- Vitamin A is an antioxidant found in a variety of foods, including leafy greens, liver meats, fish and certain fruits and vegetables.
- Vitamin A for acne may be used topically, taken as a natural dietary supplement or used as a prescription.
- Topical vitamin A is called retinol and is highly effective against acne.
- Prescription vitamin A for acne comes in oral and topical formulations.
- Short-term prescription use or long-term topical use are the safest ways to use vitamin A for acne.
Vitamin A is an antioxidant and nutrient that occurs naturally in liver meat, some fish, boiled eggs, certain cheeses, dairy products, leafy greens and yellow and orange fruits and vegetables. It combats free radicals and inflammation, two factors which may make it an effective treatment for acne.
Vitamin A could help to treat acne vulgaris and prevent future breakouts, but whether it works depends on where it comes from and how it’s used.
How Vitamin A Works to Treat Acne
Topical vitamin A works best against acne. These formulas, called retinoids or retinols, are commonly used to treat papules and pustules caused by acne.
Retinol works to combat acne in several ways. It can help to:
- Even the skin tone
- Fight inflammation
- Encourage cell turnover and skin healing
- Lower overproduction of oil (sebum)
- Smooth the skin
- Shield the skin from environmental irritants
Retinol is routinely paired with antibiotic medication as a combination treatment for severe acne.
If you’re interested in using topical retinol for acne, your dermatologist will be able to tell you whether your other skin care products may interact with it. They will also recommend a combination of treatments for your individual skin condition.
Topical vitamin A formulations work directly on blemishes and are backed by research. However, some people take vitamin A supplements orally to nourish their skin.
In addition to topical retinoids and natural vitamin A supplements, there are prescription drugs derived from vitamin A that treat severe acne.
Best types of vitamin A for acne
The best types of vitamin A for acne depend on your individual skin condition. Generally speaking, topical vitamin A (both over-the-counter and prescription) and prescription oral vitamin A are the most effective treatments for acne.
Topical Vitamin A for Acne
Topical retinoid formulations come in over-the-counter serums and creams, as well as in prescription form. They be applied directly to papules and pustules to treat existing acne breakouts and prevent future ones.
Retinol from vitamin A helps to clear current breakouts, prevent future ones and can even help treat acne scars. Side effects of over-the-counter, topical vitamin a include:
- Dry skin
- Sun sensitivity
- Changes to skin color
Start slowly to allow your skin to adjust when you begin using a topical retinol product. You might only need to use it every other day to begin with, then work your way up to daily use. It takes up to 12 weeks to see results, so continue using your topical vitamin A 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:
- Sore throat
- Changes to skin color
- Sensitivity to sunlight and weather extremes
- Dry skin
Because topical retinoids can make your skin especially sensitive to sunlight, wear sunscreen daily as part of your skin care routine. It’s crucial to avoid sun damage for healthy skin cells.
One recent review found that a retinol dosage of as little as 0.25 percent may 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 to heal acne scars in addition to lesions and breakouts. In one study, 79% of patients who applied retinol to their acne scars reported that their scars flattened during treatment.
The effectiveness of topical vitamin A for acne scars depends on how long a scar has been present. It also depends on the type of scar you have. The study that observed flattening of acne scars due to retinol also revealed that young scars respond best to treatment. The types of scars that respond well to topical vitamin A include ice pick scars and superficial scars.
Oral Vitamin A for Acne
Some people take oral vitamin A supplements with the hope of clearing their acne. Others take prescription vitamin A-derived medications for acne.
Studies have shown that high doses of vitamin A can cause toxicity in the body, so long-term, high-dose treatments are not recommended. Instead, you should work with your doctor to determine the best combination of treatments for you.
More research is needed to better determine whether oral vitamin A supplements can treat acne. Evidence that OTC vitamin A supplements help acne is inconclusive. The supplements appear to only be effective for general skin health.
Like many supplements, high doses of vitamin A may cause side effects such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting or coma. Eating enough vitamin A-rich foods, however, will not trigger adverse events.
Taking oral vitamin A supplements may interfere with certain medications, so check with your doctor before you begin any new vitamin.
Vitamin A-Derived Oral Prescriptions for Acne
People with severe acne are sometimes prescribed vitamin A-derived medications. One form of synthetic, vitamin A-derived prescription medication is isotretinoin. It is often prescribed under the brand names Accutane, Absorica, Claravis and Myorisan. Accutane is the most well-known isotretinoin brand name.
Oral isotretinoin is prescribed for severe acne and is only meant to be taken for short periods of time. Its side effects are numerous and many are 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 that is associated with a high risk of birth defects in patients who are pregnant or could become 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 seven to ten days. Full benefits are seen around four months after beginning treatment.
If you take oral vitamin A supplements, taking more than 1,500 micrograms per day can cause adverse effects. Because vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, it builds up in your body over time. That means taking high doses can cause toxicity.
Dosages of isotretinoin vary, but can range from one-half to one milligram per kilogram per day. Sometimes as many as two milligrams per kilogram per day are prescribed. However, the higher the isotretinoin dose, the higher the incidence of side effects.
Vitamin A vs. Other Vitamins
Vitamin A is one of the better vitamins for treating acne. However, other vitamins may also help to combat acne breakouts.
Vitamin C has antioxidant, collagen-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties that make it an excellent choice for fighting acne naturally. Vitamin C also helps to lighten skin, so it may be used to 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 P. acnes bacteria that causes acne, reduce redness and treat inflammation.
Vitamin D is a hormone that many people are deficient in. 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 of the patients who participated, vitamin D supplements appeared to clear up acne lesions.
Topical vitamin E can help with acne, but oral supplementation does not seem to help clear up breakouts.
Several studies that involved observing vitamin E as a potential acne treatment involved combining it with other topical treatments. At this time, is not currently clear whether topical vitamin E plays a significant role in treating acne.
Vitamin A is an effective treatment for acne. It works best in topical retinol formulations or as prescription-strength medication.
High doses of vitamin A supplements may help ease acne symptoms, but they can also cause toxicity in the body. Because of this, you should use caution if you choose to take oral vitamin A.
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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