All hail this multitasking, anti-ageing, balancing vitamin.
That essential, perfectly-crafted beauty hero that we believe is very deserving of its ‘gold standard’ status and one of the most effective wrinkle-fighting complexion-perfecters money can buy.
Every skincare product you can buy is technically a cosmetic, meaning it could potentially change the appearance of your skin.
However, it cannot, by definition, change the cells themselves. Only drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can alter the function or structure of your skin.
Therefore anything that’s regulated as a drug is going to have the most evidence behind it, which is the case with some derivatives of Vitamin A – No wonder it’s considered the holy grail of skincare.
What is Vitamin A?
Obviously, it is a vitamin; less obviously, it encourages cellular turnover and is essential for the normal activity of skin cells. Skin cells shed around every 30 days; however, when you use Vitamin A, this increases to between 14 to 21 days. Helping to regenerate new skin cells, it is also particularly important for the growth and maintenance of hair, nails, and teeth.
Often referred to as the “normalising” vitamin for its ability to convert skin cells back to normal, it is used in the treatment of acne as well as the treatment of ageing skin.
But somehow, this most celebrated superstar ingredient is also the most complicated. Coupled with a sometimes awkward first few weeks of use, there can be confusion around names – is Vitamin A for skin the same thing as Tretinoin? And when are you supposed to use it, anyway?
What the heck is with all the names?
Vitamin A and its derivatives are referred to as the family of ‘Retinoids’. A chemical compound related to vitamin A, retinoids has been a major player in the world of skincare since the 1950s, when tretinoin first hit the market.
Within this family, there are a number of subsets: ‘Retinoids’ is the general term when referring to prescription-strength topicals such as Tretinoin or Retin-A, Tazarotene (referred to as Tazorac), or Adapalene (referred to as Differin).
Retinol vitamin A, Retinyl Palmitate, and Retinyl Acetate can be found in anything over-the-counter, meaning they’re not quite as strong as their retinoid brethren.
Still unclear? No problem, we have you covered – with our article Retinol can turn back time, which gives you a comprehensive breakdown of retinoids and their role on the skin.
How do I know which Vitamin A to use?
It’s pretty simple, really. If you find you’re struggling with acne or require more aggressive treatment to lessen the appearance of hyper-pigmentation or premature ageing, it might be worth getting a prescription. However, if you just want to improve the texture of the skin, an over-the-counter product is all you need to get started. A+ Retinoid complex is a great place to start.
What are the benefits of applying Vitamin A topically?
Once inside the cell itself, Vitamin A can produce the following changes by stimulating the Retinoid receptors in the DNA:
- reduce large pores
- improve skin texture
- improve hyperpigmentation
- encourage cells to turn over rapidly
- reduces the flow of oil through the sebaceous glands to the surface of your skin
It also means that the collagen those cells create can be newly stimulated.
Normalises skin: Vitamin A is often referred to as “the great cellular regulator” or normaliser due to its ability to control cell growth and regulate cellular turnover.
Within the cell’s nucleus are receptors that bind specifically to Vitamin A. When Retinoid binds to these receptors, the DNA is programmed to increase the differentiation of keratinocytes and normalise the turnover of our skin cells. It increases the activity in the growth layer of skin cells; compacting the epidermis – the outer layer of skin – which could be the predominant reason for skin thickening.
But, in a nutshell, it means that it encourages the cells to die, slough off, and leave room for the beautiful new skin below.
Balances oily, combination skin: Retinoids are one of the most effective treatments for overactive oil production in the sebaceous glands. Sebocytes, the cells that secrete sebum from the sebaceous glands, are extra busy in sufferers of acne. When Vitamin A binds to a receptor on the cell’s surface, a cascade of events is initiated to normalise the growth pattern of the cells, causing the glands to decrease in size and dramatically decrease the production of oil.
Vitamin A for acne: If you are suffering from whiteheads, blackheads, and acne grades 1 and 2, then A+ retinoid complex will have you covered. However, if its deeper-rooted cystic acne, then there are three retinoids you need to be aware of: Tretinoin, tazarotene, and adapalene. All these three require a prescription, that is other than Differen, which is a 1% dose of adapalene, available as an OTC.
These will get to the root of your cystic acne problems and will also prevent them from forming at all. They speed up cell turnover to keep your pores free of debris and your skin clear. You’ll just have to wait around six to 12 weeks to see results.
Prevents premature ageing: Vitamin A has a remarkable effect on fibroblasts, the most important cells in the dermis for inducing the genes that produce collagen. Healthier collagen is formed and unhealthy collagen removed by enzymatic activity, resulting in a reduction of fine lines. The improved production of collagen and elasticity in the skin gives Vitamin A the ability to “reverse” ageing.
Hydrates and moisturises depleted skin: The secretion of our Natural Moisturising Factor (NMF) is increased into spaces between the cells, allowing the skin to retain more water and plump out wrinkles. These natural glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) constitute most of the chemicals created by the fibroblasts to help retain moisture.
Reduces pigmentation: Vitamin A actively reduces the activity of Tyrosinase, an important enzyme that is critical for the production of melanin within the skin. It also reduces the clumping of pigments in the base of the epidermis, making the actual pigment particles – called melanosomes – smaller and less visible. Because cells have more efficient turnover, pigments trapped in the outer cells are also being effectively removed. This article does a great job of discussing melanin and its role in pigmentation.
Repairs ultraviolet damage: When UV light hits our skin, it increases the production of Matrix Metalloproteinases (MMPs), which break collagen down. Vitamin A inhibits these MMPS, and as a result, helps to preserve the health of our collagen.
How to use Vitamin A
Vitamin A is measured in international units (IU) per gram; the recommended effective dose lies between 500 IU and 50,000 IU per gram. Anything less than 500 IU is generally considered of absolutely no value unless combined with a penetration enhancer. The Naked Chemist products always contain clinically-proven effective levels of Vitamin A, so we are certain of the effects of even the lowest doses.
Does wearing Vitamin A increase the risk of sunburn?
You may have heard that Vitamin A will make your skin more susceptible to sunburn and that you should only apply it at night-time. However, clinical studies show that Vitamin A does not lower the minimal erythemal dose of human skin, so it can be used during the day.
In saying that, we still recommend using it at night because the epidermis mostly reproduces at night and is responsible for creating new skin cells. Since Retinol mimics this process, wearing it at night lets the product enhance your skin’s efforts while you sleep. You should always wear sunscreen in the daytime.
The Naked Truth
A big question we are often asked is, “Am I going to regret using this?”
Although Vitamin A has truly evolved to have more stable, elegant, and improved delivery systems with minimal risk of irritation to the user, in some cases too much vitamin A does get a bad rap. For this reason, we have formulated a very gentle formula that you can introduce into your routine and build up slowly – without the irritating side effects. In the form of vitamin a serum – A+ retinoid complex.
Prescription Tretinoin – and even some traditional Retinol forms, face the problem of the molecule binding to undesired receptors that are not involved in the expected effects of Vitamin A. This is what causes the “Retinol Uglies”; undesirable side-effects such as irritation, redness, and flaking. Because the level of ceramides in the skin has decreased, this is a good time to reach for our YOUTH skin shot, an oil-soluble formula rich in fatty acids.
Vitamin A is highly effective and penetrative. I recommend adding it in phases to your routine, gradually increasing the tolerance over a period of 3 months. Products with higher percentages may produce quicker results, but you need to bear in mind this carries a higher risk of irritation. Starting off with a low dosage and building up is a good way to introduce your skin to this treatment.
Clinically, we have seen that after two or three weeks, the skin cells adapt and begin to tolerate the ingredient. I am talking about reasonably flushed, drier-than-usual, lightly peeling skin. However, if the discomfort is prolonged, use it once a week or switch to a milder formula.
On a final note, remember that Vitamin A takes an average of 12 weeks to produce noticeable changes in the skin. So, stick with it for at least that long to see the wonderful benefits.
Beauty marketing really is a blood sport. It’s never enough to sell something tried and tested, it has to be the latest, greatest, most innovative skin solution.
Yet as you can see, when it comes to many skin frustrations, retinoids truly are, the one evidence-based ingredient that has a ton of research around it.
When applied to your skin, retinoids encourage cells to rapidly turn over – the cells slough off, revealing beautiful new skin below, along with new collagen being stimulated, they also help to stem the flow of oil to the surface of your skin, which is why it is often called the normalising vitamin.
With regular use, retinoids promise to improve skin texture, wrinkles, sun damage, visibly enlarged pores, acne, and blackheads.
Build up slow by applying once every few days, only at night. But generally, the side effects, particularly of OTC products, are minor: you may experience some redness and dryness that may lead to surface-level peeling – referred to as the ‘retinol uglies’ but even if you do when starting down your Retinoid Road, this will tend to pass within a couple of weeks.