You’ve heard about vitamin E and vitamin C, but let’s chat about our pal vitamin A.
The nutrient is touted as a fix for wrinkles, acne, and sunspots. But what does it actually do — and what’s the best way to reap the benefits?
While food sources of vitamin A are beneficial for a bunch of reasons, they may not be the most potent solution for your skin. Here’s what you should know about how vitamin A works its magic, the best way to use it, and the risks to keep in mind before giving it a try.
How does vitamin A help skin?
Vitamin A plays a bunch of key roles in the body, and it’s essential when it comes to the health of your skin. It’s involved in the production of fresh, new cells, which keeps your skin both functioning and looking its best.
Vitamin A contains retinoids, compounds that are well known for performing several skin-friendly jobs, like:
- minimizing fine lines and wrinkles by boosting the production of the skin- smoothing protein collagen
- fighting signs of UV damage like hyperpigmentation and sunspots (which can help your skin look more youthful and potentially reduce the risk for some skin cancers)
- combating acne by sloughing away dead skin cells (helps prevent clogged pores and inflammation)
- improving skin tone by stimulating the production of new blood vessels
- promoting wound healing
Studies have shown that people with higher vitamin A concentrations in their skin tend to look younger, while those with lower vitamin A concentrations tend to look older.
In short, getting your fill can make noticeable difference in the way your skin looks — and have a long-term effect on your health.
Nutritionally speaking: How to get more vitamin A
It’s recommended that men get 900 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin A per day and women get 700 micrograms. You can get your fill by eating plenty of red, orange, or yellow veggies, along with some animal products.
Some of the top sources are:
- sweet potato (1,403 mcg in one medium sweet potato)
- carrots (459 mcg in 1/2 cup raw)
- milk with added vitamin A (149 mcg in 1 cup)
- cantaloupe (135 mcg in 1/2 cup)
- red bell pepper (117 mcg in 1/2 cup)
- dried apricots (63 mcg in 10 halves)
- eggs (75 mcg in one large egg)
- salmon (59 mcg in 3 ounces)
- plain yogurt (32 mcg in 1 cup)
- canned light tuna (20 mcg in 3 ounces)
Pro tip: Your body can only absorb vitamin A when you eat it with fat. So if your A source doesn’t have much fat on its own (like in the case of raw fruits or veggies), pair it with a higher fat food like olive oil, avocado, or nuts.
As for supplements? Most people can meet their vitamin A requirements through food alone, and taking high doses of vitamin A could be dangerous. Talk with your doctor before taking a vitamin A capsule, and make sure your daily intake doesn’t exceed 10,000 micrograms.
Finally, keep in mind that consuming vitamin A — as food or in a supplement — likely isn’t the fastest route to clearer or smoother skin.
Research suggests that eating a diet rich in vitamin A long-term can be a good preventive and pro-aging strategy and potentially lower your skin cancer risk.
But loading up on carrots or sweet potatoes won’t reverse skin damage that’s already done, and likely won’t help improve your acne either.
Apply generously: Using topical vitamin A
Skin is ace at absorbing the retinoids in vitamin A. So if you’re looking to make real gains in your battle against wrinkles, acne, or sunspots, topical vitamin A is the way to go.
There’s loads of science to back this up. Retinoids, specifically one called tretinoin, are known to trigger changes that boost the production of fresh skin cells, and have been shown time and again to minimize fine wrinkles, make skin appear visibly smoother, and reduce hyperpigmentation.
Tretinoin is also considered an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne.
If you’re wondering which topicals work best, you’ve got plenty of options. For extra glow or heavy-duty or acne-fighting, you’ll want to see a dermatologist about prescription tretinoin, or other powerful prescription retinoids like tazarotene or adapalene.
You can get gentler goods over the counter too — look for creams containing retinol or other retinoids:
- For acne, try Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment or La Roche-Posay Effaclar Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment.
- For wrinkle reduction and skin firming, try RoC Retinol Correction Anti-Aging Retinol Night Cream or Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Night Cream.
They’re not as potent as a prescription, but they can help still help make your skin look clearer or smoother.
Whichever option you choose, keep in mind that consistency — and patience — is key. It’ll take at least 3 months of regular use to see a noticeable improvement in your skin, and up to 1 year before the full effects take hold.
Risks: Who shouldn’t use vitamin A?
Vitamin A can be a legit savior for your skin, but the stuff isn’t perfect. It has some downsides that you definitely need to factor in, and it’s very much possible to get too much of a good thing.
With topical products, the main concern is irritation. Retinoids are powerful, and they can actually sort of make your skin worse — think red, dry, and peely — before things start to improve.
You can head this off as much as possible by starting with a product that contains a very low retinoid concentration and using it every other day. Over time you can build up to applying the stuff daily or trying a product with a higher retinoid percentage.
Since your skin is more sensitive while you’re using a retinoid cream, take steps to baby it as much as you can.
Avoid overexposure to sunlight, wind, or extreme cold, and steer clear of using additional skin products that are drying or abrasive — think scrubs, peels, astringents, or acne products containing benzyol peroxide or salicylic acid.
Thinking about supplementing with vitamin A pills? Remember, doses above 10,000 micrograms daily can be dangerous. Excess vitamin A intake can cause nausea, diarrhea, headaches, skin irritation, joint pain, bone thinning, and even liver damage.
If you’re unsure whether your supplement is causing you to take in too much A overall, talk with your doctor. In some cases, it’s better off to steer clear of vitamin A supplements altogether.
Excess vitamin A is linked to birth defects, so you should avoid supplementing during pregnancy. Vitamin A supplements can also be dangerous if you’re taking anticoagulants, cancer drugs like bexarotene, hepatoxic drugs, or prescription retinoids.
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