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Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that supports skin, eye, and reproductive health, as well as immune function.

Preformed vitamin A, or retinoids, is found in animal products like meat, poultry, and dairy. ProvitaminA, or carotenoids, is found in plant products like fruits and vegetables.

Your liver converts both types to retinol. Then, it’s either stored in your liver or transported by the lymphatic system to cells throughout your body.

Your skin is retinoid-responsive, which means it can readily absorb vitamin A when you apply it topically.

Vitamin A does quite a bit for your body and skin.

It plays a role in:

  • vision
  • reproduction
  • immune system function
  • function of organs like your heart, lungs, and kidneys
  • skin health, including acne

Vitamin A can benefit your skin by:

Improving the appearance of wrinkles and sagging

Evidence suggests topical retinoids — vitamin A, in other words — work to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating collagen production.

Retinoids like retinol can also improve skin elasticity and sagging by helping remove damaged elastin fibers and promoting angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels.

Reducing hyperpigmentation and other sun damage

A diet high in carotenoids, such as beta carotene, can help prevent cell damage, skin aging, and skin diseases. Carotenoids can also help protect your skin from environmental factors like pollution and UV radiation, which can also affect skin health and appearance.

Retinoids promote skin cell turnover. So, they can help improve hyperpigmentation, age spots, and sunspots, plus lead to a more even skin tone overall.

Helping address acne

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends topical retinoids to help treat acne in both adolescents and adults.

Retinoids can help exfoliate skin on the surface, removing dirt, oil, and dead skin cells from pores to prevent pimples.

They also penetrate the skin’s surface to stimulate collagen and elastin production, which can help reduce the appearance of pores and acne scarring.

Helping treat psoriasis and other skin conditions

Both topical and oral prescription medications used to treat psoriasis contain vitamin A.

Topical retinoid reduces the formation of raised skin patches and the formation of cytokines and interleukins that cause inflammation.

A healthcare professional might also prescribe oral acitretin, another retinoid, to treat severe, refractory psoriasis.

Bexarotene (Targretin), a vitamin A-based drug, is also used to treat cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that can cause skin changes like rashes, dryness, itching, and thickness.

In the United States, commercially fortified products like breakfast cereal and milk contain vitamin A, as do many nutrient-dense foods like cheese, butter, and fruits and vegetables.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people over the age of 4 should consume 400 mcg RAE of vitamin A each day. You can meet this requirement from both plant and animal sources.

Most people in the U.S. get enough vitamin A from the foods they eat. That said, premature infants and people living with cystic fibrosis may need additional amounts of this vitamin. Young children generally require less vitamin A than adults of reproductive age and people nursing infants.

Though vitamin A deficiency is uncommon in areas where nutritious food is readily available, it commonly affects people in many African and Southeast Asian countries.

Vitamin A in foods

You can support the health of your skin by eating a diet that includes a wide range of foods high in vitamin A.

Retinoids can be found in animal products, such as:

  • salmon
  • beef liver
  • dairy products, including milk, butter, and cheese
  • eggs
  • fish
  • cod liver oil
  • shrimp

Carotenoids can be found in plant products, such as:

  • carrots
  • tomatoes
  • sweet potatoes
  • leafy green vegetables
  • fruits, including mangoes, apricots, and plums

Vitamin A supplements

Most people get all the vitamin A they need through their diet, but if you’re considering vitamin A supplements, you have a few options, including:

  • multivitamins, most of which contain some vitamin A
  • beta carotene (provitamin A)
  • retinyl acetate or retinyl palmitate (preformed vitamin A)
  • a combination of provitamin A and preformed vitamin A

Topical and prescription retinoids

Plenty of evidence backs the benefits of topically applied retinoids.

The boost in collagen and elastin production, not to mention the proliferation of new skin cells, can help smooth your skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Retinoids also have anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce clogged pores and treat acne.

If you want to try topical vitamin A, your options include:

If you’re exploring options based on your skin goals:

  • For acne. OTC retinoids for acne generally work best for mild, non-inflammatory acne, like blackheads and whiteheads. Differin gel is one OTC option you could previously only get with a prescription. If you have inflammatory acne, a dermatologist may prescribe a different retinoid, like tretinoin, or other treatments.
  • For signs of aging. OTC retinol creams and serums can help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as light discoloration. Along with full-face options, you can also find creams specifically for use around your eyes or neck. A dermatologist can prescribe stronger retinoids to help address deeper wrinkles, skin sagging, and age spots.
  • For psoriasis. Tazarotene, a prescription retinoid, is sometimes used along with a corticosteroid to treat skin and nail psoriasis. This retinoid helps to slow the growth of skin cells, reduce thickness and scaling, and improve discoloration and swelling.

Retinoids aren’t always the best option

Topical retinoids can have benefit, but they don’t offer a permanent remedy for any skin concern. Their positive effects stop when you stop using them.

What’s more, they won’t work for everyone, and even OTC options can cause a number of unwanted side effects, including irritation and swelling, stinging and burning, and skin peeling.

It’s always best to connect with a dermatologist before trying any new skin care products or remedies. They can offer more guidance with creating a personalized treatment plan that works for your skin.

Vitamin A isn’t the right choice for everyone. Too much oral or topical vitamin A can cause side effects. It can even be harmful, especially for people with certain skin conditions and other health issues.

Here’s what you need to know so you can use vitamin A safely.

Topical retinoids

Products containing retinoids may not be good options if you have:

Potential side effects of topical retinoids include:

Oral vitamin A

Most people get enough vitamin A from their diet. Getting too much preformed vitamin A from supplements or certain medications can cause serious side effects, including:

Consuming high amounts of provitamin A, like beta carotene, doesn’t carry the same risks as getting too much preformed vitamin A, but it can turn your skin yellow or orange. This isn’t serious, and your skin will return to its typical color once you lower your beta carotene intake.

Vitamin A can interact with other supplements and medications, including:

  • acitretin (Soriatane), used to treat psoriasis
  • bexarotene (Targretin), used to treat the skin effects of T-cell lymphoma
  • Orlistat (Alli, Xenical), a weight-loss drug

Don’t take vitamin A supplements or apply topical vitamin A, like retinol and other retinoids, if you take any of these medications, or if you’re pregnant.

If you want to improve your skin, you have options beyond vitamin A.

These steps can also help you get and maintain healthier skin:

It’s also essential to work with a dermatologist if you have skin issues, like rosacea or acne. A dermatologist can also offer more tips on caring for your skin.

It’s usually possible to get all the vitamin A you need from food. Still, topical or oral vitamin A treatments could have benefit for treating skin conditions like acne and helping reduce the signs of sun damage.

Keep in mind, too, that eating a diet rich in other essential vitamins and reducing your exposure to UV light and smoke can also help promote skin health.