- Vitamin A is an important nutrient found in a variety of foods
- This vitamin can be applied topically in the form of retinol or taken as oral supplements
- Both oral and topical formulations are available in prescription strength
- Short-term prescription oral use or long-term topical use are the safest ways to use vitamin A for acne
Vitamin A is found naturally in certain foods and plays a key role in maintaining vision, protecting cells from damage and supporting a healthy immune system. Vitamin A for acne could be an effective treatment as it has been shown to combat free radicals and inflammation, two factors associated with this skin condition.
While this vitamin could potentially help treat acne and prevent future breakouts, success will depend largely on the source and how it’s used.
How Vitamin A Works to Treat Acne
Vitamin A is an antioxidant and can neutralize free radicals to prevent cell damage and slow cell aging. This same process can reduce the speed at which cells slough off, helping to keep cells clear of debris and potentially preventing acne from forming.
It is available as an over-the-counter (OTC) topical or oral supplement, and in prescription-strength formulas to treat severe acne.
Topical vitamin A, called retinoids or retinols, is known to be most effective in treating severe acne, notably the papules and pustules that result from this condition. Retinol works to combat acne in several ways. It can help to:
- Reduce hyperpigmentation, dark spots associate with healed acne lesions
- Fight inflammation and reduce redness
- Encourage cell turnover and skin healing
- Regulate sebum (oil) production
- Shield the skin from environmental irritants such as pollution
Retinol is routinely paired with antibiotic medication as a combination treatment for acne. In fact, this particular combination is considered a mainstay of acne therapy. Research supports this method of treatment and science agrees that the different benefits and complementary mechanisms of action work in tandem to effectively prevent and treat acne.
Retinol prevents acne formation by preventing pores from blocking; antibiotics kill the bacteria that causes acne.
Best types of vitamin A for acne
While your individual skin condition should be considered when choosing a vitamin A formulation, in general, topical vitamin A is considered to be most effective in treating and preventing acne, especially severe acne symptoms.
Research on oral supplementation is inconclusive regarding its effectiveness. Older research determined it was not an effective treatment but some researchers believe it has the potential to prevent acne symptoms from worsening.
Topical Vitamin A for Acne
Topical retinoid formulations are available in OTC serums and creams as well as in prescription form. They are applied directly to papules and pustules to treat existing acne breakouts and prevent future ones. They can even help reduce the appearance of acne scars.
Several side effects are associated with topical application, with skin peeling being the most common:
- Changes to skin color
- Dry skin
- Sun sensitivity
It is advised to start slowly to allow your skin to adjust when you first use a topical retinol product. You can use it every other day and then slowly increase to daily use. It takes up to 12 weeks to see results when used consistently and as directed.
One topical vitamin A-derived prescription is tretinoin cream. Brand names include Retin-A, Tretin-X, Renova and Refissa. Like OTC topical vitamin A, tretinoin takes about 12 weeks of consistent use to yield results. Tretinoin may be used long term.
Common side effects of prescription vitamin A tretinoin cream include:
- Changes to skin color
- Dry skin
- Sensitivity to sunlight and weather extremes
- Sore throat
Topical retinoids can make your skin very sensitive to sunlight; apply sunscreen daily as part of your skin care routine to avoid irritation and to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging rays.
One recent review found a retinol dosage as low as 0.25% to be effective against acne. A low concentration is also less likely to cause side effects than higher concentrations.
High concentrations of retinol require a prescription from your dermatologist.
Topical vitamin A for acne scars
Topical forms of vitamin A could help heal acne scars in addition to lesions and breakouts. In one study, 79% of patients who applied retinol to their acne scars reported a flattening during treatment.
The effectiveness of topical vitamin A for acne scars depends on the scar type and age. Those that respond best are ice pick and superficial scars.
Oral Vitamin A for Acne
Some people take oral vitamin A supplements and others take prescription vitamin A-derived medications, however there is no strong evidence to support this use in treating acne. The supplements appear to only be effective for general skin health.
Some scientific research on oral vitamin A determined that OTC vitamin A supplements may not actually help acne. However, contrasting research suggests that maybe it can.
Other studies have shown high doses of vitamin A can cause toxicity in the body, so long-term, high-dose treatments must be avoided. With this in mind, if you do choose to take supplements, it is important to check with your doctor first as it can also interfere with certain medications.
Like many supplements, high doses of vitamin A may cause side effects such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting or coma.
Vitamin A-Derived Oral Prescriptions for Acne
Vitamin A-derived medications are commonly prescribed for those with severe acne. One medication is isotretinoin. Brand names include Accutane, Absorica, Claravis and Myorisan; Accutane is the most well known.
Oral isotretinoin is only prescribed for severe acne and meant for short-term treatment as it’s associated with many side effects, some severe.
Accutane, in particular, is associated with a wide range of adverse side effects, including:
- Eye symptoms such as itching, burning and redness
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Joint or bone pain
- Trouble moving
- Lip symptoms like pain, redness, burning and scaling
- Skin infection
- Suicidal thoughts or urges
- Teratogenicity (fetal or embryonic toxicity) leading to birth defects
Isotretinoin is a controversial medication associated with a high risk of birth defects in patients who are pregnant or planning to be pregnant. It’s likely that taking even low doses of isotretinoin for a short period of time could cause birth defects.
Isotretinoin starts working within 7–10 days. Full benefits are seen around 4 months after beginning treatment.
If you take oral vitamin A supplements, the recommended daily amount is 900 mcg for men and 700 mcg for women. It is important not to take excessive amounts as this can cause adverse effects. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin; it builds up in the body over time and can cause toxicity.
Dosages of isotretinoin vary but normally range from 0.5–1.0 mg/kg per day. Sometimes higher doses are prescribed. However, the higher the isotretinoin dose, the higher the incidence of side effects.
Vitamin A vs. Other Vitamins
While vitamin A is one of the most effective vitamins for treating acne, there are other vitamins that may help to combat acne as well.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant with collagen-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties, making it an excellent choice for fighting acne naturally. Vitamin C also helps to lighten skin, so it may be used to effectively treat hyperpigmentation and reduce the appearance of acne scars.
Lemon juice, which contains vitamin C, is a common ingredient in acne-fighting and skin-lightening products. The naturally-occurring citric acid in lemon juice helps to remove excess oil from the skin, kill Cutibacterium acnes bacteria that causes acne, reduce redness and treat inflammation.
Vitamin D is a hormone that plays an important role in bone and muscle health. While a vitamin D deficiency doesn’t necessarily put you at risk for acne, it’s believed that vitamin D plays an important role in immune system regulation.
One study found that patients with acne were more likely to be vitamin D deficient. In some participants, vitamin D supplements helped clear up acne lesions.
Topical vitamin E can be effective against acne, but studies have indicated that oral supplementation does not effectively clear up breakouts.
Few studies are available on this subject, and the ones that do combine vitamin E with other topical treatments. At this time, there is no concrete evidence to support topical vitamin E as an effective treatment for acne.
Vitamin A is an effective treatment for acne, and works best in topical retinol formulations or as prescription-strength medication. It is often prescribed as one part of an effective acne treatment strategy.
Retinoids or retinol can effectively combat acne by fighting inflammation, increasing cell turnover and regulating oil production.
Oral vitamin A supplements are not as effective as topical application and can cause toxicity if taken in large doses.
Your dermatologist will consider your symptoms and skin condition before they prescribe a vitamin A-derived medication. Prescription tretinoin may be used as a long-term topical, but oral isotretinoin is not safe to take long term and should not be taken by people who are or may become pregnant.
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