By Anne Marie Tremaine, MD

The Role of Vitamin A in Healthy SkinNovember is National Healthy Skin Month and although there are a number of potential topics to cover, this piece was motivated by the common question my patients ask; what “cream” should I use? However, the question they should really be asking is, what ingredient to use? The answer, and focus for healthy skin month, is retinoic acid (topical Vitamin A). It is the gold standard to improve skin quality. Retinoic acid works by promoting cell turnover and boosting collagen production, which leads to improvement in fine lines, decreased pore size, brighter skin tone, and improvement in acne. Retinoic acid also functions as an antioxidant (like Vitamin C) and can halt the free-radical damage caused by UV radiation.

There are two forms of topical Vitamin A: retinoids and retinols. Retinoids are prescription strength retinoic acid. In contrast, retinols are available over-the-counter and need to be converted to active retinoic acid after application to the skin. Because of this conversion, retinols tend to be less potent and gentler than retinoids.

Topical retinoids/retinols are a great treatment for most people and age ranges. We start using them in the teenage years to treat acne. I recommend starting to use it in your 20’s and 30’s as a preventive anti-aging treatment. Don’t worry though, it’s never too late to start using them and see the benefits. Adding it to your skin care regimen at any point is helpful.

Two common concerns with retinoids are that it will make the skin red and irritated and it can’t be used with sun exposure. It is true that these products can be irritating at first, but if used properly these products can be very effective without much irritation. First, it is important to see your dermatologist and get the appropriate strength product, as there are many options out there. I recommend using the product every other night or even three times a week and slowly increasing to nightly if possible. Use only a pea size amount of medication to cover the entire face and mix it with moisturizer. With these simple instructions, retinols can be quite tolerable. Regarding sun exposure, retinoids do make your skin more sensitive to UV light, but if you apply the product in the evening and apply SPF every morning, there really isn’t a concern.

As mentioned above, there are numerous options in terms of strengths and formulations with both retinoids and retinols, and finding the right product can be overwhelming.

So, make an appointment today with your dermatologist to determine what’s the best option for you.

Anne Marie Tremaine, MD
Board Certified Dermatolgist
Harvard Cosmetic and Laser Medicine Fellowship

Dr. Tremaine is a board-certified dermatologist with fellowship training at Harvard Medical School in laser and cosmetic surgery. She has contributed as a dermatology expert for online and print magazines including Family Fun,,, and In addition, she frequently lectures to professional societies on her diverse research. For more information about skin care visit the Skin Wellness
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