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A Closer Look: Vitamin A

Updated: May 27, 2019

Retinaldehyde, Retinol, Retin-A, Isotretinoin, ReTrieve, Accutane... Vitamin A crops up under various names, and is arguably the most popular active ingredients used in skincare today.

"What does Vitamin A actually do?" is a common question from our clients - and it's a question I often have difficulty answering, because Vitamin A actually does a whole host of things within the skin. So, I decided to write this article to hopefully clear up some of the confusion surrounding this ingredient, and give you an in-depth overview of how it works within the skin.

What It Is

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient that supports not only skin health, but eye health, reproductive health, and immune function. It acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body, and is involved in reducing inflammation. It's also the active ingredient in most prescription acne medications, including ReTrieve, Atralin, Adapalene, Accutane, Isotretinoin, and Tazarotene.

Our skin is a major retinoid-responsive organ, meaning it is readily able to absorb Vitamin A when applied topically. The ability of Vitamin A to actually influence and change cell behaviour within the skin, allows it to make significant changes to our skin health and functions.

What It Does

Vitamin A metabolites have been used for decades in the treatment of various skin conditions, particularly acne and photo-ageing (damage caused to the skin over time by exposure to UV rays). Vitamin A works by normalising skin function, which means it can be used in the correction of all skin conditions.

For Ageing

Vitamin A works in the deepest layer of the skin, the dermis. This is where our blood supply, sebaceous glands (oil production) and collagen production cells are found. It strengthens and thickens this layer of skin which normally thins as we age (by around 1% per year from the age of 25), increases blood circulation to the skin, and stimulates our Fibroblast cells which are responsible for collagen and elastin production (the proteins in our skin that keep it firm, and bouncy). It regulates our oil production, and speeds up the rate at which our skin cells proliferate (divide to produce new healthy cells). As we age, the rate of our skin cell proliferation AKA "cell turnover" decreases steadily, meaning old skin cells are sitting on the surface for longer leading to congestion, rougher skin texture, uneven skin tone, and dull or "tired" looking skin.

For Acne + Breakouts

Vitamin A normalises oil production, making it incredibly effective in treating oil-dependent skin conditions like acne. Its ability to regulate the activity of our sebaceous glands reduces the occurrence of blackheads and congestion in the skin. Increasing blood circulation, increases the speed at which our skin heals, meaning breakouts will heal faster. Additionally, Vitamin A supports the skin's immune function, making it less vulnerable to bacteria.

For Pigmentation

Vitamin A regulates tyrosinase behaviour (Tyrosinase is the enzyme responsible for our melanin production), thus managing pigmentation formation. It also decreases the clustering of melanin granules in the skin, preventing the formation of age spots.

Different Forms - Retinaldehyde VS Retinol

These two forms of Vitamin A are the most commonly used in skincare. Retinaldehyde is typically less irritating and more tolerable to the skin, while Retinol is considered to be stronger and more likely to cause irritation or retinoid reactions.

One of the reasons Retinaldehyde is less likely to irritate the skin, is because it is closer to Retinoic Acid, the active form of vitamin A. When the skin absorbs vitamin A, it goes through a retinoid metabolism process to convert the vitamin A into retinoic acid. The less processing the skin has to do to convert that vitamin A into its active form, the less likely it is to experience irritation.

Retinoid Reactions

A retinoid reaction, also known as "retinoid dermatitis" or "retinisation" is usually characterized by flaking and dryness, sensitivity, itchiness, and redness in the skin. If you have this response to a vitamin A serum, its possible that you need to scale back your use - I always recommend to follow the 3, 2, 1 rule: begin with applying every 3 days, then every 2, then every day once your skin can tolerate it. Sometimes, depending on the serum and the skin, you may never reach every day application - this is okay, and just depends on your skin's individual tolerance and the strength of vitamin A you are using.

Choosing The Right Vitamin A Serum For You

If you are going to introduce a vitamin A serum into your skincare routine, I recommend to always seek professional advice on which serum is best for you, and to use medical-grade only. There are plenty of high quality vitamin A serums on the market - and several differentiating factors that make all the difference in how they will affect your skin.

  • First off, the percentage of vitamin A used. The strength you need will depend on your individual skin, and what it can tolerate.

  • Second, the delivery system. Different brands use different delivery systems, which will greatly affect the efficacy of the Vitamin A serum due to their effect on how well the active ingredient can penetrate into the skin. The brands we carry utilise two different delivery systems: Osmosis uses a Liposomal delivery system: the active ingredients in their vitamin A serums are encapsulated in a liposome, a lipid rich coating that allows them to penetrate deep into the skin. PCA skin uses an Omnisome encapsulation for their vitamin A serums: a 10 layer, slow release lipid encapsulation that releases active ingredients one layer at a time, over ten hours from when the product is first applied to the skin. This again, is allowing deeper penetration and minimising risk of irritation.

  • Another consideration, is whether or not the Vitamin A serum you are using is formulated with chirally correct ingredients. Most high-quality, medical grade vitamin A serums are chirally correct, but if you are unsure you can ask your skin therapist. Both brands we carry at Skin Ritual (PCA and Osmosis Skincare) formulate with chirally correct ingredients.

  • Last but not least, other ingredients in the serum must be considered - most vitamin A serums are formulated with a particular skin type or condition in mind, (eg. pigmented, ageing, acneic) and contain additional ingredients to support that. It's important to choose a serum formulated with ingredients that are appropriate to your skin condition.

In Conclusion

Vitamin A is beneficial for almost everybody, and is essential in any good skincare routine. Not sure what you should be using, or have more questions on Vitamin A? Reach out to us via email or phone, or come in for a complimentary consultation. We'd love to hear from you!

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