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Ask an expert: Vitamin A for acne

Studies show topical vitamin A treats and helps prevent breakouts. Here’s how to incorporate it into your routine.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
Vitamin A for acne
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Acne can be stubborn to treat, but it’s not impossible to improve! One great solution you may have heard of is retinoids—vitamin A derivatives that include tretinoin and adapalene. These superstar ingredients are used in dermatology to help address several skin concerns, including fine lines and wrinkles. But what is the efficacy of vitamin A for acne? Here’s how topical and oral vitamin A might help and how you can incorporate it into your daily skincare routine. 

What is acne? 

Acne is a common, chronic, and inflammatory skin condition that affects approximately 50 million people in the United States. It affects many teenagers but may occur in adults and children, too. Acne is characterized by both open and closed comedones—blackheads and whiteheads, respectively—and inflammatory lesions such as nodules (aka cysts), papules, and pustules.¹

What is vitamin A?

Vitamin A comprises fat-soluble retinoids such as retinol and retinyl esters. An essential nutrient and antioxidant, it’s a key player in bodily processes related to growth and development, cellular communication, immune function, and reproduction. It helps organs form properly and is essential for vision. 

Dietary vitamin A comes from two primary sources. Preformed vitamin A (such as retinol and retinyl esters) is found in fish, eggs, dairy, and organ meats. Provitamin A carotenoids are plant pigments that are converted into vitamin A by the body.² Carotenoids are powerful antioxidant substances that play an essential role in neutralizing potentially harmful free radicals in the skin.³

Is vitamin A good for acne?

When treating acne with vitamin A, studies support the use of topical derivatives. While you should avoid taking oral vitamin A supplements for acne due to potential side effects, isotretinoin (a vitamin A derivative) is one of the most effective oral acne treatments. Isotretinoin, previously sold under the brand name Accutane, treats acne, but it may cause side effects. You should not take high doses of vitamin A without medical supervision because it can be dangerous. 

Topical vitamin A derivatives for acne include topical retinoids like tretinoin, also known as Retin-A. Tretinoin “unseats” comedones and can help prevent the formation of new pimples, whiteheads, and blackheads. In controlled studies of patients with acne, topical application of vitamin A improved acne in three-quarters of patients.⁴

Potential benefits of using topical vitamin A derivatives for acne (and other skin concerns) include the following:⁵ 

  • Prevents clogged pores: Topical vitamin A derivatives help keep pores unclogged and have been found to be beneficial against comedonal acne.

  • Decreased inflammation: Topical vitamin A derivatives may reduce inflammation. Acne is an inflammatory skin condition, so it may reduce inflammation associated with breakouts. 

  • Smoothing and protecting skin: Topical vitamin A has been shown to help improve fine lines and wrinkles, roughness, and hyperpigmentation, and regular use can help protect your skin from visible photodamage.

How to use vitamin A for acne 

Many dermatology providers prescribe vitamin A derivatives as the first line of defense against acne, aging, and other skin concerns. There are several ways to use vitamin A and its derivatives to treat acne, including topically, orally, and through diet. Here’s a breakdown of each option:   

Topical retinoids

Topical retinoids are vitamin A derivatives, and recent studies support their use in treating acne. Your dermatology provider may prescribe you one of these options:

Each type of retinoid binds to a different set of retinoic acid receptors, so there are slight differences in how effective these retinoids are and how well your skin may tolerate them.⁶ If you’re wondering how much vitamin A to use for acne, our experts recommend applying a pea-sized amount or enough to cover your face and neck in a thin layer.  

Oral vitamin A derivatives 

Isotretinoin, formerly known by the brand name Accutane, is a potent prescription medication that delivers a high dose of vitamin A. It is an isomer of retinoic acid approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating severe acne vulgaris. It can decrease sebum production, acne lesions, and acne scarring, and it has effectively been used to reduce treatment-resistant acne. 

Treatment with isotretinoin must be carefully overseen by a medical or dermatology provider, as it can lead to adverse effects.⁷ Due to its potential side effects, isotretinoin is not a suitable substitute for everyone.

Nutrition

Dietary vitamin A is necessary for your overall health, but consuming it through food is less effective at treating acne and other skin concerns than topical or oral vitamin A derivatives. If you’re over the age of 19, it’s recommended that you consume approximately 700 micrograms daily. Excellent sources of vitamin A include beef liver, carrots, dairy products, broccoli, and spinach. Insufficient vitamin A in your diet can result in phrynoderma, a condition that causes excess keratin in hair follicles, denoted by lesions on the elbows, thighs, and buttocks.⁸ At the same time, too much vitamin A can lead to carotenemia, causing yellow-orange skin.⁹

Always remember: Vitamin A intake must be monitored by your healthcare or dermatology provider, as consuming or applying it to your skin in excess may cause damage.¹⁰

Curology is a great choice for acne

I was made for you box

Curology is a full-service skincare company offering products made with proven effective ingredients, including those that treat acne. Everyone’s skin is unique, which is why we recommend seeking professional advice to treat your acne before making significant changes to your routine. 

Curology provides an easy way to get a skincare consultation. Our experts will help take the guesswork out of your skincare routine by creating a personalized prescription formula to help you meet your skincare goals. Our personalized prescription formulas can include active ingredients such as tretinoin, a topical vitamin A derivative.

Signing up is easy. Just answer a few questions and snap some selfies to help us get to know your skin better. If Curology is right for you, we’ll pair you with one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers to start you on your skincare journey.

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P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Zaenglein, A., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016).

  2. Vitamin A and Carotenoids. National Institutes of Health. (2022).

  3. Darvin, M.E., et al. The Role of Carotenoids in Human Skin. Molecules. (2011).

  4. Heel, R.C., et al. Vitamin A acid: a review of its pharmacological properties and therapeutic use in the topical treatment of acne vulgaris. Drugs. (1977).

  5. Keller, K., Fenske, N. Uses of vitamins A, C, and E and related compounds in dermatology: A review. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (1998).

  6. Zaenglein, A., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Ibid.

  7. Zaenglein, A., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Ibid.

  8. Bleasel, N., et al. Vitamin A deficiency phrynoderma: Due to malabsorption and inadequate diet. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (1999).

  9. Al Nasser, Y., et al. Carotenemia. StatPearls. (2022).

  10. Cook, M., et al. Oral Vitamin A for Acne Management: A Possible Substitute for Isotretinoin. J Drugs Dermatol. Ibid.

Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. 

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Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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