Understanding Retinoids & Vitamin A and what is best for your skin

May 25, 2021

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

Vitamin A and Vitamin C are the two most studied vitamins to show positive benefits to not only our overall health but specifically our skin. In my previous post about Inflammaging (to read, click HERE), I explained the importance of protecting our telomeres and how Vitamin A has been shown to restore our telomeres to a more youthful state, while also down-regulating and reducing telomerase enzymes in cancer cells.

Understanding Retinoids & Vitamin A and what is best for your skin

So in this article, we will explore the chemistry and benefits of Vitamin A and how we can incorporate it into our skincare routines.

What is so great about Vitamin A?

Vitamin A is necessary for the formation of healthy blood cells in the bone marrow and for making healthy bones. In fact, vitamin A is essential for every cell of the body. The real significance of vitamin A in skin ageing is that it is very easily degraded by exposure to light and air. The skin most commonly exposed to light, such as our face, neck and hands, show the effects of vitamin A deficiency caused by sunlight destroying the vitamin A molecule. However, there is no alternative to it because it is the vitamin that works intimately and naturally with our DNA to determine how stem cells behave, how cells differentiate into specific cells, and how they mature into fully functional healthy cells, not only in our skin but also throughout the body. 

The chemistry of Vitamin A

For more than 3000 years, certain foods such as the liver (one of the richest sources of vitamin A) was used to treat the earliest signs of vitamin A deficiency. Still, it wasn’t until 1912, when Frederick Gowland Hopkins received a Nobel prize for his work on ‘accessory food factors’ which later became known as vitamins, that vitamin A became identified.

Vitamin A belongs to a family of chemicals called ‘retinoids’. There are four main forms of vitamin A, but they all have essentially the same action, the difference being how many times it must chemically convert to become retinoic acid.

1. Retinoic Acid (Retin A):

This is the metabolically active form of vitamin A, which works on the DNA of the cell nucleus. Retinoic acid is generally only available on prescription for topical use.

2. Retinaldehyde (Retinal):

This is my personal favourite form of vitamin A to use topically as is only one metabolic step away from retinoic acid.

3. Retinol:

This is the basic form of vitamin A from a chemical point of view; it is the alcohol form, and a very active form, so high percentages can be very irritating for the skin. In addition, this form of retinoid can be chemically unstable, making it hard to formulate into a cream and keep stable. Like other forms of vitamin A, it is sensitive to light, air (oxygen) and water. Retinol is usually only found in low doses within the skin, so exposure to higher doses can cause damage to the cell membrane and vitamin A receptors. Proof that higher percentages are not always better!

4. Retinyl Palmitate:

This is a more chemically stable form of vitamin A and is much more gentle on the skin. Retinyl Palmitate is still an active form but milder and easier for the skin to tolerate. More than 80% of the vitamin A normally found in the skin is retinyl palmitate. 

Vitamin A in our diet

Vitamin A foods

In plants, we do not find vitamin A but instead carotenoids like beta-carotene. Major sources of these carotenoids are spinach, parsley, carrots, tomatoes and broccoli. As well as keeping a well-balanced diet, I like to take vitamin A by a supplement. I take 2 Accumax supplements a day which contains vitamin A, C and E. Vitamin C and E work to protect vitamin A from free radical damage. Also containing DIM, which is a phytonutrient equating to 1 whole raw broccoli head! Alternatively, the Skin Ultimate packs contain Vitamin A and Antioxidant capsules and Omegas and two additional supplements supporting skin health and targeting pigmentation and ageing skin.

  • Medik8 Crystal Retinal – This comes in 4 strengths, 0.01, 0.03, 0.06 or 0.1% retinaldehyde. I have used 0.06 for years, and it’s my firm favourite. Suitable for all skin types, just buy percentages according to your skin’s tolerance. Medik8 can be purchased online or at a local stockist. A trusted online stockist is Cult Beauty, where you can find this specific retinal. Click HERE for more info.
  • Osmosis MD Calm – Most suitable for sensitive, inflammation prone skin types. A gentle formula of retinaldehyde. You can find the range of Osmosis MD vitamin A treatment serums HERE.
  • Environ Youth EssentiA – A step-up system of retinyl palmitate, a great programme created by the master of vitamin A Dr Des Fernandes. The range combines vitamin A, C and E as a gentle progressive programme to achieve smoother, more youthful skin. You will need to find your local Environ stockist for these products by clicking HERE.


Vitamin A is best applied at night due to its UV sensitivity. Stored in a dry cupboard to avoid exposure to the elements. There is no one size fits all with retinoids, it’s about what works for you and your skin not what works for your friend’s skin. 

If you want to discuss this topic for more advice or any other skincare issues with Jade Shelden, Medical Facialist at Norfolk Skin Atelier Email: [email protected] Tel: 07947103355 She would be happy to chat to you.

For more ‘skincare for 50 plus women’ articles by Jade Shelden, click HERE

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