Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that plays a role in cell growth. It may also have some specific benefits for the skin, including treating acne.
There are two different types of vitamin A: carotenoid compounds from plant products and retinoids from animals.
Retinoids may be useful as an acne treatment as they have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that could promote better skin health.
In this article, we discuss how people can use vitamin A for acne and how it might help.
Vitamin A plays an important role in helping cells grow and stay healthy. Most cells in the body need it to function properly.
Vitamin A acts as an antioxidant, protecting cells from damage due to free radicals. In skin cells, this could help slow cell aging and keep the skin looking younger.
The same process may also reduce the speed at which the skin cells fall off, potentially reducing the clogging of pores and acne.
Research in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology suggests that isotretinoin — which is available under the brand name Accutane, among others — can treat severe acne.
Isotretinoin is a type of retinoid. It also helps people with moderate acne that is resistant to other forms of treatment.
However, anyone undergoing retinoid treatment will require regular testing to reduce the risk of problems developing in the liver. Vitamin A easily binds to fat cells, and it can build up in the body and become toxic.
Vitamin A may also help skin cells directly through topical application. Topical retinoids can reduce bacteria on the skin and help with inflammation.
These drugs can also make the skin more sensitive to UV rays, though. This sensitivity can increase the risk of sunburn, so people should take extra care to avoid exposing their skin to strong sunlight.
Retinoids can also help with scarring from acne.
There is some evidence that retinoids reduce the appearance of acne scars. A study in Dermatology and Therapy found that retinoid treatment improved the look of acne scars after 24 weeks.
Vitamin A is not a quick fix for scarring, but it may help repair the damaged cells that cause scarring over time.
People can try different forms of vitamin A to improve acne:
Topical vitamin A
Topical retinoids are available over the counter (OTC). Many different skin products, including anti-aging and acne treatment creams, contain retinoids.
More concentrated OTC retinoid creams are also available. They usually contain retinoids and a carrier, such as glycerin.
People who are using retinoid products for the first time should stick to less concentrated products, where possible. Doing this will allow them to identify any possible side effects from the retinoids before trying a more concentrated product, if necessary.
A doctor can prescribe stronger topical retinoids, such as:
Oral vitamin A
Oral vitamin A supplements allow the body to deliver vitamin A to the cells most in need.
Many multivitamins contain vitamin A, but vitamin A-only supplements are also available. These are usually in the form of retinyl palmitate or retinyl acetate.
Other forms of vitamin A may require a prescription. Prescription-strength retinoids include acitretin (Soriatane) and bexarotene (Targretin), as well as isotretinoin.
The diet can also provide vitamin A, with plant-based and animal-based foods supplying different types. Foods rich in vitamin A include:
- oily fish, such as herring and salmon
- beef liver
- dairy products
- yellow-orange plant foods, such as sweet potato, carrot, and squash
- green plant foods, such as broccoli, spinach, and chard
Many cereal manufacturers fortify their cereals with vitamins, including vitamin A.
Anyone considering using vitamin A for acne should first talk to their doctor. Adding vitamin A-rich foods to the diet is generally safe, but oral and topical vitamin A treatments carry their own risks.
Side effects can occur with both oral and topical vitamin A. In some cases, taking too much vitamin A causes a toxic buildup in the liver.
Food and supplements
Vitamin A deficiencies are rare in developed nations, such as the United States. People who eat a balanced and varied diet should not generally need to focus on specific vitamins and minerals.
However, those keen to boost their levels of vitamin A can include foods rich in this nutrient, such as liver, oily fish, and leafy green vegetables.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) state that the recommended daily intakes of vitamin A are:
- 700 micrograms (mcg) retinol activity equivalents (RAE) for females over the age of 14 years
- 900 mcg RAE for males over 14 years of age
- 600 mcg RAE for children aged between 9 and 13 years
Oral vitamin A
People should only take an oral retinoid for acne under the guidance of a medical doctor. Oral retinoids are usually for severe cases of acne or those that are difficult to treat.
In these cases, doctors will provide specific instructions on how to use the medication. They will also follow up with regular testing to help monitor side effects and avoid any complications.
Topical vitamin A
Anyone considering topical retinoid treatment for their acne should talk to a doctor or dermatologist first. They may provide other treatment options or recommend specific products.
OTC options will have lower retinoid concentrations, making them less likely to cause severe side effects.
After applying retinoids to the face, it is important to avoid sunlight where possible. People can stay in the shade and wear protective clothing to reduce exposure to sunlight.
Vitamin A can help with acne by reducing inflammation, cell damage, and redness. Topical or oral retinoids can be useful, depending on the severity of the symptoms and how long they have persisted.
Anyone looking to use retinoid products for acne should talk to a doctor or dermatologist first. These healthcare professionals can help the person avoid severe side effects and further skin problems.