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Let's cut right to the chase: Vitamin A is widely considered to be the most beloved hero ingredient in all of dermatology. Confused because you perhaps haven't heard of it? Well, you probably have heard of retinol or retinoids, right? They're all one and the same; retinoids are the preformed, or active, form of vitamin A. Ahead, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Robyn Gmryek of Park View Laser Dermatology in New York City, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Lucy Chen of Riverchase Dermatology in Miami, FL, and cosmetic chemist David Petrillo, founder of Perfect Image, offer a deep dive on this A+ vitamin (pun intended).
Type of ingredient: Retinoid
Main benefits: Stimulates the production of collagen to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, stimulates cell turnover, decreases oil-production, has an anti-inflammatory effect.
Who should use it: According to Gmyrek, everyone starting in their mid-20s (and even earlier if you're battling acne), with the exception of women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. Depending on the formulation, vitamin A can potentially be too irritating for those with sensitive skin.
How often can you use it: Daily, or more specifically, nightly, once your skin has acclimated to the ingredient.
Works well with: Always pair vitamin A with a sunscreen, as it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Many formulas incorporate soothing ingredients such as chamomile, or hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid with vitamin A, to help increase the tolerability of a product, says Petrillo.
Don't use with: Alpha-hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid, complement vitamin A's anti-aging effects nicely, though using the two in tandem can increase the likelihood of irritation so proceed with caution, says Gmyrek.
What Is Vitamin A?
"The terminology is so confusing and there's a ton of misinformation out there, but, according to the National Institute of Health, vitamin A is the name of a group of retinoids," explains Gmyrek. (So, for our purposes, let's use the two names synonymously.) That being said, the term "retinoid" refers to three different states of vitamin A: retinol, retinal (or retinaldehyde), and retionic acid, she adds. Ultimately, they all have the same types of skincare benefits; the difference lies in the conversion process they do or don't have to undergo in the skin in order to be effective, and subsequently how potent they are, she explains. Retinoic acid, which is what prescription-strength products contain, are the strongest, retinols are the weakest, and retinaldehyde falls in the middle.
Benefits of Vitamin A for Skin
It's an impressive list, for sure. "Vitamin A as a skincare ingredient has been more extensively studied than any other ingredient on the market today," says Gmyrek. "Retinoids were fist used in dermatology in 1943." Point being, this is one tried-and-true ingredient with a long list of proven benefits and is effective both as a preventative and anti-aging option. More of its benefits include:
- Boosts skin cell turnover: "Vitamin A promotes the shedding of old skin cells and stimulates the regeneration of newer, healthier, and smoother cells," says Chen. Essentially, it's acting as an exfoliant, improving both the tone (it's great for combating hyperpigmentation) and texture of the surface of the skin.
- Stimulates collagen production: Along with working on the epidermis (aka the top layer of the skin), vitamin A is unique in that it also works in the dermis, the deeper layer, where it stimulates the production of collagen. Not only does this help reduce fine lines and wrinkles, it also improves and thickens the skin, explains Gmyrek. As if that weren't enough, it simultaneously minimizes the destruction of existing collagen and elastin, she adds, giving you even more bang for your buck.
- Is an effective acne treatment: There's good reason(s) why prescription-strength vitamin A (or retinoic acid) was first FDA-approved as an acne treatment: It helps normalize oil production and its exfoliating properties help prevent clogged pores, points out Chen (as well as helps minimize the look of post-blemish discoloration if pimples do pop up). Gmyrek adds that it also has an anti-inflammatory effect that eliminates redness.
Side Effects of Vitamin A
The bad news is that all of these aforementioned potent effects come with some pretty problematic potential pitfalls. "Side effects include irritation, dryness, and photosensitivity, and in some cases even blistering and peeling," notes Petrillo. It is worth noting, however, that the less potent, over-the-counter retinoids also come with a reduced likelihood and intensity of side effects (at least for most people). And the good news is that these effects usually will resolve once your skin acclimates to the ingredient, a process technically known as retinization.
How to Use It
Above all else, start slowly. "This is a marathon, not a sprint," warns Gmyrek. "More vitamin A isn't better, and it will increase your chances of irritation, causing you to stop using it." Try using it every third night for a week or two, then increasing to every other night, and finally to nightly use. You only need a tiny amount—about a pea-size—for your entire face. Apply it onto clean skin, and make sure that you're using gentle and mild products in the rest of your routine so as to not overwhelm your skin, suggests Chen, at least until your skin is used to the vitamin A.
Keep in mind that patience is a virtue. According to Gmyrek, it will take a minimum of eight to 12 weeks in order to start to see improvements in your skin.
The Best Products with Vitamin A
Gmyrek says this is her top non-prescription option when it comes to vitamin A. She lauds it for combining other heavy-hitting, anti-aging ingredients (glycolic and lactic acids, peptides, niacinamide, and antioxidants) along with retinol. And, she points out that when compared against a pure retinol and prescription-strength retinoic acid, it outperformed the former, and had benefits equal to the latter with less irritation.
This formula ups the anti-aging ante by combining retinol with bakuchiol, a plant-based ingredient known to offer very similar effects as vitamin A with less irritation. It's a favorite of Gmyrek's, who also calls out the hydrating glycerin and ceramides in the mix.
Worried about trying vitamin A because you have sensitive skin? Consider this guy. "This is a nice budget option that works well for sensitive skin," says Petrillo. "It combines retinol with ceramides for skin protection, antioxidant-rich licorice, and calming niacinamide. It's low concentration of retinol (0.3%) will also help minimize the side effects," he explains.
Gmryek says this is another great intro product for those with sensitive skin. She credits the addition of calming niacinamide to decrease irritation, along with hydrating and antioxidant-rich vitamin E. Bonus points for the pump top dispenser as retinol can be inactivated when exposed to air, she explains.
Drugstore skincare shoppers, take note. Gmyrek loves this affordable, accessible option; she says it's well-formulated, with a blend of 0.3% retinol and vitamin C, and is hydrating due to the addition of dimethicone, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid. As the name suggests, don't forget to apply it to the skin below your chin, too.
Petrillo says this is a common favorite among skincare experts. Why? Along with vitamin A, it contains a triple peptide combo and vitamin F, a moisturizing and anti-inflammatory ingredient. Also nice: It often comes with a sample size of the brand's hydrating serum, which you can layer under or over to further combat any drying side effects.
Here's an option for those who want to get maximum potency and effects from an over-the-counter product. It touts the highest concentration of pure retinol available without a prescription. To that point, Gmyrek says she recommends this product for those who have been using retinol for a while without irritation and want to step up their results. She also notes that it's great for both acne and anti-aging purposes.
Fun fact: Prior to 2016, you could only get this retinoid with a prescription, because it's actually a retinoic acid, not a retinol, explains Gmyrek. "It's my number once choice for acne and a great product to combat signs of aging," she says.