You know the drill when it comes to caring for your skin: cleanse, tone, moisturize, apply sunscreen, and maybe try a few other treatments, like masks or anti-agers. Amid so many possibilities (and products) to help your skin looks its best, though, there are a few nutrients that skin really needs—and vitamin A is one of them. Whether you get it from your diet or in a topical cream, the protective and nourishing properties of A, and the nutrients your body uses to make it, lend a hand in keeping skin healthy, firm and radiant.
Unlike many other nutrients, vitamin A is a group of compounds that includes its active forms (retinal, retinol and retinoic acid) and other provitamin A carotenoids, like beta-carotene. Beta-carotene (and the other carotenoids) is the form of vitamin A that we get directly from the plant foods we eat. The pre-formed or active forms are found in animal foods. In our bodies, beta-carotene is converted into the retinol form of vitamin A.
Here’s what happens when you feed your body vitamin A:
It protects against UV damage and slows signs of aging. Most of your vitamin A intake comes from eating foods rich in beta-carotene and provitamin A carotenoids, which are potent antioxidants. Not only do these squelch free radicals that break down collagen (your skin’s support structure) and contribute to fine lines and saggy skin, they also lessen skin’s sensitivity to the sun, providing some natural protection against sun-induced redness and pigmentation.
It encourages healthy skin cell production. Retinal, retinol and retinoic acid are important to cell production and growth. Vitamin A also stimulates fibroblasts—the cells responsible for developing tissue that keeps skin firm and healthy—in the deep layers of your skin. Because vitamin A and carotenoids play such a big role in cell and tissue growth, not getting enough can lead to weakened skin, causing problems ranging from dryness to wounds that heal more slowly.
It protects against infection. Your skin is an important part of your immune system; think of it as your body’s bouncer—a first line of defense against bacteria, pollutants and infection. By promoting cell production, vitamin A helps strengthen this barrier, protecting your complexion from harmful irritants that attempt to attack the surface.
How Much Should You Get?
Women should aim for 700 mcg of vitamin A daily, while men should get 900 mcg. Eggs and dairy products are excellent sources of vitamin A, while orange and green leafy veggies like sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe and spinach are loaded with beta-carotene that your body will use to make all the A it needs. If you’re considering a supplement, talk with your doctor first; like most fat-soluble vitamins, A can build up in your system if you consume too much. Choose a vitamin A supplement that is derived from provitamin A (like beta-carotene) to reduce the risk of toxicity. By aiming to get the recommended amount through beta-carotene-rich foods, you’re less likely to overdo it.
Here’s what happens when you apply vitamin A topically:
It smoothes wrinkles. Topical vitamin A in the form of retinol (found in over-the-counter products) and retinoic acid (found in prescription creams) are proven wrinkle-fighters and many dermatologists’ go-to recommendation for combatting signs of aging. Research has shown that these ingredients are able to stimulate collagen production: When collagen becomes damaged due to UV exposure and other aggressors, wrinkles begin to develop, much like cracks in a weak foundation. Retinoids “turn on” cells responsible for making new collagen, strengthening your skin and filling in fine lines below the surface so skin looks smoother. One study found that after using a prescription-strength vitamin A cream for 10 to 12 months participants noticed significantly fewer wrinkles, and medical experts noted an 80 percent increase in collagen.
It evens skin tone and gives you a glow. Vitamin A creams can help lighten sun-induced brown spots and boost skin radiance in two ways: First, by increasing and normalizing skin cell turnover, which helps you shed pigmented, damaged and rough surface cells, making room for healthier cells and allowing light to bounce off more evenly. Secondly, retinoids may block an enzyme needed for melanin (pigment) production, further helping to deliver an even-toned, glowing complexion.
It clears up acne. Pimples form when pores become clogged with dead skin cells, bacteria and oil, providing the perfect breeding ground for Propionibacterium acnes, a common bacteria responsible for blemishes. When vitamin A creams stimulate cell turnover the same process happens within the pores themselves, helping to slow oil production and keep pores clear.
Choosing Vitamin A Creams
If you decide to try an over-the-counter vitamin A cream, look for retinol on the ingredient list rather than retinyl palmitate, a weaker version of the vitamin. Retinol isn’t as potent as prescription-strength retinoic acid, so results may take longer to see, but it’s also less irritating to sensitive skin. Unfortunately, it’s common for vitamin A creams to cause redness, sensitivity and dry, flaky skin until you become acclimated. To minimize these side effects, start by applying just a pea-sized amount to your face every other night or every two nights for several weeks; follow with a plain, unscented moisturizer. Gradually increase your usage to nightly.
Be sure to use sunscreen during the day, too; topical retinoids can increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV damage. (The Environmental Working Group's Guide to Sunscreens may help you shop for one.) Avoid retinol and retinoids if you’re pregnant; you can speak to your dermatologist about other options that are safer while you're expecting.