By Sophia Ruiz, Founder/CEO
In our modern world, nutrient inadequacy is arguably more common than it’s ever been.
Between declining mineral levels in the soil and the standard American diet, many Americans aren’t getting enough nutrients to support optimal health. And because of the role that nutrients play in our skin health, this can absolutely have an effect on the appearance of our skin (which is why it’s no surprise that many studies have found nutrient deficiencies are more common in acne-prone individuals than they are in non-acne-prone individuals).
Vitamin A is one of these nutrients that Americans just don’t seem to be getting enough of. According to dietary surveys, over 50% of Americans aren’t meeting the recommended amount of vitamin A in the foods they eat. And when it comes to skin health, vitamin A is a crucial nutrient – especially if you’re looking to combat breakouts or support healthy aging.
But, why exactly is this the case?
What makes vitamin A so important?
And what does it really do for acne-prone or mature skin?
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty details.
Vitamin A: the basics
In our world, vitamin A exists in two forms: provitamin A and preformed vitamin A.
Provitamin A is what most of us recognize as vitamin A: orange pigments called carotenoids (i.e. beta-carotene) found in orange- and yellow-colored fruits and vegetables. These carotenoids act primarily as precursors to preformed vitamin A, but have their own benefits as antioxidants that help decrease free radical activity (more on this in a bit!).
Preformed vitamin A, on the other hand, is the most active vitamin A in the form of retinol and retinoids. This form of vitamin A is responsible for almost all of vitamin A’s known benefits in the body: supporting skin health, eye health, and immune health, among other benefits. Unlike carotenoids, it’s only found in animal products.
Once we eat foods high in preformed vitamin A, it goes through an activation process in the body. Afterwards, it's either used for body functions or stored in the liver for later use (i.e. for supporting the immune system during infections).
Of the two, the preformed vitamin A is the most important form. But, because carotenoids can be converted to active vitamin A, they’re also considered an important source of vitamin A.
Vitamin A and the skin: why does it matter?
Vitamin A supports many different bodily processes. Interestingly, a lot of these processes are involved in supporting healthy skin, whether it be directly in the skin or indirectly through the interaction between other parts of the body (i.e. the gut) and the skin.
So, it comes as no surprise that vitamin A is often decreased when skin issues are present. This is exactly what we see in acne: studies show that vitamin A levels in the blood are often decreased in acne-prone individuals and that preformed vitamin A can improve acne.
When you look at the specific effects of vitamin A on the skin, it becomes pretty clear why vitamin A can be supportive in acne:
- Vitamin A supports gut health. Vitamin A is one of the key nutrients needed for the production of a protein called immunoglobulin A. This protein helps keep bad bacteria in the gut in check, creating a healthier gut terrain that then translates to healthier skin.
- Vitamin A supports the skin’s immune system. Vitamin A plays an important role in supporting our immune cells’ ability to fight off microbes in the body - in the skin and elsewhere. Vitamin A also stimulates the production of a antimicrobial protein called dermcidin which helps to fight off acne-causing bacteria.
- Vitamin A can treat clogged pores. There are many reasons why clogged pores (also called comedones) happen. But, regardless of why comedones appear, they’re a major player in the acne process – at least 70% of all inflamed acne spots come from these clogged pores. As a result, addressing comedones are an important part of healing acne. There are many ways we can address comedones, but vitamin A is one of those tools that is really reliable for this.
But, the benefits of vitamin A aren’t exclusive to acne-prone skin – it’s also incredible for aging. Vitamin A one of the most research-backed molecules for anti-aging and is always something I recommend in an anti-aging regimen.
The main reason for these anti-aging benefits is vitamin A’s effect on collagen production and glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) in the skin.
During the aging process, collagen and GAG production slows down, leading to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Vitamin A directly counteracts this aspect of aging, with studies showing it can increase the production of collagen and GAGs to improve the appearance of aging.
So, knowing the clear benefits of vitamin A for acne and aging, the only next logical question is: what are the most effective ways to increase vitamin A in the skin and take advantage of its benefits?
How to increase for vitamin A levels for healthier skin
There are two ways we can support vitamin A levels in our skin:
- Through diet
- Through topical use
Although both are effective, each avenue comes with its advantages, disadvantages, and limitations. So, it’s important to know exactly how to leverage your diet and your skincare regimen to make sure you’re getting the most benefit!
This is where things will get a little more science-heavy, but by the end of the section, you’ll know exactly what to do (and what to avoid) to support healthy vitamin A levels in the body and the skin.
How to use vitamin A topically
The use of vitamin A in skincare is a popular practice, both for aging and acne.
You have ingredients like tretinoin, a topical retinoid, which is FDA-approved for the treatment of wrinkles and acne. Adapalene, another retinoid, is FDA-approved for the treatment of acne and is less irritating than tretinoin. You can find various retinols and retinoids in over-the-counter skincare – from retinyl palmitate, to retinol, to retinaldehyde, to hydroxypiconalone retinoate. All of them are research-backed for their effects on breakouts and aging.
However, retinol and retinoids aren’t without their drawbacks. Not only are most retinoids irritating for the skin, which can aggravate acne (temporarily), topically-applied products containing retinyl palmitate may increase the risk of sun cancer.
This is because, when exposed to UV radiation from the sun, retinyl palmitate degrades and forms carcinogenic compounds. It's safe to say that this risk probably negates all the benefits of retinyl palmitate.
Thankfully, other topical retinoids don’t share these same safety issues. I personally prefer hydroxypiconalone retinoate over all the other retinoids because it’s super gentle and rivals the prescription strength retinoids in its efficacy. The Ordinary’s Granactive Retinoid formulations (the squalane products and the emulsions) are great.
Outside of direct retinoids, topical carotenoids can also be used to support active vitamin A production in the skin. Similar to when taken internally, the skin also converts topically-applied carotenoids to their active vitamin A form to support skin health (I love our Vitale elixir for this because of its rich carotenoid content!).
Unlike with retinoids, you’ll never make too much active vitamin A from carotenoids. As a result, using carotenoids as your main method of supporting vitamin A levels in the skin doesn’t come with the risk of irritation or risk from sun exposure. However, you’re not going to get the same dramatic benefits from carotenoids that you get from using active retinoids on the skin.
At the same time, you can reduce the amount of vitamin A necessary for these dramatic effects by padding out the rest of your skincare regimen with synergistic ingredients.
Ingredients like vitamin E (the star ingredient of our Clarity serum) have been shown to reduce the amount of vitamin A needed for its effects. Similarly, you can use additional ingredients with comedone-fighting properties, like linoleic acid (another star ingredient of our Clarity formula), glycolic acid, and salicylic acid, to reduce the amount of vitamin A needed to effectively control comedone formation.
In theory, using carotenoid-rich topicals with these other ingredients should allow the less-potent carotenoids to produce more noticeable effects on the skin. It’s also more in line with how your body and skin naturally function – nutrients working together in synergy!
Of course, this doesn’t mean safe retinols or retinoids can’t be apart of an acne or aging-supportive skincare regimen. I recommend them often! But, I like that we have the ability to support our skin’s vitamin A levels in other ways, too, and customize our skincare to our needs and preferences.
But, it’s also important to note that, even though increasing vitamin A topically is helpful for acne and aging, we miss out on some of the indirect effects that can benefit the skin – like gut support. And because gut health is so important for healthy skin, supporting skin levels of vitamin A topically shouldn’t take precedence over making sure we’re getting enough vitamin A in our diet. The two work together!
An example skincare routine for optimizing vitamin A in the skin
How to optimize vitamin A in the diet
As I mentioned earlier, you can get vitamin A from both provitamin A (carotenoids) and preformed vitamin A (active vitamin A). Consuming either form helps support vitamin A levels in the body.
Carotenoids are found mostly in orange- and yellow-colored plant foods but can also be found in some animal products in smaller amounts. Once consumed, these carotenoids are absorbed through the gut and undergo a pretty extensive conversion process to become active forms of vitamin A.
Preformed vitamin A, on the other hand, requires minimal conversion to the most active forms of vitamin A, making it more available to the body (and as a result, generally more effective). Unlike carotenoids, though, preformed vitamin A is only found in animal foods – not in plants foods.
And while both food sources are good options for supporting vitamin A levels in the skin, there are important caveats to consider for each one:
- Carotenoid conversion to active vitamin A can be affected by your genetics. The conversion of carotenoids to active vitamin A is dependent on an enzyme called BCMO1. The problem is: in some cases, genetic variations can lower the efficiency of BCMO1. As a result, this can make it difficult to get enough active vitamin A to support healthy skin from normal intakes of carotenoids. In these cases, more carotenoid intake than usual or intake of preformed vitamin A (which bypasses the need for an efficient BCMO1) is needed to support vitamin A levels.
- Conversion of carotenoids to active vitamin A requires iron and zinc. Without sufficient iron and zinc, the enzymes that are responsible for converting carotenoids and activating vitamin A don’t function optimally. As a result, zinc and iron deficiencies (which are super common) might mean that we can’t get the maximum benefit out of the carotenoids we eat.
- Sources of preformed vitamin A may not necessarily be suitable for acne-prone skin. Vitamin A is found in animal foods, but only in relevant, skin-supportive levels in certain animal foods: liver and high-fat dairy products. The first issue here is that liver is high in B12 and purines. High intake of B12 has been shown to trigger breakouts while purines can increase uric acid: a molecule that is elevated in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that can cause acne, and has been shown to activate inflammatory processes involved in breakouts. And since dairy is often a common trigger of breakouts, high-fat dairy may also cause breakouts. Saturated fats in high-fat dairy may also be an acne trigger. So, if your goal is to support acne-prone skin, the most abundant sources of preformed vitamin A may not be the best option!
So, how can we ensure we’re getting enough vitamin A without causing further issues, especially for acne-prone skin?
In my opinion, the best way to support vitamin A levels is to use a combination of both beta-carotene and very specific food sources of preformed vitamin A.
Even though you technically can get enough vitamin A from preformed vitamin A sources alone, I like to include beta-carotene in my diet, too. Beta-carotene, even when not converted to active vitamin A, has skin-specific benefits like protection against UV radiation, antioxidant support (great for acne and aging), and reduction of hyperpigmentation risk.
I always have a little bit of fat with my carotenoid-rich fruits or veggies as this can really help boost the amount of carotenoids you absorb from your meals. And as I touched on earlier, it’s a great idea to make sure your iron and zinc levels are optimized to support the conversion of carotenoids to active vitamin A (among many other reasons to make sure you're getting enough of those minerals!).
Great food sources of provitamin A carotenoids include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Butternut squash
For preformed vitamin A, my preferred source is cod liver oil. This is because unlike whole liver, cod liver oil doesn’t contain any of the purines or high levels of B12. This makes it a better option for preformed vitamin A.
At the same time, you have to be super careful about quality with cod liver oil. A lot of products on the market are rancid, which means they can do more harm than good. I recommend the Rosita Cod Liver Oil brand because of its quality, but it’s pretty pricey.
On top of that, one serving of cod liver oil only contains around 14% of the RDA for vitamin A. If you’re making up for the with carotenoids, you’re probably okay. But, if your conversion is really limited and/or you’re not able to get enough carotenoid-rich foods in on a daily basis, you might not be getting enough vitamin A to support optimal skin health.
In this case, you may need some additional help in the form of something like a retinyl palmitate supplement. The good news is, unlike the topical retinyl palmitate, retinyl palmitate in supplement form is totally safe.
Studies have found retinyl palmitate is a safe (assuming you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding) and effective option for supporting healthy vitamin A levels (of course, always talk with your doctor about any supplements you take!). As an added benefit, it’s also a whole lot cheaper than high quality cod liver oil and just as, if not more, effective.
Just be aware that vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that gets stored in the liver, not eliminated. So, it can accumulate to toxic levels over time if you take too much.
Micellized retinyl palmitate is one of the most bioavailable forms of vitamin A you can take. I like the Seeking Health brand’s vitamin A – they’re a really reputable company that I trust!
But, just like with topical approaches alone, focusing on vitamin A in the diet exclusively may leave results on the table.
This is because, in our polluted modern world, our external environment can deplete our skin of crucial nutrients. This means, even if we’re consuming enough nutrients, our skin’s nutrient stores may be depleted – simply because it’s constantly exposed to airborne pollution. So, by supplying your skin directly using topicals, you’re providing an extra layer of defense against nutrient depletion.
The verdict: take a gentle topical + diet approach
So, here’s the bottom-line with vitamin A:
- Get a good amount of carotenoids in your diet everyday and consider supplementing with a high-quality cod liver oil or retinyl palmitate supplement to support breakout defense and healthy aging.
- On top of this, you can support your skin with carotenoid-rich topicals alongside other antioxidants for non-irritating vitamin A support and/or safe topical retinoids like hydroxypiconalone retinoate, adapalene, retinaldehyde, or tretinion.
By increasing your vitamin A intake, you’ll be supporting healthier, clearer, more radiant skin from the inside out, while an antioxidant support system including topical vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids or retinoids) and other antioxidants acts as an extra layer of defense against environmental nutrient depletion!
Have any questions? Need help putting together a skincare routine for your skin? Please don't hesitate to leave a comment here or reach out via e-mail! :)