How Vitamin A Works for Aging Skin

I apply it once and I look good all day
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Vitamin A products, including retinol and Retin-A, have been called the "gold standard" of antiaging skincare, helping your skin look younger and smoother. Vitamin A is a vital nutrient to our health, and researchers have found that it can help boost collagen production to treat wrinkles and aging skin. However, topical use can cause certain side effects such as redness and irritation.

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A Crucial Vitamin

The importance of vitamin A to human health was uncovered early in the 20th century with the discovery of its role in the viability of an embryo. Since then, it’s been known to be a major player not just in reproduction, but also vision, growth, and cell differentiation (the changing of one cell type into another) and proliferation (an increase in cell production).

Because it helps the production of white blood cells, vitamin A is necessary for a healthy immune system.

Vitamin A is also known as retinol, and its derivatives (whether natural or manufactured) are called retinoids. Because this vitamin cannot be synthesized (naturally produced) by the body, it needs to be consumed in food—either through animal sources, like egg yolks, fish, liver, and meat, or plant sources, like darkly colored fruits and vegetables, including carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and tomatoes. You can also take it as a supplement.

There are three derivatives of vitamin A: retinol, retinal, and tretinoin. Retinol is available over the counter to treat photodamaged skin (skin damage from the sun) and aging skin. Retinal is a less irritating form and is important for vision.

Tretinoin is the prescription form of skin cream or gel used to improve aging skin and lessen the effects of sun damage. Tretinoin reverses the effects of photodamage and aging in half the time as retinol.

Help for Aging Skin

Vitamin A’s current status as an antiaging skin marvel dates back to the 1980s, when researchers found that the derivative tretinoin (brand name Retin-A) helped boost collagen production in mice when applied topically to photoaged skin—that is, skin prematurely aged through exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun.

Coinciding with this discovery was the observation by doctors prescribing tretinoin for acne that patients had smoother skin, with fewer wrinkles. Tretinoin was later found to interfere with the enzymes that work to break down collagen in the dermal layer of skin and to promote the manufacture of new collagen.

Since then, retinoids have come to be known as the gold standard of topical antiaging products, according to the authors of a 2003 research review published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Tretinoin 

Tretinoin in various concentrations (usually 0.01%–0.1%) has been thoroughly studied in both short-term and long-term investigations, according to a lengthy 2006 review of Clinical Interventions in Aging.

While the oral version of vitamin A used in acne therapy, isotretinoin (brand name Accutane), also helped patients have smoother, pinker skin, Accutane carries a significant danger of birth defects.

Although topical tretinoin has not been shown in studies to pose the same threat, some case reports have suggested birth defects may develoop when used in the first trimester of pregnancy. Pregnant people are therefore cautioned against using the product.

The major complaint users have about tretinoin is the side effect now known as retinoid dermatitis. It causes redness, irritation, and scaling that may develop immediately or within a few weeks of starting treatment. Doctors often recommend beginning with a lower concentration (0.01%–0.025%) and applying it in small amounts every other day.

Switching from a gel to an emollient cream base may also ease skin irritation. Once you're able to tolerate tretinoid, applying it every day or using a more concentrated dose may become manageable.

Reverses Photoaging

Tretinoin seems to work best for minimizing fine facial lines and wrinkles, reducing rough, photoaged skin, and improving uneven pigmentation (coloration). It can take a few months for these positive results to appear, and the effects are dose-dependent, meaning stronger concentrations bring noticeable results more quickly.

For example, while a 0.05% concentration may significantly decrease the effects of photodamage, so will half that (or 0.025%), but the smaller dose will require a longer period of use. Concentrations of less than 0.01% have not been shown to help photoaged skin.

Other factors affecting how well tretinoin works include genetics, individual skin quality, and the extent of photodamage.

Other Vitamin A Derivatives

Tretinoin’s potential for causing skin irritation and its classification as a prescription drug have fueled much research by cosmetic and pharmaceutical manufacturers into related, less-potent compounds. Among these are retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinyl palmitate. Retinol is converted into tretinoin in the skin, but the resulting concentration is only 0.001 that of tretinoin (and therefore less irritating) when applied topically.

Many vitamin A derivatives developed for the antiaging skin-care market are proprietary formulas, meaning they are being made by private companies. They, therefore, are not backed by research published in scholarly journals and are difficult to review.

A Word From Verywell

Vitamin A products like topical tretinoin have been shown to reduce wrinkles, redness, and uneven pigmentation, although (ironically) they may cause redness and irritation in the short term.

If you want to try these products to reverse photoaging, consult with your dermatologist or other healthcare provider regarding a prescription. Over-the-counter products containing vitamin A derivatives may also work for aging skin, though their effects tend to be less dramatic and are tougher to verify.

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  • Aging Changes in Skin. US National Institutes of Health Medline Public Information Sheet. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/004014.htm
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  • Siddharth Mukherjee, Abhijit Date, Vandana Patravale, Hans Christian Korting, Alexander Roeder, and Günther Weindl. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. 2006 December; 1(4): 327–348
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  • Vitamin A. National Institutes of Health Medline Public Information Sheet. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/964.html