Vitamin A: Everything You Need To Know
Gold standard. When it comes to the many iterations of vitamin A finding their way into our shopping carts, that's the phrase dermatologists tend to use most frequently to describe this legitimately stellar skin-care ingredient. Considered beneficial to virtually every skin type, vitamin A is beloved for its ability to boost cell turnover and collagen production, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improve texture and tone, and even send acne packing.
As defined by the National Institutes of Health, "vitamin A" is essentially an umbrella term for a group of fat-soluble retinoids that includes retinyl esters, retinol, retinaldehyde (aka retinal) and retinoic acid. Critical for vision, and instrumental in supporting our immune systems and reproduction, vitamin A occurs naturally in a host of foods. We're looking at you, liver and carrots...
Retinoids Cheat Sheet
Not sure how one retinoid differs from the others? Basically, it boils down to how quickly each type converts into the most potent, biologically active form – retinoic acid – on the skin. Think of it as steps leading to the top of a staircase.
- Retinyl Esters: Least potent; convert to retinoic acid in three steps (retinol, retinal, retinoic acid)
- Retinol: More potent than retinyl esters but generally well tolerated; converts in two steps (retinal, retinoic acid)
- Retinal: Considered the most potent OTC retinoid; converts in one step
- Retinoic Acid: Extremely potent and instantly biologically active; available only via prescription
While it might be tempting to opt for the strongest retinoid you can get your hands on, or the trendy one you keep spotting on TikTok, skin docs advise working with a pro to help determine which one is right for your particular needs.
Read on for additional ways to ace your vitamin A.
Usage Dos & Don'ts
- Do apply to dry skin: Though vitamin A formulas are typically used right after cleansing, don't just start slathering the second you're finished rinsing. "Retinoids put on damp skin make the product stronger, and there is an increased risk of irritation," says board-certified dermatologist Purvisha Patel, of Tennessee's Advanced Dermatology & Skin Cancer Associates.
- Don't combine with other "actives": Fan of antioxidants like skin-brightening vitamin C? Save them for your morning regimen. "When combinations of products are used, retinoids are used at night and the other topical during the day," says Patel. "Some actives can inactivate the retinoid."
- Do layer under moisturizer: "You will want to pair your retinol with a moisturizer during your PM routine because it can seriously dry out your skin," says Charlotte, North Carolina, dermatologist Scott Paviol.
- Don't over-exfoliate: Since retinoids already exfoliate the skin and bring fresh new cells to the surface, consider scaling back on grainy face scrubs and alpha hydroxy acid-laced liquid toners. "Always be mindful of over-exfoliation when using physical and chemical exfoliants," says Nashville-based nurse practitioner Maegan Griffin, founder of Skin Pharm clinics. "Too much or too many can lead to a compromised skin barrier, which can actually cause acne, irritation, and dehydrated skin."
Acne's Worst Enemy
According to Birmingham, Alabama-based board-certified dermatologist Corey L. Hartman, vitamin A is critical in the battle against blemishes. "It's actually the most important part of any anti-acne regimen," he says. "It helps to regulate better cell turnover and the accumulation of debris and keratin in the pores, which causes the clogging, increased oil production, proliferation of bacteria, and all those things we know that contribute to breakouts."
For anyone dealing with acne scarring, melasma, or other texture issues, Skin Pharm offers a three-step peel powered by a hefty dose of vitamin A. "It's a 6% retinol peel, which is like a 'reset button' for your skin, treating texture, pigment, and pore size, too," says Griffin. "You can expect 7-10 days of downtime with significant peeling, but the results are so worth it."