Not all Vitamin A derivatives are created equal.
Any skincare company promising to stamp out wrinkles, eliminate brown spots or pigmentation or even clear up acne, will (or should) have some form of Vitamin A contained within the regimen.
Choosing the right vitamin A derivative for your skin can be confusing as not all vitamin A derivatives for the skin are created equal.
There’s a variety to choose from, and skincare companies don’t always choose the most effective. I’ve written briefly about the importance of vitamin A as an essential part of any good skincare regimen here. But today we are going a little bit deeper!
Where it all began?
It was the first of all the vitamins to be named, hence the very creative title of Vitamin A. The derivatives of vitamin A are known as retinoids (found in animal-based foods) and Carotenoids (found in plant-based foods). Vitamin A is essential for the health of, not just your skin (a necessary element in the production of enzymes that build your collagen) but also your vision, your immunity and an important antioxidant.
Back in the ’60s the forward-thinking (although at times unscrupulous) dermatologist Dr Albert Kligman M.D. PhD began experimenting with a form of Vitamin A (now known as tretinoin) as a topical application for the treatment of acne. Dr Kligman was indeed on to something, and tretinoin or Retin-A (the brand name) continues to be essential for the treatment of acne to this day.
But there was something else going on. Dr Kligman began to notice his acne patients had fewer lines and wrinkles compared with his other patients and so, with this finding came the birth and subsequent patent for Retin-A as the cure-all for many unwanted skin conditions.
Vitamin A does not discriminate.
Regardless of the skin issues or concerns you have, Vitamin A has a place in your skincare regimen. Acne, wrinkles, brown spots and hyper-pigmentation, can all be treated and with exceptional results. This clever nutrient can communicate with damaged cells to function normally again. Often referred to as DNA repair.
Your skin will have far better cell turnover, and your youth enzymes, essential for collagen synthesis will be switched on.
But, despite all this good news, choosing the best formulation can become a little tricky.
But first, how do they work?
When it comes to Vitamin A derivatives there is a conversion that must take place if your skin cells are to accept Vitamin A into the cell.
It looks something like the diagram below. Once inside the cell, the retinoic acid will do what it is intended to do, repair the cell structure.
Vitamin A Derivatives.
With all this in mind, an effective anti-aging skincare product will contain some form of Vitamin A and there are a variety of derivatives that can be used and they are the esters such as retinyl palmitate or acetate, the alcohol form known as retinol and retinaldehyde. They differ in their strength and effectiveness but also in the way they are converted into Retinoic Acid which is the only form of Vitamin A your body recognises and accepts into your cells via cell receptors. When this happens successfully all is well with the world. Happy skin cells!!
What to look for?
Retinoids – also known as the generic term of tretinoin or by brand names such as Retin-A or Differin and only available with a medical prescription. When applied topically it’s accepted directly into the skin cell without any conversion, which makes it a highly effective ingredient for the treatment of lines, wrinkles, hyper-pigmentation and acne.
However, there is a downside. It can be irritating to the skin. Redness, irritation and peeling of the skin are often experienced. With time and adjustments to the dose, this usually settles down, but you will need to exercise caution and you must wear sunscreen.
When it comes to retinoids like tretinoin it could be said that many consider the following to be true: If a little is good, more must be better. Right? No, not really, a pea size amount for the whole face is all you need. If the skin continues to be irritated then you really should consider taking a break or switching to a less irritating form of Vitamin A.
Retinol – the alcohol form of vitamin A is an OTC alternative. Many cosmeceutical skincare companies will opt for the use of retinol. The conversion to retinoic acid is a two-step process which inhibits the effectiveness, but despite this, retinol still packs enough of a punch and I have seen exceptional results using retinol in my own skin and in others and although there may be some mild irritation initially, this usually subsides once the skin becomes accustomed. This is a great alternative to retinoic acid for long-term use.
Retinyl Palmitate – The Ester of Vitamin A, is a combination of retinol and palmitic acid, which although converts to retinoic acid, the path is long and by the time it has converted has lost much of its ability to make any difference to the DNA of the cell. You would need a high concentration of retinyl palmitate for it to be significantly effective and most skincare brands who use retinyl palmitate as their sole source of vitamin A rarely put enough in the cream or serum.
It’s not enough to add a sprinkling of a derivative just so it can be added to the ingredient list and marketed as an anti-ageing solution!!
Unless retinyl palmitate is combined with other derivatives of vitamin A, then just adding it to the list of ingredients is inadequate if it appears so far down the list as to render it almost useless.
Having said all that, the Vitamin A Esters are a great introduction to the more powerful forms and offer the skin the Vitamin A it needs for environment protection and skin health. Once combined with other forms such as a Retinol Serum you will find you have a very powerful arsenal of Vitamin A in your bathroom cabinet and hopefully on your face.
Last, but absolutely not the least.
Retinaldehyde – This is an important and potent form of Vitamin A as it requires minimal conversion and causes very little if any irritation to the skin. In fact, as you can see by the diagram above, it only requires a one-step conversion and is seen by many as the closest to retinoic acid without all the irritating side effects or need for a prescription.
But again, you will need to take note of where it appears in the ingredient list. For retinaldehyde to be effective it needs to be in a concentration of 0.05% to 0.1% which is equivalent to a 0.025% tretinoin topical cream.
Unfortunately, retinaldehyde is an expensive ingredient so you’ll probably find most skincare formulations will be on the high-end in price (unless they’ve only included the tiniest amount) in which case it wouldn’t be as effective and could be a waste of money.
What else to look for.
Like most nutrients, Vitamin A is not stable and can lose its potency when interacting with sunlight, which is why you’ll need a daily topical dose both morning and night to ensure your skin does not become deficient.
There is no benefit to a cleanser with retinoids. To achieve the full benefit, and because of the protective properties retinoids provide they need to remain on your skin, not washed away.
Look for packaging that protects the stability of the ingredients where there is minimal exposure to air and light.
The best place to start is with a skincare professional who can recommend the best option for you. Sure, you could skip this and head to your local supermarket, but, it’s doubtful you’ll find any brand with enough of what you need to do anything more than (at best) provide you with antioxidant protection. Your skincare professional will go through any precautions you should take if you’re pregnant or have any other allergies or conditions that would prevent you from using topical vitamin A and will probably have a high-quality formulation on hand to recommend you.
Staying out of the sun.
As with any skincare regimen where the goal is to minimise and fight the signs of ageing, once retinoids are included in your routine you really should be considering a well-formulated SPF 15, 30 or 50+ sunscreen. No point going to all this effort just to ruin it with more sun damage. Right?
So that’s it for now. If vitamin A is not in your skincare routine then I highly recommend commencing soon, no matter what age, in fact when it comes to skin health and the prevention of dysfunctions like lines, wrinkles and pigmentation, the sooner the better.
If you’ve got a question you can always drop me an email over here.
See you next time,