The Role of Vitamin A in Treating Acne
Vitamin A in various forms is among the most effective treatments for acne1. Accutane, Retin-A, and Differin are actually “turbo charged” synthetic forms of this vitamin. But other forms of vitamin A that don’t require a doctor’s prescription can also help you fight acne.
- Vitamin A activates genes that cause skin cells to mature and rise to the surface.
- Retinoid medications like Accutane, Retin-A, and Differin have the potential for skin irritation. A 0.15% to 0.60% vitamin A cream may give you just the right amount of stimulation for dry skin.
- Vitamin A treatments are not especially useful for oily skin, although it is still important to avoid vitamin deficiency even if you have oily skin.
- Butter, cream, liver, and cod liver oil are natural sources of skin-healthy vitamin A. Or you might just take a vitamin A supplement, up to 3,000 IU a day.
Vitamin A and Your Skin
Vitamin A2 can affect a group specialized skin cells known as keratinocytes. These cells make up 90% of the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. They form a protective barrier between the interior of the body and the exterior world.
Keratinocytes can release inflammatory substances to dissolve germs and to keep toxins from entering the body through the skin, and they also can send signals to the immune system for help in killing germs3. The keratinocytes constantly migrate toward the surface of the skin where they are programmed to die about 40-56 days4 after they are formed from the skin’s basal layer.
Vitamin A activates the genes that cause keratinocytes to mature and move to the surface of the skin, opening up the skin. There are at least six different kinds of receptors on skin cells that cause be activated by at least six different forms of vitamin A. When vitamin A attaches itself to a keratinocyte like a key in a lock, it activates specific sequences of DNA that help the cell reproduce itself. Different forms of vitamin A activate different amounts of DNA and cause different rates of growth.
Vitamin A from food, or that the body makes from beta-carotene (the plant chemical found in carrots and other orange and yellow vegetables) stimulates less growth that the retinoid medications you may be prescribed by your dermatologist. The retinoid medications for acne (the previously mentioned Accutane, Retin-A, and Differin) cause your skin to grow so fast that it essentially explodes in slow motion. This opens up the skin over cysts and nodules. Other forms of vitamin A may redden the skin, or just encourage it to keep growing so pores stay open.
Which Kind of Vitamin A Helps Acne?
Various kinds of vitamin A you find in skin care products and in nutritional supplements have different effects on your skin. Here is an overview of the kinds of vitamin A that appear in skin care products.
- “Pro-Retinol” is the marketing name for retinyl acetate. The skin can convert this compound into the vitamin A it needs, but a lot of the product is never used by the skin.
- Retinyl propionate is added to skin care products because it is so mild that it does not cause skin irritation, but it is also so mild that skin has to create enzymes to convert it into a useful form of vitamin A.
- Retinyl palmitate is another ingredient that appears in many acne creams. It is stable and does not break down while the product is sitting on the shelf, but the body also has to convert it to vitamin A.
- Retinol is the form of vitamin A that can be transported through the bloodstream inside the human body. It is the soluble form of vitamin A. It breaks down very quickly when it is exposed to oxygen, however, and is not practical for use in skin care products that are repeatedly exposed to the air. Retinol in a product that is in a tube may be stable, but retinol that is in a product in a jar will not.
- Retinoic acid is the form of vitamin A that the body uses. It binds on various receptor sites on cells in tissues throughout the body to switch genes on and off. If the label says the product contains retinoic acid, it is wrong. Your body has to make retinoic acid at the cellular level.
Of course, various forms of vitamin A are also found in food:
- Beta-carotene is a kind of “provitamin” that your body can transform into vitamin A. It binds to fat in fat cells, however, so if you are very overweight, eating carrots, pumpkins, and squash every day is not going to work for you. You will need to get actual vitamin A from cream, butter, cod liver oil, or nutritional supplements. Up to 5,000 IU of vitamin A day is safe. High doses of vitamin A can cause damage to the embryo, so women who might become pregnant must not take overdoses of supplemental vitamin A.
- Retinyl esters are the “animal” form of vitamin A. This is the form of vitamin A found in butter, cream, liver, and cod liver oil. The body uses them to release retinol which it transforms into retinoic acid. It takes fewer steps for the human body to use “animal” vitamin A than it takes to use “plant vitamin A,” so animal foods have a greater effect on the skin.
Do You Need A Vitamin A Supplement If You Have Acne?
Preventing vitamin A deficiency is important to preventing acne. Vitamin A deficiency is rare in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, but actually quite common in much of the rest of the world. As little as 5,000 IU of vitamin A day, however, is enough to prevent the vitamin A deficiencies that can cause oily, colorless, sick skin.
It is much more useful to put vitamin A derivatives on your skin than to try to consume additional vitamin A to nourish your skin from the inside out1. Some common products that contain vitamin A in a form that does not break down before it is put on your skin include:
- Dr. Denese New York Skin Care 15 Day SkinScience Booster Program. This product includes retinol in a microencapsulated form that keeps it active until it reaches your skin. You pay US $74.99 for 0.07 oz/2 grams, however.
- Estee Lauder Re-Nutriv Intensive Lifting Serum. Actually designed for wrinkles, this product also provides retinol and other skin-healthy antioxidants in a kind of packaging that keeps them fresh. It is considerably less expensive than the Dr. Denese product, just US $180 for 1 oz/28 grams.
- La Roche-Posay Biomedic Retinol Cream 15, 30, and 60. These products provide 0.15%, 0.30%, or 0.60% retinol in a skin cream for a mere US $57 an ounce/28 grams. They are excellent for stimulating the growth and healing of very dry skin, and if you have very dry skin and acne, they will help open up stubborn blemishes and heal pimples. You can start with the lowest concentration, and, if you don’t have any unusual redness or peeling, slowly step up to the 0.60% strength.
Even though La Roche-Posay Biomedic Retinol Cream really does help heal blemished, dry skin (it’s no good for oily skin), vitamin A is just a small part of any complete program for fighting acne. You still need an acne-fighting system like Exposed Skin Care—which will cost you a lot less.
- Thielitz A, Abdel-Naser MB, Fluhr JW, Zouboulis CC, Gollnick H. Topical retinoids in acne–an evidence-based overview. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2008 Dec;6(12):1023-31.
- Menni S, Piccinno R. [Vitamin A and vitamin E in dermatology]. Acta Vitaminol Enzymol. 1985;7 Suppl:55-60.
- Bourke CD, Prendergast CT, Sanin DE, Oulton TE, Hall RJ, Mountford AP. Epidermal keratinocytes initiate wound healing and pro-inflammatory immune responses following percutaneous schistosome infection. Int J Parasitol. 2015 Mar;45(4):215-24.
- Koster MI. Making an epidermis. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Jul;1170:7-10.
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