Vitamin A products, including retinol and Retin-A, have been called the "gold standard" of anti-aging skin care, helping your skin look younger and smoother. But how were these ingredients developed, and how effective are they for treating wrinkles, and aging skin?
A crucial vitamin: The importance of vitamin A to our health was uncovered early in the 20th century, with the discovery of its role in the viability of an embryo. Since then, it’s been found to be a major player not just in reproduction, but also vision, growth, and cell differentiation and proliferation. Because it helps the production of white blood cells, vitamin A is necessary for a healthy immune system.
Vitamin A is also known as retinol, and its derivatives (whether natural or manufactured) are called retinoids. Because this vitamin cannot be synthesized by the body, it needs to be consumed in food -- either through animal sources, like egg yolks, fish, liver and meat, or plant sources, like darkly colored fruits and vegetables including sweet potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes.
Help for Aging Skin: Vitamin A’s current status as an anti-aging skin marvel dates back to the 1980s, when researchers found that the derivative tretinoin (brand name Retin-A) helped boost collagen production in mice when applied topically to photoaged skin -- that is, skin prematurely aged through exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun. Coinciding with this discovery was the observation by doctors prescribing tretinoin for acne that patients had smoother skin, with fewer wrinkles. Tretinoin was later found to interfere with the enzymes that work to break down collagen in the dermal layer of skin, and to promote the manufacture of new collagen.
Since then, retinoids have come to be known as the “gold standard” of topical anti-aging products, according to the authors of a 2003 research review published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.
Tretinoin - the good, bad and the ugly: Tretinoin in various concentrations (usually 0.01 – 0.1%) has been thoroughly studied in both short-term and long-term investigations, according to a lengthy 2006 review in Clinical Interventions in Aging.
While the ingested version of vitamin A used in acne therapy, isotretinoin (brand name Accutane), also helped patients have smoother, pinker skin, oral isotretinoin carries a significant danger of birth defects. Though topical tretinoin has not been shown in studies to pose the same threat, some case reports have suggested birth defects among women using tretinoin on their skin in the first trimester of pregnancy. Women are therefore cautioned against using the product while pregnant.
The major complaint users have about tretinoin is the side effect now known as retinoid dermatitis, involving redness, irritation and scaling that may develop immediately or within a few weeks of starting treatment. Doctors often recommend beginning with a lower concentration (0.01 – 0.025%), and applying it in small amounts every other day. Switching from a gel to an emollient cream base may also ease the skin irritation. Once tolerance has been built up, applying the tretinoin every day and/or using a more concentrated dose may be more manageable.
Reverses photoaging: Tretinoin seems most effective for minimizing fine facial lines and wrinkles, reducing rough, photoaged skin, and improving uneven pigmentation. It can take a few months for these positive results to appear, and the effects are dose-dependent, meaning stronger concentrations bring noticeable results more quickly. For example, while a 0.05% concentration may significantly decrease the effects of photodamage, so will half of that (or 0.025%), but the latter will require a longer period of time. Concentrations of less than 0.01% have not been shown to help photoaged skin.
Other factors affecting how well tretinoin works include genetics, individual skin quality, and the extent of photodamage.
Other vitamin A derivatives: Tretinoin’s potential for causing skin irritation and its classification as a drug (requiring a prescription) has fueled much research by cosmetic and pharmaceutical manufacturers into related, less potent compounds. Among these are retinol, retinaldehyde, and retinyl palmitate. Retinol is converted into tretinoin in the skin, though the resulting concentration is only 1/1000 that of tretinoin (and therefore less irritating) when applied topically.
Many vitamin A derivatives developed for the anti-aging skincare market are proprietary formulas -- without research published in scholarly journals -- and are therefore difficult to review.
Bottom line: Vitamin A products like topical tretinoin have been shown to reduce wrinkles, redness, and uneven pigmentation, although (ironically) they may cause redness and irritation in the short term. If you want to try them to reverse photoaging, consult your health-care provider or see a dermatologist for a prescription. Over-the-counter products containing vitamin A derivatives may also work for aging skin, though their effects tend to be less dramatic, and are tougher to verify.
Aging Changes in Skin. US National Institutes of Health Medline Public Information Sheet. Accessed April 30, 2012.
Kockaert M, Neumann M. Systemic and topical drugs for aging skin. J Drugs Dermatol. 2003 Aug;2(4):435-41.
Siddharth Mukherjee, Abhijit Date, Vandana Patravale, Hans Christian Korting, Alexander Roeder, and Günther Weindl. Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clin Interv Aging. 2006 December; 1(4): 327–348
Vitamin A. National Institutes of Health Medline Public Information Sheet. Accessed April 27, 2011.