Vitamin A for Skin: Benefits and How to Use

vitamin A for skin

 Liz DeSousa for Byrdie

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, we speak with two board-certified dermatologists and a cosmetic chemist to offer a deep dive on this A+ vitamin (pun intended).

Meet the Expert

  • Robyn Gmyrek, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at UnionDerm in New York City.
  • Lucy Chen, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami, FL.
  • David Petrillo is a cosmetic chemist and founder of Perfect Image.

Keep reading to find out more about vitamin A's benefits for skin.

Vitamin A

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), except for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. 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 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 retinoic 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 to be effective, and subsequently how potent they are, she explains. Retinoic acid, which is what prescription-strength products contain, is 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 first used in dermatology in 1943." The 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.
  • Improves skin texture and tone: Essentially, vitamin A acts 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.
  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles: Vitamin A helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles and 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.
  • Treats post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation: Prescription-strength vitamin A can also minimize the look of post-blemish discoloration if pimples do pop up, and 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 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 to start to see improvements in your skin.

The Best Products with Vitamin A

SkinBetter AlphaRet Overnight Cream $130.00

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.

paulas choice
Paula's Choice Clinical .3% Retinol + 2% Bakuchiol Treatment $54.00

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.

CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum $20.00

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. Its low concentration of retinol (0.3 percent) will also help minimize the side effects," he explains.

It cosmetics
IT Cosmetics Hello Results Wrinkle-Reducing Daily Retinol Serum-in-Cream $69.00

Gmyrek 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.

Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Regenerating Face & Neck Cream $23.00

Drugstore skincare shoppers, take note. Gmyrek loves this affordable, accessible option; she says it's well-formulated, with a blend of 0.3 percent 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.

drunk elephant retinol cream
Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream $74.00

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. 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.

SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0 Maximum Strength Refining Night Cream $88.00

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.

Differin Adapalene Gel .1% Acne Treatment $13.00

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 one choice for acne and a great product to combat signs of aging," she says.

  • How often can I use vitamin A?

    Slow and steady wins the race with vitamin A. Start using it once every three days, then increase to every other day, and then every day as your skin grows accustomed to it.

  • Is vitamin A okay for sensitive skin?

    Vitamin A can be irritating, so it's best for those with sensitive skin to think about using it in moderation. It's best if you start with a low percentage product or one that's formulated with skin-nourishing ingredients like chamomile, aloe, or green tea extract.

  • Are vitamin A and retinol the same?

    Think of vitamin A as the umbrella term for "retinoids." Underneath that umbrella, you have three different versions of vitamin A. There is Retinal—the ingredient used in prescription-strength formulas—retinoic acid, and retinol, the weakest of the three.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Kowalska J, Rok J, Rzepka Z, Wrześniok D. Drug-Induced Photosensitivity-From Light and Chemistry to Biological Reactions and Clinical SymptomsPharmaceuticals (Basel). 2021;14(8):723. doi:10.3390/ph14080723

  2. Sofen B, Prado G, Emer J. Melasma and Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation: Management Update and Expert OpinionSkin Therapy Lett. 2016;21(1):1-7

  3. Kong R, Cui Y, Fisher GJ, et al. A Comparative Study of the Effects of Retinol and Retinoic Acid on Histological, Molecular, and Clinical Properties of Human SkinJ Cosmet Dermatol. 2016;15(1):49-57. doi:10.1111/jocd.12193

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