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How to Use Vitamin A to Effectively Treat Acne

dr jaggi rao Reviewed by Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC, Double board-certified dermatologist

Vitamin A is among the most effective treatments for acne, especially severe or cystic acne. Popular vitamin A acne treatments like Accutane, Retin-A, and Differin are actually “turbo charged” synthetic forms of this vitamin. But which forms of vitamin A work the best against acne? And how does it work exactly? This article will answer these questions and more.

Vitamin A for Acne
Vitamin A, used in acne treatments, helps to stimulate the growth of new skin cells.

Summary:

  • Vitamin A acts as a pace car for the life cycle of skin cells, which leads to healthier skin.
  • There are many types of vitamin A, and they have varying effects on the skin.
  • Retinoid medications like Accutane, Retin-A, and Differin are all effective treatments for severe, cystic acne, but they can also be helpful in treating everyday blackheads and whiteheads as well.
  • It’s important to be aware of the side effects common in vitamin A acne treatments.
  • Vitamin A deficiency is relatively rare in Western countries, but it’s quite common elsewhere in the world and could contribute to acne.

Vitamin A and Your Skin

If you’ve done some of your own research on the effect of vitamin A on the skin, odds are you’ve found some conflicting information. Some research says that retinoids (synthetic forms of vitamin A commonly used to treat acne, which we’ll get to in a moment) slow down the desquamation process, which is the process of shedding the outermost layer of skin. Supposedly, this decreases clogged pores by preventing the shedding of excess dead skin cells. But then, other research claims the exact opposite; they say retinoids actually encourage speedy creation of new skin cells. These articles claim that the new skin cells push the old ones out of the way, also preventing clogged pores. So which is it? Actually, vitamin A does both.

It turns out that vitamin A doesn’t just stimulate or suppress skin cell production, it does something a little more complicated. It actually affects your genes and encourages skin cells to be produced and die at the most effective rate, which is known as skin cell differentiation. We like to think of it as a pace car. If the skin cells are produced quickly but don’t die at the same pace, then living skin cells can cling to the edges of a pore, causing a clog. Then again, if skin cells die at a normal rate but are being produced too slowly, then they can die in the pore without new skin cells to replace them, which also causes clogs. The solution? A pace car. Vitamin A encourages the production of skin cells at a moderately quick pace, but it also makes sure the skin cells die and move on at the same pace.

Which Kind of Vitamin A Helps Acne?

While it’s true that vitamin A has the power to prevent clogged pores through skin cell differentiation, not all vitamin A is the same. Various kinds of vitamin A found in skincare products and in nutritional supplements have different effects on your skin. Here is an overview of many of the most popular kinds of vitamin A that appear in skincare products.

  • Retinol: Retinol is the chemical name for vitamin A, and it is most commonly used to prevent and treat the effects of photoaging. Retinol itself actually has no effect on the skin, its anti-aging effects are a result of its transformation into retinoic acid once applied to the skin. There is some speculation that it can improve acne as well, but there is limited scientific data confirming its effectiveness. Retinol is extremely sensitive to air and sunlight, and should always be packaged in a non-transparent tube rather than a jar.
  • Retinoic Acid: Retinoic acid is a natural derivative of retinol, produced through its metabolization5. Unlike retinol, retinoic acid can affect the skin directly and doesn’t need to undergo any kind of transformation when applied to the skin. This makes it more effective, but also much harsher.
  • Retinol Derivatives: There are countless derivatives of retinol, including retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate, and retinyl palmitate. For a while, these derivatives were encouraged for use on sensitive skin because they seemed to produce fewer side effects than actual retinol, but eventually, researchers discovered that these derivatives are also far less effective than retinol, and actually have little to no effect on the skin5. You’ll generally want to avoid these products.
  • Retinoids: Retinoids are the most popular version of vitamin A used in acne treatment. They are concentrated, synthetic versions of vitamin A, and they are ideal tools for skin cell differentiation5. Many retinoids require a prescription, but more and more over-the-counter options are becoming available.

The Best Retinoid Products for Acne

Retinoids are generally considered the best vitamin A products for treating acne, but which retinoids are best for your specific skin needs?

For Sensitive Skin and Blackheads/Whiteheads: Adapalene is a synthetic form of vitamin A that produces fewer side effects than other retinoids, making it the best option for those with sensitive skin. It is gentler, which means it’s also a bit weaker, so it isn’t the best choice for severe or cystic acne, but if you have mild to moderate acne, studies show it can make a significant difference. It’s commonly sold over-the-counter as Differin or ProactivMD.

For Resistant Skin and Moderate to Severe Acne: If your skin is a bit tougher and your acne more than just mild, then you might want to look into getting a prescription for tretinoin or tazarotene. Tazarotene a good option for those who typically experience post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (dark spots) after acne heals5 and is commonly sold under the brand name Tazorac. Tretinoin, commonly known by brand-name Retin-A, significantly improves moderate to severe acne, though its effects on post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation are less significant than that of tazarotene.

For Sensitive Skin and Moderate to Severe Acne: What if you have sensitive skin and bad acne? Don’t worry, there’s a retinoid for that too. Studies have found that combining low concentrations of various retinoids with other acne treatment products like benzoyl peroxide or antibiotics is a gentler way to get the same results. These products also require a prescription, but they are typically more effective against moderate to severe acne than adapalene.

For Cystic, Treatment-Resistant Acne: If it feels like you’ve tried literally everything to get rid of your acne and nothing is working, you may want to try isotretinoin, commonly known as Accutane. Isotretinoin is different from other retinoids because it is taken orally rather than applied topically. Most people who use isotretinoin take the medication every day for approximately four months, and then their acne stays relatively clear for the foreseeable future. A small percentage of people have a relapse of their severe acne, but this can usually be treated with another round of isotretinoin treatment. The only downside is that isotretinoin comes with many side effects, some severe. However, more and more studies are being done on low-dose isotretinoin therapy, with positive results and fewer side effects.

Common Side Effects of Vitamin A Treatment

As we’ve seen, vitamin A can be a very effective acne treatment, but it does come with some side effects. Some forms of vitamin A, like retinol and adapalene, come with fewer side effects, but others, like isotretinoin, come with very serious side effects.

The most common side effect of vitamin A treatment is skin burning, peeling, and scaling. Sometimes these effects are relatively mild, but other times they can be rather painful and frustrating. One way to reduce these effects is with a gentle treatment system. If your daily cleanser is harsh or if you don’t use a moisturizer every day, you could easily make the side effects of vitamin A treatment worse. We recommend using Exposed Skin Care along with vitamin A treatments because their products are designed specifically to combat acne without irritating the skin.

If you decide to try isotretinoin, you will likely face these same side effects, plus a few more. First, isotretinoin is highly teratogenic, meaning it is very likely to cause birth defects. In many countries, in order to take isotretinoin, you must sign an affidavit swearing to use two forms of birth control at all times in order to prevent birth defects. Some studies also report psychological side effects when taking isotretinoin, such as mood swings, increased anxiety, or even suicidal ideation. However, some research suggests that there is minimal evidence to support the reality of these side effects.

What About Vitamin A Supplements?

So we’ve seen how vitamin A can successfully treat acne when applied to the skin if it’s in the right form, and we’ve seen an oral medication made from a synthetic derivative of vitamin A, but what about vitamin A supplements? Could they have the same effect? Unfortunately, research shows that supplements are not an effective acne treatment.

Generally, vitamin supplements are only helpful in treating acne if you have acne due to a vitamin deficiency. In most Western countries, vitamin A deficiency is very rare which means that vitamin A supplements are unlikely to have any significant effect on your health. In other countries, however, vitamin A deficiency is more common and supplements could mildly improve your skin. However, if you have moderate to severe acne with a vitamin A deficiency, we still recommend a topical retinoid in addition to vitamin A supplements.

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carol Reply

Hello, Can you tell me please. Does eating too much tofu (unfermented) soy, cause eruptions of acne ? I have been clear of acne for a couple of years, and then six months ago re-erupted. I have been eating for the last two years a lot of tofu and have a healthy diest. So the come back of acne confused me, until someone enlightened me to,That rofu is unfermented soy,and is not that good for us Any info would be greatly appreciated. CW

December 31, 2012 at 11:57 am Reply
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Turquoise Reply

Yes, tofu comes from soy. Soy contains a high amount of phytoestrogens. Too much of estrogen or testosterone can cause hormonal imbalances and one of the symptoms of unbalanced hormones is hormonal acne breakouts. These mostly appear in cystic form around the jaw and chin.

October 14, 2014 at 6:00 am Reply
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vivian Reply

my homornal imbalance is when i have orgasm i get huge cystic acne few hours later and am very sensitive to fruits with high sugar and processed food.

November 25, 2014 at 8:19 pm Reply
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Shanni Reply

Every since I started using Vitamin A in my products, I noticed a difference and so did my co-workers. Vitamin A has unplugged my pores and evened out my skin discoloration. I used to use a brand that I bought at Walmart, but it did not work well. I now use the Made from Earth Vitamin Enhanced Firming Serum because it also reduces the oilyness of my face. Highly recommended!

March 29, 2016 at 8:43 pm Reply
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brittany Reply

did you just take vitamin A form over the counter?

October 27, 2016 at 7:53 pm Reply
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Joe Reply

After going through the Accntane treatment my acne came back. I started to use this product by Bluebonnet - Beta Carotene, C, E, Plus Selenium. Works great for me!

April 19, 2016 at 5:51 pm Reply
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thyra Reply

You need to use Vitamin A with aloe vera. In one 2014 study, researchers grabbed 60 people with mild to moderate acne and split them into two groups: * Group A was given a topical Vitamin A cream * Group B was given a topical Vitamin A cream plus topical aloe vera Guess which group’s acne healed faster? Group B, Turns out that aloe vera combined with the Vitamin A was “significantly more effective” at reducing acne lesions than the Vitamin A alone. Two good aloe vera choices are the Palmers Aloe Vera & the Made from Earth Aloe Vera. The Parlmers is priced better, but the Made from Earth Aloe Vera is better quality.

May 3, 2016 at 1:52 am Reply
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Siobhan Reply

I've never really had deep cystic or nodular acne in my life. When I breakout it's usually just surface pimples, either closed or open comedones depending on the area (usually closed comedones around my mouth area and open ones on my nose) and only really around that time of the month or if I don't exfoliate regularly. I used Steiva-A which is a 0.05% retinoid product for 3 months and I broke out in a severe and continued onset of deep non-inflammatory nodular acne. I kept waiting for my skin to clear but it just got worse and worse until I stopped using the product and then I stopped breaking out completey and my skin went back to normal. I thought maybe it was because of the artificial additives in it so I opted for a more natural form of vitamin A and tried some organic rose hip oil several months later. After a few days of using the oil, almost overnight in fact, my skin started forming the deep nodular acne on my cheeks again! Does my skin have an intolerance to vitamin A? What is going on? I stopped using it and my skin is slowly returning to normal and breakout free. The only reason I wanted to try vitamin A in the first place was for its anti aging qualities, which I suppose, in an ironic sort of way, worked because I ended up looking like a puberty pizza hit me hard in the face.

October 28, 2016 at 11:31 am Reply
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Kimasha Reply

Can I Use Dermastine with Vitamin A while im taking Roaccutane to help with scars?

June 20, 2017 at 12:32 pm Reply

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