Saturday, September 26, 2015 - 6:38am


Vitamin A is the dominant vitamin when it comes to skincare, playing a fundamental role in the control of the normal activities of skin cells.

From the scientist's point of view, vitamin A is much more like a hormone we get from food than a vitamin. Most vitamins are coenzymes and function mainly in metabolism. Vitamin A, on the other hand, is not a coenzyme - but it is important in controlling the normal activities of the DNA of the nucleus of the cell as well as the mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell.

Scientific research is uncovering the complex means by which DNA maintains the normal activities of skin cells, and, progressively, we are learning about the pivotal role vitamin A plays.

Vitamin A is normally found in skin predominantly as retinyl palmitate, which is an ester of vitamin A. An ester is the name applied to a chemical group of organic compounds, which consist of a combination of carbon and hydrogen atoms in a special configuration.

As early as 1935 it was pointed out that vitamin A deficiency probably developed in all areas of the skin exposed to the sun. The reason: vitamin A is extremely sensitive to sunlight, particularly UVA. Despite the development of modern sunscreens we are unable to protect skin sufficiently from UVA, so vitamin A is still damaged by exposure to light - even when you wear an SPF30 or 40.


In the 1930s, it was said that skin exposed to sunlight aged faster than skin protected from it because of the loss of vitamin A. By 1955, it was discovered that the application of vitamin A as retinyl palmitate to aged skin rejuvenates it to a small degree. Further research has shown that people who have suffered bad sunburn can be helped by the oral administration of vitamin A in high dosage.

Today, it is recognised that rejuvenation of the skin is possible by applying vitamin A to it - but there is confusion as to which of the many types to use.

Varieties of vitamin A

There are a number of related molecules with vitamin A activity, classed under the family name of retinoids.
  • Retinyl palmitate is the most common form of vitamin A, normally found in fish and animal livers (including human). It is a more stable storage form than other variants, provided it is not exposed to light. Retinyl palmitate accounts for about 80 per cent of the vitamin A found in the skin.
  • Retinal or retinyl aldehyde is the form essential for normal vision; a deficiency will lead to night blindness.
  • Retinol is the alcohol form of vitamin A, and is normally used to transport vitamin A from the liver to the tissues. It is bound to certain proteins in the bloodstream, then taken up by the various organs (especially skin); it is also necessary for forming healthy blood cells in bone marrow.
  • Retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin) is the acid form of vitamin A and has gained popularity along with notoriety. This is the most irritant form of vitamin A and is usually available only on a doctor's prescription.

There are numerous esters of vitamin A, the most commonly used are retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate. However, we can also use retinyl propionate and retinyl linoleate (a combination of vitamins A and F).

Vitamin A esters are less irritating and gentler on the skin and will eventually give the same result as using the more aggressive versions of the vitamin. This is because we have enzymes in the skin that convert the retinyl esters into retinol, which, in turn, is converted into retinal before being converted into retinoic acid.

Retinoic acid is the chemical that makes the changes in the DNA and cellular structures. However, only a tiny amount of retinoic acid is normally found in the skin. It also appears that the natural ability to store vitamin A in the skin determines the level of retinoic acid found in the cells. The more retinyl palmitate, the more retinoic acid gets pumped through the system. You can increase the amount of retinoic acid in the cells by increasing the amount of retinyl palmitate and other esters in the skin.

While cosmetics marketing often claims that one version of vitamin A - for example, retinol - is the real version and the most powerful, virtually all the retinol applied to the skin will be converted into retinyl palmitate and stored in the cells before gradually being converted back in the metabolic system to retinol, and, from there, to retinaldehyde and then on to retinoic acid.

Of all the versions of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate is the easiest to use and the kindest to skin, and will give gratifying results. Simply applying retinyl palmitate in high enough doses to increase the stores of vitamin A allows the natural metabolic mechanism to increase the amount of retinoic acid that gets into the nucleus of the cell and acts on the DNA.

While retinol and retinoic acid may make the skin photosensitive, retinyl palmitate does not. Since retinyl palmitate is the most vulnerable to damage by light, this is the version of vitamin A we should be restoring directly to the skin without employing the various enzymes required to convert other versions of vitamin A back to retinyl palmitate. Because retinyl palmitate is the least irritant to skin, more people will use it without difficulty and will continue to do so. Many who use retinol or retinoic acid stop doing so because they irritate skin at higher doses.

An 'A' a day

Vitamin A should be used daily, and if used during daylight hours it should be accompanied by antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamins C or E and beta-carotene, so it is relatively protected from ultra-violet light. A reliable UVA sunscreen should be used at the same time in preference to a high SPF ratio cream.

Because we cannot prevent the damage to the vitamin A in the skin, it is essential to replace the vitamin topically each day and evening so we do not gradually develop the signs of photo-ageing, which is also the sign of vitamin A deficiency in skin.

Some people mistakenly believe they can use vitamin C instead of vitamin A. Although vitamin C is an antioxidant, and it has some excellent metabolic actions, it cannot replace vitamin A. Nothing can take its place - and this is why everyone needs to replace vitamin A in their skin if they want it to look healthy and young. The message is: take preventative measures from childhood.

Night vision explained

Another version of vitamin A is beta-carotene - the plant version of vitamin A. Under normal circumstances, beta-carotene is maintained as beta-carotene and found in skin in fairly high concentrations. Beta-carotene levels are higher in oriental people than in westerners, which may account for the yellowish cast of their skin. Moreover, beta-carotene can be split into two molecules of retinal by enzymes in our body - and this is why vitamin A deficiency never occurs among vegetarians and is the basis for the story that carrots are good for night vision. That said, vitamin A deficiency is probably the most common deficiency in the world today.


'Because we cannot prevent the damage to the vitamin A in the skin, it is essential to replace the vitamin topically each day and evening'


Des Fernandes is a leading South African plastic surgeon and founder of the Environ skincare range. He has been a pioneer in the use of vitamins to treat, normalise and protect skin

Copyright Reed Business Information UK Feb 2006
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