have plenty in our diets. It is estimated that around a third of all Vitamin A intake through food actually falls to carotenoids. Which… If you take into account that we eat eggs, carrots, bananas, oranges, yellow peppers and so on, isn’t that odd.
But is Vitamin A good for acne, and what are its other benefits? The answer is both yes and no. Vitamin A plays many significant roles in the functioning of the human body and its processes. It helps improve vision, aids in cell growth, regulates bone development, makes sure that the immune system works properly, and also aids in reproduction. What more could one want, right? But there are additional, and more tangible benefits - especially for our skin.
The benefits of Vitamin A and its compounds, when it comes to skin health, boil down to it being a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants help track and remove free radicals from the body. Free radicals are a range of substances that cause so-called oxidative stress within our cells and tissues.
Besides doing all sorts of cell damage, the oxidative stress caused by free radicals can make our skin pores become clogged. That happens because the oxidative stress can also impact our skin’s sebaceous glands, causing them to go into overdrive and produce excessive amounts of sebum. This, combined with the dead skin cells and the dirt, leads to a clogged pore. And on top of that, the sebum is a very tasty treat for the acne-causing bacterias, P. acnes.
And boom, before you know it, you have acne. But Vitamin A works to prevents that. It removes the free radicals from the skin, and besides, it regulates the production of sebum. This makes it practically impossible for pores to be clogged, eliminating the chance of ending up with a case of acne inflammation.
If you recall, Vitamin A compounds are classified into two types: retinoids and carotenoids. Now, retinoids, or retinols, are the “preformed” type of Vitamin A. That means that retinols and retinoids are biologically activated variants of Vitamin A, meaning that they can be readily ingested, or applied to the skin, and they will function immediately.
That property of retinols and retinoids is exactly why they are widely used in acne treatments. And those, in turn, can come in two types: prescribed medications that you need to take orally (i.e. pills or tablets), or topical treatments and medications, which come in the shape of creams, gels, ointments and so on.
Now, the so-called “biologically active” ingredient in retinoids are two substances called tretinoin and isotretinoin. Tretinoin is found in the (usually topical treatment) Retin-A, and isotretinoin is the main ingredient in one of the most popular acne medications, Accutane (also going by the name of Roaccutane and many others, depending on the manufacturer).
Isotretinoin is a powerful analog of Vitamin A, and perhaps even more powerful. That is why medications that employ it to treat acne require many tests and precautions to be taken. The reason is that this form of Vitamin A, isotretinoin, is so powerful that it works all the way down to the cellular level and its DNA. Isotretinoin activates a set of genes that make skin cells mature faster, and induces rapid cell growth in the epidermis - the surface layer of the skin. It is also one of the most efficient uses of Vitamin A for acne scars. Thus Vitamin A, or this specific type of it, the retinoid isotretinoin, acts as a sort of reconstructor of the skin.
However, that is also why Accutane and Roaccutane can cause so many side effects, complications, and even birth defects; because their main compound, the activated Vitamin A known as isotretinoin, is so impactful. However, Accutane and isotretinoin remain one of the most potent cures for even the most severe type of acne, the cystic ones. Treatment can last for up to 6 months, but the success rates are pretty solid - Accutane and Roaccutane clear acne 85% of the time. If you want to learn more about isotretinoin, head over to our in-depth article about Accutane for acne.
Vitamin A isn’t only used in medications that need to be taken orally. As we mentioned above, retinols and retinoids are also employed in many skin care and anti-acne products. By virtue of their nature, these are used topically - meaning they are applied on the skin. Here are some of the most common ones:
This is one of the most widely available types of topical Vitamin A that can be found in skin care products. Retinol is soluble, which means that it can easily penetrate the skin and be transported around the body through the bloodstream. Since it is a preformed, biologically active form of Vitamin A, retinol begins acting immediately, removing free radicals and regenerating layers of the skin.
This compound, while not Vitamin A as such, is readily converted into the preformed, readily usable form of topical Vitamin A once it comes into contact with the skin. Although most of it will not be absorbed or used, this is one of the most common ways uses of topical Vitamin A for acne. Retinyl Acetate can be found in a variety of skin care and anti-acne products.
I hate to break it to you, but If you have bought a product that boasts of containing Retinoic Acid, you’ve been scammed. While this compound does exist and is very useful, it can only be formed within the cells of the human body. Avoid products that claim they have Retinoid Acid and that those are actually effective. It’s just throwing your money to the wind.
While Vitamin A is a pretty harmless compound, and actually essential for healthy human functioning, ti can sometimes turn out to be too much of a good thing. It is one of the vitamins that, if consistently taken in large doses, can cause a hypervitaminosis. This is called Hypervitaminosis A, and it is not to be trifled with.
Hypervitaminosis A can cause changes in the appetite, a variety of headaches, irritability, drowsiness, and even blurred vision and liver damage. Additionally, prolonged periods of Hypervitaminosis A can even cause skin conditions and calcification of the heart valves. When taken in highly concentrated forms, such as in prescribed medications for severe cystic acne, Vitamin A can even lead to birth defects in pregnant women. I don’t need to be telling you just how dangerous that is.
However, all of that applies only to retinol and retinoid variants of Vitamin A, the so-called preformed types of Vitamin A. While these can be found in fish, meat, and dairy products, I doubt you will eat so much of those so as to end up with Hypervitaminosis A. Certain medications and supplements carry high doses of preformed Vitamin A, and if taken too much for too long, can cause hypervitaminosis.
Since Vitamin A is present in almost anything, ranging from a variety of fruits and vegetables to almost any kind of meat, most people have a healthy dose of it. Therefore, Vitamin A deficiency is pretty rare, but it can still happen.
The recommended dosage for Vitamin A in adults 2,300 IU for women and 3,000 IU for men, but those numbers are kinda low and meant for compensating any lack of diet. Since most people certainly have Vitamin A inside them, then the lower doses will ensure that the healthy level is reached without causing hypervitaminosis.
When it comes to Vitamin A dosage for acne, some medical and health experts recommend 5,000 IU of Vitamin A every day. Those levels can indeed be reached by following a rich, diverse diet comprised of meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. However, your doctor and dermatologist will sometimes recommend a higher Vitamin A dosage for acne, if that is your situation.
But, Vitamin A is not as useful in some situations. For example, it is important to be aware of...
In the rare cases where there is a Vitamin A deficiency, it turns out that one of the main causes for it was, in fact, a deficiency in zinc. This is because zinc plays a crucial role in skin care, more precisely in the transportation and metabolism of Vitamin A throughout the human body. You can have healthy, and even excessive amounts of Vitamin A within you, but if there is too little zinc to go around, guess what? All that Vitamin A will be for naught and it won’t be used. So, if you want to use the benefits of Vitamin A to its fullest extent, always make sure that your zinc levels are on par.
As I hope it became clear, Vitamin A plays a significant role in skin care and the fight against acne, but also in ensuring overall human health and a strong immune system. When it comes to using Vitamin A for acne and skin improvement, it is important to make the distinction between the two categories of Vitamin A: the retinoids and the carotenoids.
While carotenoids are great for healthy eyesight and carrots are tasty to munch on, they are mostly useless when it comes to fighting acne and improving your skin. Those areas are reserved for retinols and retinoids, the preformed, biologically activated forms of Vitamin A. They are basically ready to go, and both come in variants that can be used orally and topically.
Retinoids and retinols are powerful allies when it comes to treating acne, but that power can sometimes cause certain side effects. That is why you should always consult with your doctor and dermatologist before taking Vitamin A supplements or retinoid medications. Overall, Vitamin A is one of the key helpers in fighting acne and ensuring good skin health. While it’s not a magic formula for curing acne, it is definitely an important part of the equation.
This information is meant to supplement, not replace advice from your doctor or healthcare provider and is not meant to cover all possible uses, precautions, interactions or adverse effects. This information may not fit your specific health circumstances, and its goal is to offer a general view of the subject. In case you are suffering from a severe case of acne, you should consult with a dermatologist or a certified medical professional.