Here we are, asking the retinoid question—again! Let me give you the straight answer: There is no straight answer. So let's focus on the other questions instead, and then you can see what feels right for you.
What is Vitamin A?
Natural sources of dietary vitamin A, also called retinoids, come from animals and plants. Animal-derived retinoids (retinol, retinal, and retinyl esters) come from liver, some fish, egg yolks, heavy cream, and butter. Plant-derived vitamin A comes in the form of carotenoid provitamins like beta-carotene (carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, kale, broccoli) and must be converted by the body into a usable form. Vitamin A is then used for reproductive development, vision, immunity, and cell function and division.
In skin care, vitamin A also has many names. Retin-A (tretinoin) is the name most people know and was the first, patented version of a cream containing retinoic acid. It was initially used to treat acne, with moderate success for many people but had the unexpected side effect of much younger-looking skin with long-term use. Can I get a cha-ching?
Why would I use Vitamin A on my skin?
It turns out that retinoids do a lot of good stuff for your skin! Proven benefits (by many randomized, controlled, double-blind studies) include the following:
- Increased cell turnover—fewer breakouts, better skin tone, glowing complexion.
- Increased production and decreased breakdown of collagen—firmer skin, fewer wrinkles.
- Increased glycosaminoglycans (GAGS) in the skin—greater hydration, stronger skin.
Why would I NOT use it?
Sigh. There are a number of factors worth considering:
Retinoid toxicity may be an issue. The jury is still out on whether retinoids, when used in small amounts on the skin, are truly carcinogenic or teratogenic. Side effects are a big problem. Dry, flaky, tight red skin when using retinoids can be very uncomfortable. There are workarounds—lower concentration, decreased frequency—but some people still struggle to make their skin accept the plan.
Other ingredients alongside the retinoic acid can be more toxic than the retinoid itself. Most prescription products have parabens, ethoxylated ingredients, and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). Commercial, nonprescription retinol products may also have fragrance, artificial colors, and petrochemicals. When your skin is deeply exfoliated, it is much more sensitive to sun. Retinyl palmitate, an over-the-counter vitamin A option and an ingredient in many sunscreens, may accelerate certain skin cancers. The evidence is inconclusive at present, but the EWG and the National Toxicology Program are not fans.
How can I use it on my skin?
There are three options:
- Prescription retinoids work most quickly (4 to 12 weeks) with the most side effects. There are newer, receptor-specific retinoids (tazarotene, adapalene) that are gentler but come with parabens and PEGs and other undesirables. Read your labels.
- Over-the-counter retinol products have a wide spectrum of efficacy and ingredient quality. Retinol itself is unstable, must be packaged properly, and is often combined with BHT. It's also 20 times less potent than tretinoin, so adjust your expectations—you'll wait longer for results.
- Natural oils that are high in carotenoids, vitamin A, or similar active ingredients are becoming increasingly popular. Oils from rosehip seed, sea buckthorn berry, argan, black currant, and broccoli seed can provide retinoid-esque benefits, albeit much more slowly.
Should I use it?
Only you can decide what's right for you. What's your priority? If you're out to decrease wrinkles and sun damage (and not considering pregnancy) then retinoid therapy is worth a try. If being totally nontoxic and natural is higher on your list, then most retinoid formulations are out, and you'll probably want to consider a botanical oil high in vitamin A and carotenoids.
Can I get benefits through my diet?
Yes, but not to the same extent when it comes to skin appearance. That said, a diet high in carotenoids has been shown to decrease the risk of multiple cancers (breast, ovarian, colorectal, and cervical), and the incidence of certain eye diseases. So why not incorporate the dietary vitamin A no matter what you do with your skin? Don't go for the supplements, though—they carry a higher risk of toxicity and overdose.
The best green brands for vitamin A.
For green beauty lovers who aren't afraid to give real retinol a try, Marie Veronique makes a retinol serum, and Goop makes a face cream with retinyl palmitate. YÜLI makes a serum with a plant-based "bio-retinol complex," and REN uses bakuchiol, a botanical extract with alleged retinol-like activity. RMS Beauty, Pai Skincare, and Osmia all make beautiful, organic oil serums with rosehip seed oil, rich in vitamin A and carotenoids.