The Health Benefits of Beta Carotene

Beta carotene is a type of carotenoid, a pigment found in plants that gives them their intense color. It is orange-yellow and is found in yellow, orange, and red foods. In the body, beta-carotene is transformed into vitamin A, which is needed by the body to support healthy vision, immunity, cell division, and other functions.

This article will cover the current research and understanding of how beta carotene affects the body and which foods are good sources of this antioxidant.

Chopping carrots, a food source of beta carotene

alvarez / Getty Images

What Is Beta Carotene?

Carotenoids are a group of yellow, orange, or red pigments. They can be found in fruits, vegetables, fungi, and flowers, among other living things. Beta carotene is a type of carotenoid found in vegetables such as carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, spinach, and kale.

Carotenoids

There are many kinds of carotenoids that are broadly considered to belong to one of two groups called xanthophylls and carotenes. Carotenes that are changed to vitamin A in the body include alpha carotene, beta carotene, and beta cryptoxanthin.

Xanthophylls include lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene. These carotenoids do not convert into vitamin A.

Health Benefits

Beta carotene is a compound that is converted by the body into vitamin A. Vitamin A has a number of important functions in the body.

Reduces Oxidative Stress

Beta carotene is an antioxidant. There are many types of antioxidants, including both artificial and natural. Natural antioxidants can be found in plants. Antioxidants are thought to slow the damage to cells from waste materials called free radicals. 

Free radicals are created in the body through normal body processes and outside stress in the environment. When free radicals aren’t being removed effectively, a condition called oxidative stress can result. 

Oxidative stress may factor into several types of health conditions, including:

  • Cancer: The growth of malignant cells in the body
  • Cardiovascular disease: Includes conditions that affect the heart and the blood vessels 
  • Diabetes: A chronic disease in which the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar
  • Inflammatory diseases: Those caused by persistent inflammation in the body
  • Infectious diseases: Such as an infection with a bacterium 
  • Neurodegenerative diseases: Affect the brain, such as dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease

Antioxidants like beta carotene may help remove free radicals, thereby preventing the conditions free radicals may cause.

Promotes Eye Health

Vitamin A is important to sight. It helps prevent eye infections by supporting the creation of a barrier around the cornea that stops bacteria from getting in. 

Beta carotene helps in preventing night blindness and dry eye. It may play a role in preventing age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD is an eye condition that causes blurry vision, most commonly in people over the age of 50.

Vitamin A deficiency might lead to night blindness (nyctalopia), which is a difficulty in seeing in low-light conditions. Increasing vitamin A or beta carotene with either supplements or through foods may be helpful.

Improves Cognitive Function

Beta carotene may help with brain function, but the research on this is not settled. Some studies have shown that taking beta carotene supplements over an average of 18 years might improve cognitive function. Taking the supplements for shorter time periods does not appear to produce any effects.

Maintains Skin Health

Beta carotene may help in protecting the skin from the sun's harmful rays. However, this requires taking beta carotene in higher amounts for a long period of time.

Too much beta carotene can cause health problems, so it’s not usually recommended for sun protection. The exception would be for people who have diseases that are affected significantly by exposure to the sun (such as erythropoietic protoporphyria) or who are taking medications that cause sun sensitivity.

Beta carotene and other carotenoids may also help keep skin healthy overall by protecting it from ultraviolet (UV) light and pollution. Because UV light exposure and pollution can cause the skin to age, sun protection, including from the benefits of carotenoids, can keep skin healthy and looking younger longer.

May Prevent Certain Cancers

A diet rich in foods containing antioxidants like beta carotene may help lower cancer rates. Some studies show that people who eat foods containing beta carotene or who have higher levels of beta carotene in their blood have lower rates of lung, skin, colon, breast, and prostate cancers.

However, the relationship between beta carotene and cancer is not cut-and-dried. Experts have not recommended beta carotene supplements to the general populace as they don't think it would help prevent many cases of cancer. The way beta carotene interacts with the body is too complex and not yet well understood.

Supports Lung Health

Vitamin A is important in the healthy function of the lungs. Vitamin A deficiency may be a factor in the development or worsening of some lung diseases. For that reason, getting enough beta carotene, which becomes vitamin A in the body, is important to the lungs.

However, there is another side to the story. Studies have shown that taking beta carotene supplements increases the risk of lung cancer in people who smoke cigarettes.

Foods High in Beta Carotene

Many fruits and vegetables that are red, yellow, or orange have high amounts of beta carotene. However, some green foods are also good sources.

Some of the foods that are sources of beta carotene include:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Spinach
  • Collards
  • Kale
  • Carrots
  • Turnip greens
  • Mustard greens
  • Butternut squash
  • Swiss chard

Dosage

It’s estimated that most people in the United States don’t get enough beta carotene. Some medical professionals recommend about 2 milligrams of beta carotene daily. The highest amount considered safe is about 7 milligrams daily. However, beta carotene supplements are not currently recommended for general use.

Food vs. Supplements

Getting enough beta carotene through food rather than a supplement is always recommended. Higher doses of beta carotene may be recommended, but this should only be done under the recommendation and supervision of a healthcare provider.

Possible Side Effects

Taking beta carotene supplements in high doses could make the skin appear yellow or orange. Higher doses are also associated with the risk of some cancers. This is especially true in people who are at higher risk of cancer after exposure to asbestos or for those who smoke.

Getting beta carotene through food sources, which is recommended, has not been shown to have the same risk of side effects as taking supplements has.

Drug Interactions

Beta carotene supplements may interact with niacin, lutein, and Xenical or Alli (orlistat). The amount of beta carotene in the body may be lowered in those who drink more than a moderate amount of alcohol or eat foods containing olestra (a fat substitute).

What to Look for in Beta Carotene Supplements

If your healthcare provider recommends supplementing with beta carotene, look for the following in a supplement:

  • It’s manufactured by a company that has its product tested by a third party.
  • The label contains an expiration date.
  • There are no ingredients in the supplement that you don’t need.
  • Look for products stamped with the Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) or National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) on the label.

Summary

Beta carotene is important to overall health because it is the precursor to vitamin A. However, taking supplements is not recommended for the majority of people. Instead, people are encouraged to eat foods that contain beta carotene.

A Word From Verywell

Most of the research on beta carotene doesn’t show any dramatic benefits from supplementation. In fact, there’s a concern that for some people, taking supplements of beta carotene is harmful. There are some reasons people might take a supplement, but these are not common and it would only be done with the guidance of a healthcare provider. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is beta carotene the same as vitamin A?

    Beta carotene is not the same as vitamin A. It is called "provitamin A." The body makes vitamin A from beta carotene and other carotenoids. 

  • Is beta carotene bad for your health?

    No. Beta carotene from foods is an important part of a healthy diet. However, supplementing with high amounts of beta carotene may have different health effects. How each person will react to it will be based on a number of things that are specific to them.

    The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that people don’t take beta carotene to prevent cancer or heart disease. Check with your healthcare provider about supplements such as beta carotene. 

  • Is beta carotene good for your hair?

    It can be, as it is made into vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is important to cell growth, including hair cells. A vitamin A deficiency may lead to problems with hair, among other things. However, too much vitamin A may also cause hair loss.  

  • Do carotenoids lighten the skin?

    No carotenoids do not lighten skin. Too much beta carotene or other carotenoids may cause the skin to have a yellow cast

15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rudrapal M, Khairnar SJ, Khan J, et al. Dietary polyphenols and their role in oxidative stress-induced human diseases: Insights into protective effects, antioxidant potentials and mechanism(s) of action. Front Pharmacol. 2022;13:806470. doi:10.3389/fphar.2022.806470.

  2. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is vitamin A deficiency?

  3. Wu J, Cho E, Willett WC, Sastry SM, Schaumberg DA. Intakes of lutein, zeaxanthin, and other carotenoids and age-related macular degeneration during 2 decades of prospective follow-up. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2015;133:1415-1424. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2015.3590. 

  4. Rutjes AW, Denton DA, Di Nisio M, et al. Vitamin and mineral supplementation for maintaining cognitive function in cognitively healthy people in mid and late life. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;12(12):CD011906. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD011906.pub2. 

  5. Balić A, Mokos M. Do we utilize our knowledge of the skin protective effects of carotenoids enough? Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8:259. doi:10.3390/antiox8080259. 

  6. Baswan SM, Klosner AE, Weir C, et al. Role of ingestible carotenoids in skin protection: A review of clinical evidence. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. 2021;37:490-504. doi:10.1111/phpp.12690. 

  7. Black HS, Boehm F, Edge R, Truscott TG. The benefits and risks of certain dietary carotenoids that exhibit both anti- and pro-oxidative mechanisms-a comprehensive review. Antioxidants (Basel). 2020;9:264. doi:10.3390/antiox9030264. 

  8. Timoneda J, Rodríguez-Fernández L, Zaragozá R, et al. Vitamin A deficiency and the lung. Nutrients. 2018;10(9):1132. doi:10.3390/nu10091132

  9. Middha P, Weinstein SJ, Männistö S, Albanes D, Mondul AM. β-Carotene supplementation and lung cancer incidence in the Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Study: the role of tar and nicotine. Nicotine Tob Res. 2019;21(8):1045-1050. doi:10.1093/ntr/nty115

  10. Department of Agriculture. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Release 28.  

  11. MedlinePlus. Beta-carotene.

  12. Böhm V, Lietz G, Olmedilla-Alonso B, et al. From carotenoid intake to carotenoid blood and tissue concentrations - implications for dietary intake recommendations. Nutr Rev. 2021;79:544-573. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuaa008. 

  13. US Preventive Services Task Force, Mangione CM, Barry MJ, et al. Vitamin, mineral, and multivitamin supplementation to prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer: US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. JAMA. 2022;327(23):2326-2333. doi:10.1001/jama.2022.8970

  14. Almohanna HM, Ahmed AA, Tsatalis JP, Tosti A. The role of vitamins and minerals in hair loss: a review. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2019;9(1):51-70. doi:10.1007/s13555-018-0278-6

  15. Nagaoka T. Observation of skin color change by carotenosis in hyperlipidemia patient. Cardiovasc Eng Technol. 2021;12(5):539-540. doi:10.1007/s13239-021-00539-6

Additional Reading