What is Vitamin A?
Vitamin A (retinol) is a fat-soluble vitamin. Along with its natural derivatives – retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, retinyl esters, and several synthetic derivatives, vitamin A is part of the retinoid family. It plays a vital role in human reproduction, vision and normal cell growth and development. As a result it is often used on the skin (topically) in anti-aging skincare products and for treating conditions such as acne and psoriasis.
Vitamin A is a carbon molecule with an alcohol end group, giving it the name ‘all-trans-retinol’. In the body goes through a series of oxidative processes that break it down to produce retinoic acid or tretinoin – the form which has been shown to benefit the skin.
Since it cannot be made by our body it is vital to consume a diet rich in this vitamin or, if advised by a health professional, through supplements. Foods rich in vitamin A include sweet potato, carrots, dark green leafy vegetables, tropical fruits and fish and liver.
Shoppers’ tip: When buying retinol products ensure they are packed in airtight, opaque containers. This is important because retinol breaks down in the presence of air and light, so if exposed the product will become ineffective.
What does it do?
Skin products that contains Vitamin A (retinol) can help counteract the signs of aging and sun damage by improving the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. The vitamin A does by boosting fibroblast and collagen production. These two cells structure act like scaffolding within the cell, helping the skin looking smoother and firmer. For sun or age spots, it aids in exfoliation which in turn improves the appearance of photo-damaged skin.
Vitamin A is also used to treat skin conditions such as hyperpigmentation (dark spots), acne and psoriasis. It does this by normalising cell growth and the way cells function.
For skin conditions such as hyperkeratinisation and psoriasis – conditions where dead skin cells build-up on the surface of the skin, the retinol acts at the cellular level on the gene that is responsible for controlling the cells ‘stickiness’ or ‘cohesiveness’. It helps restore its normal function so the dead skin cells can be shed more easily. This in turn decreases the likelihood of microcomedomes (clogged pores) and any associated inflammation. This, combined with its ability to help regulate the amount of oil the skin produces, means it is often recommended for treating acne. For severe cases of acne a prescription strength may be prescribed by your doctor.
Most people can tolerate the amount of Vitamin A in over-the-counter skin products quite well but it is not uncommon for some people to experience minor side effects including:
- scaling or flakiness
- burning or tingling, and
It is recommended that you stop using the products every day if this occurs and try using them once or twice a week until you build up a tolerance.
If you have been prescribed a tretinoin product by your doctor and the reaction is severe it is best to speak to your doctor about a management plan.
Vitamin A products should only be used at night and sunscreen should be applied during the day because they increase the skins to sensitivity to sunlight.
Women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant are advised not use any products containing vitamin A (retinol) due to the very slight risk of birth defects. The same applies for women who are breastfeeding as it is passed through the breast milk.
Allergic reactions are rare but seek medical attention right away if severe side effects such as rash, hives, itching, difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, swelling of the mouth, face, lips, or tongue occur while using vitamin A topically or taking it as a supplement.
Most people with a healthy diet do not need vitamin A supplements but if you are taking one it is important to stick to the recommended daily intake levels as too much vitamin A can cause serious side effects (see http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/vitamin-a/safety/hrb-20060201).
Interactions with other medicines:
There are no known drug interactions for topically applied retinol (vitamin A). However, this does not necessarily mean no interactions exist. Always consult with your doctor or pharmacist.
Other common names it goes by
3-Dehydroretinol, 3-Déhydrorétinol, Acétate de Rétinol, Antixerophthalmic Vitamin, Axerophtholum, Dehydroretinol, Déhydrorétinol, Fat-Soluble Vitamin, Oleovitamin A, Palmitate de Rétinol, Retinoids, Rétinoïdes, Retinol, Rétinol, Retinol Acetate, Retinol Palmitate, Retinyl Acetate, Rétinyl Acétate, Retinyl Palmitate, Rétinyl Palmitate, Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin A1, Vitamin A2, Vitamina A, Vitamine A, Vitamine A1, Vitamine A2, Vitamine Liposoluble, Vitaminum A. Tretinoin, All-trans-retinoic acid, at-RA, Isotretinoin, 13-cis-retinoic acid, 13-cis-RA, Alitretinoin 9-cis-retinoic acid, 9-cis-RA
Mukherjee S, Date A, Patravale V, Korting HC, Roeder A, Weindl G. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. 2006;1(4): 327–348.
Decker, Ashley, and Emmy M. Graber. “Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments: A Review.” The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology 5.5 (2012): 32–40.
Draelos ZD, Thaman LD, editors. Cosmetic Formulation of Skin Care Products. New York: Taylor & Francis Group; 2006. pp. 276–278.