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How Does Vitamin A Work on the Skin?

If you purchase skin care products, then you have likely heard of retinol, retinoids, or something similar before. These ingredients are everywhere at the moment, and have been for quite a few years now.

What makes them so great?

They are all forms of vitamin A, which is a powerhouse when it comes to skin health.

What exactly does vitamin A do?

Here is everything you need to know…

The Anti-Aging Benefits of Vitamin A

Retinol is one of the most powerful anti-aging ingredients out there, which is one of the reasons as to why this ingredient has become so popular lately. 

Wondering what anti-aging benefits vitamin A actually provides?

The main one is a reduction in wrinkles and fine lines, as well as an increase in skin firmness and smoothness.

Sounds good, right?

Of course, many other ingredients promise similar results…

The difference is that vitamin A is absorbed quite deeply into the skin. This means that the effects that this vitamin has are on a deep cellular level, rather than just working on the surface of the skin.

Illustration of the chemical makeup of retinol, also known as vitamin A

How exactly does vitamin A manage to reduce wrinkles and increase skin smoothness?

It does this by stimulating the production of collagen.

Collagen is one of the main structural proteins that hold your skin together. Your body produces collagen on its own, and does this abundantly while you are young. However, once you reach your mid 20’s, collagen production starts to decline.

It doesn’t help that there are so many environmental factors out there that contribute to the degradation of the collagen in your skin either. Everything from the sun’s UV rays to the pollution around you result in the creation of free radicals, which then cause permanent damage to your skin’s collagen.

This is why it is so important to ensure that you keep your collagen production levels as high as possible, especially as you get older. Vitamin A is the perfect ingredient to help you to do this, with studies showing that it can significantly reduce fine lines and wrinkles after just a few weeks of use. 

The Acne-Busting Powers of Vitamin A

Have you found that standard acne treatments don’t seem to help when it comes to tackling your acne

If so, you many want to give vitamin A a try…

This ingredient was actually first introduced as an anti-acne product, and it was only after people began to widely use it that its other benefits were also discovered.

How does vitamin A help with acne?

It has a mild exfoliating effect on the skin, meaning that it is able to unclog the pores. Since acne is often caused by blocked pores, keeping them clear can go a long way when it comes to reducing breakouts. 

Vitamin A also boasts powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Acne is largely caused by inflammation in the pores, so being able to keep this inflammation at a low will help to keep your skin clear. 

Are you dealing with acne scars?

Once again, vitamin A can help.

Not only is it able to help fade acne scars (which will be discussed in more detail below), but it also prevents them from occurring in the first place.

Woman applying serum to under eye

The Skin-Brightening Properties of Vitamin A

Ever wished that your complexion was brighter, or that you could banish those dark spots for good?

You may be able to achieve all of this with vitamin A…

Vitamin A is fantastic for speeding up cell turnover.

Not heard of cell turnover before?

It’s the rate at which your skin sheds its old and dead skin cells, replacing them with the fresh new skin cells beneath.

When you are young, your cell turnover rate is quite high, with this process happening in as little as two weeks for children. However, as you age, this slows down quite dramatically, with the skin sometimes taking up to 90 days to renew itself.

The decrease in collagen that you experience with age, plus lifestyle and environmental factors, slow cell turnover down even more.

As mentioned earlier, vitamin A has a mild exfoliating effect, and is able to clear the pores and the surface of the skin of dead skin cells. This action speeds up the skin’s natural cell turnover rate, resulting in a brighter and fresher complexion.

How about hyperpigmentation?

These dark spots can be difficult to treat. They’re caused by an over-production of melanin, and this can be triggered by everything from sun exposure to aging to hormonal imbalances.

The way in which vitamin A speeds up the cell turnover rate means that it is able to clear away the deeper discolored skin cells much quicker than your skin would have been able to do this on its own.

This is also how vitamin A works to fade acne scars. Although acne scars are slightly different to hyperpigmentation, vitamin A works in a similar way when it comes to clearing them.

The Different Forms of Vitamin A

There are several different forms of vitamin A, with each type varying in strength.

Do they all do the same thing?

In a way, yes, although their strength does affect their potency, which means that it may take longer to see results with certain forms of the vitamin.

The purest form of vitamin A is known as retinoic acid. 

Whichever form of vitamin A you end up using, your body will then convert this into retinoic acid, as this is the only form that it can actually use. The amount of conversions that your body needs to do in order to access the retinoic acid is what determines the strength of a vitamin A derivative.

Here are a few of the other common vitamin A derivatives used in skin care:

  • Retinol – this is first converted into retinaldehyde, before being converted into the retinoic acid that the body can use
  • Retinyl Palmitate – made from a mixture of retinol and a compound from palm oil, this ingredient is first converted into retinol by the body, before becoming retinaldehyde and then retinoic acid
  • Retinal – although this ingredient only requires one conversion before it becomes retinoic acid, it is still a relatively new ingredient, meaning that more research needs to be carried out

You are probably thinking…

If retinoic acid is the strongest form of vitamin A, why would I bother going for the weaker derivatives?

For a couple of reasons…

Firstly, retinoic acid is only available via a prescription, meaning that you would need to visit a doctor or a dermatologist before using it.

Secondly, retinoic acid on its own is extremely strong. For those with sensitive skin, or even slight sensitivities, retinoic acid can quickly cause skin irritations. The more conversions the ingredient needs, the gentler it will be on your skin.

Choosing Vitamin A Skin Care Products

Ready to invest in a vitamin A skin care product?

If you take a look at everything that’s out there, you will see this ingredient in so many different formulas, ranging from essences and serums to creams and oils.

Which one is best?

Your best bet would likely be a vitamin A serum. Serums contain a high concentration of active ingredients, and, due to their lightweight consistency, they are able to penetrate deeply into the skin. This enables the ingredients within the serum to work on a cellular level.

On the other hand, creams that have been formulated with vitamin A can also be useful. Although creams and moisturizers tend to target the surface of the skin, rather than the cells that lie deeper within, vitamin A can still make quite a big difference to your skin’s surface.

Unknown woman using a jar of moisturizer

Don’t forget about face masks either…

These also contain potent concentrations of active ingredients, and many of these are able to penetrate quite deeply into the skin. Using a vitamin A face mask on a regular basis would definitely bring your skin plenty of benefits.

One thing to keep in mind when choosing vitamin A skin care products…

This is an ingredient that is extremely sensitive to light, meaning that light exposure will quickly cause the vitamin A in a product to break down. To prevent this from happening, try to choose vitamin A products that have been packaged in an opaque container, as this minimizes the amount of light that the product is exposed to.

Opting for a container that features a pump dispenser, rather than a lid that can be completely removed, would also be better.


Because air is something else that can degrade this vitamin. A pump dispenser minimizes the amount of air that is able to reach the product, and also prevents bacteria and other impurities from entering into the container.

Using Vitamin A for the First Time

Even if you decide to go for quite a weak vitamin A skin care product, the ingredient is still quite a strong one.

It is extremely common for people to experience side effects when using vitamin A for the first time. These can include:

  • Excessive dryness
  • Skin irritations
  • Redness and crusting
  • Itching
  • Breakouts

Do you need to stop using your vitamin A product if you experience these side effects?

This is where it gets a little tricky…

The side effects are actually pretty normal, and will usually disappear on their own after about two weeks. This is how long it usually takes for the skin to grow accustomed to the vitamin A.

However, if your side effects are quite extreme, and don’t seem to be improving after a couple of weeks, then it could be that the vitamin A product you are using is simply too strong for your skin.

Fortunately, there are a few steps that you can take to minimize the side effects that vitamin A can have…

Minimizing the Side Effects of Vitamin A

When using vitamin A for the first time, it is so important that you start off slow.

It may be tempting to slather the product all over your face in the hopes that this will enable you to see results faster, but this will only end up irritating your skin even more. Plus, you will also end up wasting so much product!

The best way to begin would be with a pea-sized amount of whichever vitamin A product you are using. Use this every other day in your first couple of weeks, and then you can move on to using it daily.

If your skin is already quite sensitive…

Try mixing your vitamin A product in with your regular moisturizer or facial oil. This will help to dilute it down, and will therefore minimize the chances of any irritation.

Vitamin A and Sun Sensitivity

Many people claim that vitamin A causes the skin to be more sensitive to the sun, meaning that if you apply vitamin A in the daytime, this increases your chance of a sunburn.

However, this isn’t actually true…

Vitamin A does not cause the skin to become more sensitive to the sun. A number of clinical studies have been carried out around this, and they all showed that vitamin A doesn’t lower the skin’s minimal erythemal dos, which is the amount of UV light the skin can tolerate before it burns. 

However, vitamin A does break down when it comes into contact with light. This means that if you use vitamin A in the daytime, it won’t really have much of an effect.

For this reason, you are best off saving your vitamin A skin care products for night time use. 

Vitamin A is such a powerhouse when it comes to skin care, and, thanks to the fact that there are so many different forms of the vitamin, this is an ingredient that can be suitable for all skin types. Even if you are not yet dealing with skin aging, acne or hyperpigmentation, this is still a great preventative ingredient to incorporate into your skin care routine, as it enables your skin cells to function to their full potential.