Who would have thought that the first letter of the alphabet could cause so much confusion when it comes to skin care ingredients?
Vitamin A is a term for the many related compounds which are also known as retinoids. The vitamin A family is almost as extensive as a big Greek wedding. It includes retinol, retinal or retin-A, retinoids and naturally occurring vitamin A.
Vitamin A and its derivatives are one of the most misunderstood and controversial ingredients. It's implicated in liver toxicity, birth defects and cancer. On the flip side, vitamin A is touted as a miracle skin care ingredient that you shouldn't be without. Whilst vitamin A is essential to our health and well-being, too much of anything can cause issues.
WHAT MAKES VITAMIN A SO EFFECTIVE AS AN ANTI-AGEING INGREDIENT?
Vitamin A and its derivatives are known as the gold standard when it comes to incredible skin rejuvenating ingredients. They have more anti-ageing skin benefits than just about any other compound. Dependent on the strength and formulation, retinoids work through the mechanism of inhibiting the enzymes that break down collagen and increase cellular turnover, resulting in a softening of fine lines and wrinkles.
Vitamin A can also work to fight acne by dissolving surface oil and diminishing pores, as well as evening out the skin tone by fading dark spots and reducing pigmentation. In short, vitamin A in the correct dosage and formulation, can give you a rosy, glowing complexion.
BETA-CAROTENE OR PROVITAMIN A
Provitamins or natural precursors of vitamin A include alpha carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. They are a precursor to vitamin A, which means it converts to vitamin A in the body.
HOW IT WORKS
The retinoic acid slow-releases as the retinol in the formula is converted into retinoic acid within the skin. Beta-carotene is known to combat and prevent skin disorders like acne, eczema and psoriasis. It can protect against melasma by affecting the production of skin pigment. It’s a powerful antioxidant and can also protect against sun damage and assist with wound healing, as well as soothing dry and flaky skin.
RETINAL (RETINALDEHYDE)Retinal or retinaldehyde is the aldehyde form of vitamin A and is purported to be the most effective for your skin. It’s the transitional form of A and is created in the conversion of retinol to retinoid or retinoic acid.
HOW IT WORKSIt can assist with minimising the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It’s less commonly used in skincare formulations, as this form can be irritating even at very low doses. It should be using sparingly and slowly introduced into your night time routine.
RETINYL PALMITATE AND RETINYL ACETATE
These are the most common ester forms of vitamin A. They work primarily as antioxidants and convert to retinol. They are more stable in light and are less irritating than retinol, but generally, not as effective. Your body stores around 80% retinyl palmitate as vitamin A found in your skin.
RETINOIC ACID OR TRETINOINIs a prescription-only synthetic derivative of vitamin A. It contains retinoic acid in its purest form.
HOW IT WORKS
When applied to the skin, the body can utilise the retinoic acid immediately without having to first metabolise vitamin A. For this reason, it’s classified as a drug. Studies have verified that repeated application of retinoic acid can inhibit collagen breakdown in the presence of UV exposure, reverse the effects of photo ageing, stimulate blood vessels and inhibit precancerous skin cells. It can also reduce visible signs of ageing, but the downside includes inflammation, burning, scaling and peeling that can last for a few weeks. Yikes!
This form of A is medical grade and used in a clinical situation as a peel. In higher doses, it's best executed under the guidance of a qualified esthetician or therapist. Take note, you will need some down time and you will need to avoid the sun for some time after this type of peel.
(A side note: I tried this type of peel in a professional setting around three years ago and my skin has never quite recovered. Whilst at first, it gave me a fresh, resurfaced canvas, longterm, I believe that this treatment was the catalyst for ongoing dermal impairment and even mild rosacea.)
RETINOLRetinol is the alcohol form of vitamin A and is a gentler alternative to retinoic acid. It’s also the most useable form of A and absorbs easily. In its natural form, it’s found in egg yolks and fish liver oil. It’s formed in the body by the hydrolysis of retinyl esters.
HOW IT WORKS
Retinol is stored until it's required. When applied topically, it’s converted to retinoic acid that works to target free radicals, boost collagen levels and improve cell turnover. It triggers the protein glycosaminoglycan (GAG) production and is thought to stimulate the proliferation of elastin. It can assist with diminishing the signs of ageing by increasing skin thickness, combating acne and reducing sun damage.
DO YOU STILL NEED TO BUILD A TOLERANCE TO VITAMIN A?
Any forms of A that are listed above are best introduced slowly so that the skin can develop vitamin A receptors to allow for the uptake of retinol. Almost all of the above forms can cause redness, dryness and flaky skin and it can also make your skin more receptive to sun damage.
HYDROXYPINACOLONE RETINOATE (HPR) - THE NEW GENERATION IN RETINOIDS
HPR is an ester of retinoic acid and works in a similar way to tretinoin (retin–A) minus the irritation profile. This is the form of active A found in our Vital A Elixir.
HOW IT WORKS
Unlike retinoic acid, results of the standard skin irritation test showed no irritation after 21 days of continual use and, since it’s not a drug, it can be incorporated into over the counter cosmetic products. Unlike retinol and other derivatives that must be converted to the biologically active form of retinoic acid, HPR binds directly with retinoid receptors initiating a cellular response. Comparatively, retinol and retinyl palmitate must first be converted to retinoic acid.The Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate shows efficient diffusion through the stratum corneum comparable to prescription retinoic acid. It interacts with the retinoid receptors with no evidence of a hydrolysis or breakdown to Retinoic Acid which speaks to the retinoic activity of the molecule itself.
HPR is concentrated and is formulated into anhydrous matrix containing 10% of the pinacolyl ester of all trans retinoic acid in a premium delivery solvent dimethyl isosorbide (as opposed to glycols) which makes it one of the most bioavailable forms of non-prescriptive A. It has shown to be effective in decreasing the effects of UV induced skin damage and clearing acne related symptoms minus the irritation of other forms of A when used at high percentages.
WHERE IS NATURALLY OCCURRING VITAMIN A FOUND?
The vitamin A form found in fruits and vegetables is called 'provitamin A carotenoid' (beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin) and can be converted into retinol in the body. Plant based oils that contain high concentrations of naturally occurring A and are found in our Vital A Elixir include: lycopene (tomatoes), carrot, rosehip, avocado, apricot, buriti and sea buckthorn berry oil. They are good alternatives to synthetic retinol and have a high vitamin A and retinoic-acid content that provides the skin with retinol benefits, minus any side effects.
VITAMIN A & PREGNANCY
If you’re pregnant (or planning to be) or breastfeeding then it’s recommended to avoid using vitamin A, as it can be absorbed through the skin. High doses of vitamin A have been found to cause birth defects in animals so best to err on the side of caution.
WHAT IS THE EFFECT OF SUNLIGHT WHEN USING VARIOUS FORMS OF VITAMIN A?
A study by U.S. government scientists suggests that retinyl palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight. This particular form of A and other vitamin A ingredients found in skin care could contribute to vitamin A toxicity due to excessive exposure. The evidence for these effects, while not definitive, is troubling. According to EWG, over 30% of sunscreens contain retinyl palmitate.
CAN YOU OVERUSE VITAMIN A?
It is possible to overuse vitamin, but most importantly you need to be careful when you use it. A very common side effect of retinol is that your skin is more vulnerable to sun damage. Incorporate the use of A into your evening routine and wear a good moisturiser with a high concentration (more than 15%) of zinc oxide.
ARE THERE OTHER HEALTH FACTORS TO BE AWARE OF?
Beware that many over-the-counter retinoids are usually preserved with parabens and butylated hydroxytoluene. A 2002 International Journal of Toxicology report linked short-term repeated exposure of BHT to toxic effects in the liver when applied to skin. The findings were serious enough that in 2015, US cereal manufacturer General Mills made the decision to remove BHT from its cereal products.
In conventional beauty products, there’s no transparency about BHT in retinoids; even the raw-material suppliers don’t know whether their retinols contain BHT, so it can show up in finished products and won’t be listed on the label.
Side effects of overusing A are not easily treated as toxicity is a gradual build up. It's best to exercise caution and follow the guidelines listed above or just choose a safer form of A as found in out Vital A Elixir.