Everywhere you look these days, it seems like there’s another ‘miracle cream’ to slow down the ageing of your skin. From TV and radio ads, to social media and magazines – it’s like everyone has jumped on the bandwagon to help you reduce the signs of ageing with their cream. And while some of these creams are relatively inexpensive, others cost a small fortune.
For the last few decades, Vitamin A has become a popular skincare ingredient for sun damaged skin, acne and psoriasis. Vitamin A is available in various strengths and is included in off the shelf and over the counter creams and serums as well as prescription only creams.
In this article we will discuss how the skin ages, how Vitamin A serum works and how to pick the right serum for your skin to reverse the signs of ageing.
Why does your skin age?
Skin ageing is caused by a combination of factors including environmental exposure (including UV radiation), genetics, metabolic and hormonal changes.
Over time all these factors will affect your skin’s appearance, function and structure.
Your skin layers include the epidermis (outer layer) that protects you from bacteria and UV radiation and the dermis (deep layer) which is rich in proteins and collagen to give your skin strength and elasticity.
What is Vitamin A and how does it reduce the signs of ageing?
Research shows that the single biggest factor responsible for skin ageing is UV radiation and that Vitamin A can reduce the visible signs of ageing. Vitamin A has been shown to protect the skin at a cellular level by preventing the breakdown of collagen and promoting cell production, encouraging the production of fibroblasts (the cells that build your skin at its deepest levels).
Retinol’s (Vitamin A) importance was discovered during World War 1 with subsequent research indicating a deficiency of Vitamin A results in dry skin (xerosis) and follicular hyperkeratosis, also known as keratosis pilaris.
Retinoids were introduced into the treatment of photo ageing and dermatoses (any skin lesion or defect on your skin).
During the 1970’s topical retinoids were developed as an acne treatment with researchers discovering that regular use could also:
- Even out skin pigmentation
- Fade age spots
- Speed up the turnover of skin cells
- Increase the production of collagen.
According to the Australasian College of Dermatologists,
“Retinoids are a group of medications related to vitamin A. Tretinoin (retinoic acid) is a Vitamin A derived cream that was developed three decades ago, initially for the treatment of acne.”
Today there are numerous significant derivatives of vitamin A that are used by Dermatologists, including Isotretinoin and Acitretin (oral) and Tretinoin (topical). Brand names for Tretinoin in Australia include Retrieve and Retin-A. Regular use of Tretinoin (under medical supervision) has resulted in skin structure changes including:
- New blood vessel formation with increased blood flow, resulting in a healthy, natural glow.
- The top layer of skin (epidermis) becoming thicker and more uniform in appearance.
- Increased production of new collagen below the epidermis resulting in a clearing of dry patches and pigmentation with smoother and healthier looking skin replacing it.
Regularly using Retinoids can smooth wrinkles, create an even and glowing complexion and improve the appearance of acne. It’s important to note that Tretinoin is not available over the counter and must be prescribed by a GP or Dermatologist.
What types of Vitamin A serums / creams are available?
When you’re looking at the ingredients in Vitamin A creams it’s important to be aware of the different strengths of retinol.
Natural retinoid strengths include:
- Retinyl-palimate (lowest strength, available over the counter)
- Retinol (low strength, available over the counter)
- Retinal or Retinaldehyde (high strength, available over the counter)
- Tretinoin or Retin A (highest strength, prescription only)
Synthetic retinoid strengths include:
- Adapalene (high strength, prescription only)
- Tazarotene (highest strength, prescription only)
- Isotretinoin (highest strength, prescription only)
0.1%, 0.05% or 0.25% Vitamin A serum – which should I use?
A 2006 paper reviewing retinoids in the treatment of skin ageing compared the effects and tolerability of 0.025% and 0.1% tretinoin cream in 90 patients over 48 weeks.
Results showing that both 0.025% and 0.1% retinol improved the clinical signs of ageing with no difference in results between the two concentrations. The study found that patients using the stronger cream experienced more adverse side effects.
How often should I use Vitamin A cream /serum ?
If you’re using a prescription Vitamin A cream we recommend starting slowly to get your skin used to using the product. Start by using Vitamin A cream every third night for 1 – 2 weeks then increase to every second night for 2 weeks then try nightly thereafter.
You know your skin best so listen to it – if the skin becomes red and inflamed cut back on how often you are using it.
Before applying topical Tretinoin, make sure the treatment area has been thoroughly cleansed and dried. After application ensure you thoroughly wash your hands.
To reduce the likelihood of skin irritations, it’s best practice to avoid using other topical acne medications like salicylic acid. Avoiding abrasive cleansers, soaps, astringents and skin waxes can also reduce the likelihood of skin irritation occurring.
What are the potential side effects of using topical retinoids?
When first using topical retinoids, you may experience skin irritation and photo sensitivity. Your skin may become irritated, sting or even peel with excessive use sometimes resulting in redness and – less likely – swelling.
Topical retinoids can also aggravate atopic dermatitis and eczema. It’s important when you use topical retinoids to only apply them at night and to always use SPF50+ sunscreen during the day due to them increasing the chances of sunburn.
If you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding you should not use topical retinoids.
Summary – which Vitamin A serum / cream should I pick?
Evidence suggests that the strength of Vitamin A serum doesn’t have a significant effect on the anti-ageing effect. What is important is that you need to use it over a sustained period of time (6 months upwards) to reverse the signs of ageing.
With this in mind – pick a product that feels good on your skin that you can introduce into your night time skin routine. The Ordinary brand has two 30ml retinol products under $20 which should work well and won’t break the bank. At the other end of the cost spectrum is Rationale’s DNA night serum which costs 15 times more per ml ($161 / 15ml).
Whichever product you decide to use make sure you start using Vitamin A gently and give your skin time to get used to it. Don’t expect results in the first few weeks or months but with continued use, and with an SPF 50 sunscreen, you should slow down or reverse the signs of ageing.