Using Vitamin A for Acne

Using Vitamin A for Acne

Acne is usually thought of as something related to teenagers and adolescence, but in reality it can follow us through our adult lives. It can be difficult to deal with – both physically and mentally – so it’s no doubt that a market has sprung up around removing stubborn spots and blemishes. Amongst these products is vitamin A – how can this humble vitamin deal with acne?

In this article we’ll explore vitamin A’s potential as an acne-fighting supplement, and whether it lives up to the hype. There’s a few facets of its effects on the body that may contribute to clearer skin, but to what extent?

What Exactly is Vitamin A?

A pertinent question – vitamin A includes a group of organic compounds that you may have heard of, including retinol and certain carotenoids like beta-carotene. That last compound may sound familiar – it’s the chemical that makes vegetables orange, most notably carrots and pumpkins. Making another link to one of carrot’s most well-known health benefits, vitamin A is known to contribute to eye health, supporting the corneas and being involved in the light-absorbing action of the retinas. It’s a common support for night blindness.

Elsewhere, vitamin A is a building block in many of the most important organs, like the liver and lungs. It’s also commonly taken to help with fertility issues in both men and women. There’s been a lot of talk and research into its ability to fight off certain cancers, but these claims (as should similar ones for most vitamins and minerals) should be taken with a grain of salt.

Deficiencies in vitamin A can occur, as we can only get it from our diets. This can cause sight issues, immunity problems and an issue pertinent to acne: hyperkeratosis – thickening of the outer layer of the skin. Of course, vitamin A does have an effect on the skin, but first let’s talk about…


It’s a condition we’re all very familiar with: collections of various types of spots and cysts on the face, back and sometimes chest of an individual, primarily caused by changing hormone levels. More specifically, oil-producing glands in those with acne are more sensitive to particular hormones. This, combined with dead skin cells getting trapped in pores, causes outbreaks of whiteheads and blackheads. There’s also a bacterial cause for acne which can multiply in oily skin and add to the severity of outbreaks.

There’s different kinds of spots and severities related to acne, none of which have a quick cure to them. Treatments are of the practical and sensible kind: don’t pick the spots, wash with specially-formulated soap twice a day and be patient with results. There are medical treatments for the most severe forms, but these are under strict control (one drug, isotretinoin, can cause serious mental health issues with prolonged use). The best the average person can hope for is to stay clean and conscious of your skin.

It stings that acne can have such an impact on the self-esteem of teenagers during an already confusing time in their life. Adults can also be hit with acne if another condition affects their hormone levels, such as PCOS. It’s only natural that treatments are sought for, so how effective is vitamin A?

Vitamin A and Skincare

As briefly mentioned, vitamin A does have an effect on the skin. Retinol is involved in the production of new skin cells – this is why a deficiency causes hyperkeratosis. A healthy amount in the body can keep skin from going dry and cracked. Vitamin A also affects the collagen in the skin, the protein that’s responsible for the elasticity of the skin. The vitamin stimulates the growth of collagen, especially so in populations with lower levels, such as naturally-aged or sun-damaged skin. This, of course, makes vitamin A recommended as an anti-ageing supplement.

Speaking of anti-ageing, the chemical precursors to vitamin A, such as beta-carotene, have an antioxidative effect on the body. This means they combat oxidative stress, a process that breaks down cells on an atomic level, which occurs more frequently with age. It visibly causes sagging via the breakdown of certain proteins; there’s a huge amount of anti-ageing formulas with vitamin A for this reason.

Vitamin A vs. Acne

So what can vitamin A do for acne itself? Well, it works in several ways to help combat the various symptoms and causes. Firstly, as it encourage skin growth, this can speed up the healing process, meaning damage caused by spots recovers faster and lessens any scarring that may occur. There’s also reports that vitamin A may reduce the production of sebum, the oil that causes spots. Research states that vitamin A is an anti-inflammatory for the skin, too. These three characteristics point to the vitamin being effective, but what does science say about its abilities?

At current, the research is positive, with many pieces pointing to vitamin A’s ability to help with acne. Studies have employed a range of methods when testing its efficacy over the decades of scientific observation. For example, one study from 1972 tested vitamin A alongside tetracycline, an antibiotic. Using the vitamin topically (applied directly to the skin) and tetracycline orally produced the best results against acne, compared to using each alone.

One place research usually splits is between topical and oral use of vitamin A. With oral doses, the effective dosage tends to be quite high, with some pieces of research commenting on how subjects veer into minor hypervitaminosis A – overdosing on the vitamin, causing a slightly toxic effect. While these effects aren’t enough to do any serious damage, the long-term effects have not been tested. Not to mention there may be a temptation to increases dosages.

Topical application is the preferred method, directly applying it to the affected areas. There’s been plenty of research that backs up the efficacy of the treatment against acne. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends “retinoids and retinoid-like drugs” as topical therapies (retinoids being the compounds that are converted into vitamin A). Topical vitamin A is particularly effective when it comes to inflammation, as we alluded to earlier: one study looked at high-resolution images of 577 patients during a 12-15 week treatment of various retinoids and found significant improvements with all treatments (some of the images can be found here).

There are some side effects with topical treatments, though. Dry skin, irritation, redness and peeling can occur during the first few weeks of treatment, but these usually peak during the first two weeks before subsiding. Using the cream every other day instead of daily can help the body acclimatise and minimise the side effects, or by mixing the cream with moisturiser to alleviate the dryness. Also be aware that during vitamin A treatments, the skin is much more sensitive to the sun; make sure you apply sunscreen to any exposed areas undergoing treatment.

Look out for specialised creams that contain retinol, retinoids or vitamin A – be warned that these can be expensive.


There’s plenty of evidence to show that vitamin A can indeed help with acne. The benefits of the vitamin seem to suit the treatment of spots extremely well, working as an antioxidant, lowering oil levels in the skin and promoting skin cell production. Saying that, increasing the vitamin A in your diet won’t work towards clearing your skin – you can put that extra serving of kale down.

The best way to tackle blemishes is direct application of retinoid cream to areas of acne. This can reduce the severity of blemishes measurable after around 15 weeks of use. And that’s without combining it with other ways to help acne, like washing with specific soaps.

Naturally, if you have any reservations about using retinoid treatments or have other skin conditions, consult a doctor before using any products.