Vitamins are essential for maintaining optimal levels of skin health, appearance, and function. Eating nutrient-dense foods, taking vitamin supplements, and using topical products containing vitamins can all be beneficial. In addition to helping skin look its best, vitamins can also be used to manage a variety of skin conditions, such as acne, psoriasis, and the effects of photoaging.

In this article, we look at the different forms of vitamin A and how you can use it to benefit your skin.

Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that supports skin, eye, and reproductive health, and immune function. There are two types of vitamin A: retinoids (preformed vitamin A) and carotenoids (proformed vitamin A). Both types are converted to retinol by the liver. There, it’s either stored or transported by the lymphatic system to cells throughout the body.

Skin is a retinoid-responsive organ, able to readily absorb vitamin A when applied topically.

Retinol stimulates production of new skin cells. Without it, skin can become overly dry. According to research reported in Clinical Interventions in Aging, a deficit of retinol can also cause follicular hyperkeratosis, a condition marked by too much keratin in the hair follicles. This causes raised papules to form on skin.

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

Studies reported in Toxicological Research also indicate that retinol is effective at stimulating collagen production and reducing wrinkles when used topically.

Carotenoids are high in antioxidants. Research published in the European Journal of Pharmaceutics and Biopharmaceutics stated that a diet high in carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, can prevent cell damage, premature skin aging, and other skin diseases.

Vitamin A deficiency is uncommon in areas where healthy food is readily available. It’s added to many commercially fortified products, such as breakfast cereal and milk. It’s also found in many nutrient-dense foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests that people over 4 years of age consume a daily value of 5,000 IUs (international units) of vitamin A, obtained from both plant and animal sources. It’s important to note that daily values are not the same thing as recommended intakes.

Young children may require less vitamin A than adults of reproductive age and women who are nursing.

Most people in the United States are able to get enough vitamin A from the foods they eat. Premature infants and people with cystic fibrosis may need additional amounts of this vitamin.

Vitamin A in foods

Eating a diet that includes a wide range of foods high in vitamin A is a good way to support skin health.

Retinoids can be found in animal products, such as:

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

Carotenoids can be found in plant products, such as:

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

Vitamin A supplements

Vitamin A is also available in supplement form. Some supplements combine retinoids with carotenoids. Others are made up solely of retinoids, such as retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate. Some supplements are solely carotenoids, such as beta-carotene. Vitamin A is also a common ingredient in many multivitamin and mineral supplements. Vitamin A is fat soluble.

Topical and prescription retinoids

Vitamin A is added to many cosmetic products, such as moisturizers, sunscreen, vitamin-infused oils, and anti-aging creams. It can also be found as a serum and as an oil. Some vitamin A supplements come in the form of capsules that can be broken open and applied directly to skin.

Applied topically, vitamin A can be beneficial for certain skin conditions:

Acne. Topical retinoids are available via prescription and as over-the-counter formulations. Retinoids are considered effective for treating and controlling acne. Retinoids have anti-inflammatory properties. They also help to regulate the sloughing off of skin cells, reducing the occurrence of clogged pores.

Fine lines. Topical retinoids stimulate collagen production, making them effective at reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. They can also help to even out skin tone by fading age spots.

Prescription retinoids are much stronger than over-the-counter versions and may be more effective for certain skin conditions. Product names include Retin-A (tretinoin).

Talk to your doctor about the goals you have for your skin. In some instances, over-the-counter retinol may be enough to do the trick. In other instances, a prescription cream may be more beneficial.

Topical retinoids are not a permanent remedy for any type of skin condition. Their positive effects stop when you discontinue their use.

Eating or applying too much vitamin A can have side effects and may even be harmful.

Some side effects associated with consuming too much preformed vitamin A include:

  • headaches
  • blurred vision
  • dizziness
  • liver damage
  • nausea
  • coma

Beta carotene

Ingesting too much beta carotene can turn the skin yellow or orange. This condition is not harmful and will dissipate when the amount of beta-carotene in the diet is reduced.

Medications with vitamin A ingredients

Some medications contain vitamin A, including certain prescriptions used to treat psoriasis, obesity, and T-cell lymphoma. Taking vitamin A supplements while using these medications may dangerously increase vitamin A levels in the body, potentially causing side effects including liver damage.

Prescription retinoids and sun sensitivity

Prescription retinoids are very strong and can be irritating to skin, causing dryness and flaking to occur. Irritation is less likely to occur if you ease into their use slowly, by gradually increasing the amount you apply to skin over time.

Because retinoids stimulate cell growth, they can make skin more sensitive to sunlight. Covering skin during the day or using sunscreen is essential to minimize the risk of burning. Talk to your doctor about the type of sunscreen you should use. Many include retinol as an ingredient. If you are already using a prescription retinoid, these may further irritate skin.

Discuss your use of both topically applied and ingested retinoids with your doctor, especially if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Too-high levels of preformed vitamin A may cause birth defects.

Getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, and drinking lots of water is important for maintaining optimal skin health across all age groups. It’s also very important to protect skin from the sun and to check skin regularly for abnormalities, such as changes in moles. Keeping skin free of environmental toxins, such as cigarette smoke, also helps to maintain its vitality.

The type of skin you have should determine the kinds of products you use on it. All skin types, however, benefit from twice-daily cleansing, moisturizing, and exfoliating.

Vitamin A has two forms: retinoids and carotenoids. Both forms are readily available in a wide range of healthy foods, and eating foods containing vitamin A is considered the best way to get it in to your system.

Retinoids are also beneficial for acne and photoaging when applied topically to skin. Retinoids can have side effects when not used properly or used to excess. Make sure to talk to your doctor about your use of vitamin A and your goals for your skin’s appearance.