In all my years of skin research, one of the most important discoveries I've made is about vitamin A.
Specifically, I believe that a vitamin A deficiency can be an underlying factor in many skin issues, including:
- Keratosis pilaris
- Dry skin
You see, not too long ago, traditional diets were high in such fare as cream, eggs, butter and organ meats. All of these foods are rich sources of vitamin A, among other nutrients.
But now, in modern times, our meals look completely different. They're high in vegetables, low in protein, and many people wouldn't dream of eating dairy, let alone liver. No wonder we're seeing an epidemic of skin conditions, including adult acne.
In this article, you will find out:
- How vitamin A works to improve skin health
- The best food and supplement sources of vitamin A
- The latest word on vitamin A toxicity
Please be aware that this information is for strictly educational purposes only.
How Vitamin A Improves Skin Health
The basic mechanism of vitamin A is to oppose keratinization (the shedding of skin cells).
What numerous skin conditions—including acne, psoriasis and keratosis pilaris—have in common is that all involve an abnormal keratinization process.
Acne: While healthy pores may only shed one layer of dead skin cells per day, in acne sufferers, this process is accelerated (it's referred to as retention hyperkeratosis). When the excess dead skin builds up and combines with sebum, impactions develop that can turn into acne.
Psoriasis: Normally, it takes 28 days for a skin cell to mature and fall off. Psoriasis sufferers have new cells being pushed to the surface every four days!
Keratosis pilaris: The characteristic "chicken skin" arises when excess keratin protein from the faster shedding of skin cells forms plugs in the hair follicles.
Calluses: Here, the hyperkeratosis exhibits as thick, hardened layers of dead skin build-up, usually on the heels. (Friction is involved, yes, but why do only some people develop calluses? Dr. Jonathan Wright believes a long-term vitamin A deficiency is involved.)
Eczema: Keratinization is also abnormal, but manifests as a flattening of surface skin cells (corneocyte deformation).
Dry skin: Even a condition as ordinary as dry, rough, flaky skin has the same process involved—cells are shedding too fast.
So what happens when you increase your intake of vitamin A?
It slows down the turnover of skin cells, and makes them function longer before flaking off. This can have a dramatic impact on skin health and appearance.
The Best Food Sources of Vitamin A
Getting your nutrition from food sources is ALWAYS your safest bet.
These are the foods with the highest vitamin A content:
- Beef liver: 31,718 IU per 100 g
- Chicken liver: 13,328 IU per 100 g
- Butter: 2,500 IU per 100 g
- Beef kidney: 1,578 IU per 100 g
- Cream: 1,470 IU per 100 g
- Eggs: 520 IU per 100 g (equivalent to two medium eggs)
- Whole milk: 200 IU per 100 g
Most people should be able to meet their vitamin A requirements by simply having one serving of liver, once a week.
(Marilyn Monroe had the right idea—her diet included vitamin A-rich liver, eggs and milk!)
Foods high in beta carotene, such as carrots or sweet potatoes, are NOT good sources of vitamin A. That's because anyone with a slower metabolism or impaired liver function will not be able to easily convert the carotene to vitamin A in the body. Carotene also blocks thyroid function.
The Best Supplement Sources of Vitamin A
Some of us who didn't grow up eating liver just can't acquire a taste for it. That's where vitamin A supplements might come in.
I suggest looking for ones with as few excipients and polyunsaturated oils as possible. Here are a few I've found:
Ingredients: Vitamin A (vitamin A palmitate), purified water, xylitol, modified tapioca starch, lemon oil, xanthan gum, natural mixed tocopherols, citric acid, potassium sorbate
BioCare Vitasorb A
Where to buy: Amazon.com
Ingredients: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Vitamin A (as Retinyl Palmitate), Antioxidant (DL-Alpha Tocopherol)
Health Natura Simply A
Where to buy: Health Natura
Ingredients: Retinyl palmitate, MCT (medium chain triglycerides) from coconut oil.
BulkSupplements Vitamin A Palmitate Powder
Where to buy: Amazon.com
Ingredients: Vitamin A (as palmitate), gum arabic, starch, DL-alpha-tocopherol.
These are the supplements I DON'T recommend:
- Cod liver oil: While cod liver oil is high in vitamins A and D, I no longer consider it safe (as I explained here), due to its high polyunsaturated oil content, which suppresses thyroid.
- Dried liver: These supplements may be okay sources of B vitamins and minerals, but the vitamin A is likely to be destroyed. (For example, if you look at the label of Now Foods' Argentine Liver Powder, vitamin A is not even listed.)
Dosage and Vitamin A Toxicity
So now you might be wondering about dosage, and whether you should be worried about vitamin A toxicity.
Is it really safe to take these supplements? Here's the information I've uncovered.
What the Authorities Say About Vitamin A
According to the US National Institutes of Health, the Tolerable Upper Intake Level for adults is 10,000 IU/day of preformed vitamin A.
The same organization also warns about health risks from excessive vitamin A, citing this report of Arctic explorers developing headaches, vomiting and other symptoms after ingesting SEVERAL MILLION IU of vitamin A from polar bear or seal liver.
They also mention other side effects of hypervitaminosis A, which this report calls "varied and nonspecific"—and may include liver abnormalities, dizziness, nausea, skin irritation, pain in joints and bones, coma and even death.
What Other Studies Say About Vitamin A
Also, some of the research used as "proof" that excessive vitamin A is toxic may be seriously flawed, including this study of 22,000 pregnant women whose offspring had birth defects. Sally Fallon and Mary Enig debunk that research here.
More recent studies appear to indicate that reports of vitamin A toxicity may be greatly exaggerated:
- This study found that retinol was "highly efficacious" in doses of 300,000 IU for women and 400,000 to 500,000 IU for men, with only "slight" toxicity that was limited to dry skin and lips.
- This study found no risk of liver impairment at daily doses of 150,000 to 200,000 IU for months.
- This study found that 300,000 IU of retinyl acetate was "well-tolerated" over a period of several months in cancer patients.
So why are authorities warning us against taking any more than 10,000 IU per day of vitamin A?
According to Ray Peat, PhD: "Some of the stories of its toxicity were invented to sell the synthetic retinoids; animal experiments have shown that it takes very large amounts, with deficient vitamin E, to be toxic."
How to Safely Take Vitamin A
Now, I'm not suggesting you take the high doses of vitamin A used in those studies. (In fact, as a non-medical practitioner, I can't recommend any specific dose, since this is simply educational information.)
However, here are some general guidelines that may help you:
1. Food Sources First
Again, I want to repeat that food sources, especially liver, are the safest way to get your vitamin A in. Only try supplements if you absolutely can't get enough from food.
2. Starting Dose
If you choose to supplement, the liquid vitamin As that I prefer typically contain 2,500 to 10,000 IU per drop, so this might be a good place to start.
3. Finding the Right Dose
Whether you try higher doses is up to you and your medical practitioner. Since we all have different metabolisms, diets, nutritional requirements and so on, there is no single "right" dose. (As I've explained here, people with higher metabolic rates have higher nutritional requirements, so they may need more vitamin A than others.)
Personally, it took some self-experimentation to find the dose I felt best on, and that relieved symptoms of vitamin A deficiency—keeping in mind that there are often multiple causes.
4. Monitor Your Palms
When your tissues become saturated with vitamin A, the calluses on the palms of your hands (and the soles of your feet) will start to take on an orangey hue. This is a sign that it's time to back off to a lower dose.
5. Track Your Thyroid Function
Since vitamin A is unsaturated, in excess it can suppress your thyroid. When taking supplements, it's always a good idea to monitor your thyroid status by tracking your waking temperature and pulse. If high amounts of vitamin A are starting to lower both, it could indicate that you're taking too much.
6. Add Vitamin E
Taking a small amount of vitamin E along with your vitamin A can help your body make better use of the A, and may even lower your dose. According to Ray Peat, PhD, "the toxic effects of extremely big doses, such as 500,000 to a million IU, seem to be from either oxidative processes (rancidity) that are prevented by adequate vitamin E, or by antithyroid effects. About 100 IU of vitamin E would help to keep the vitamin A from being wasted by oxidation, and possibly could reduce your requirement for it."
The best vitamin E supplements I've found include:
You should now have a much better understanding of the role vitamin A plays in the health of your skin.
Funny how we're told by most skin experts and brands that our cell turnover is "sluggish"—when it's the exact opposite in many cases!
(Even still, I believe a light exfoliation is a good idea for most skin types, since it can help get those excess cells off before they cause problems.)
In the meantime, we should all be working on normalizing our keratinization by making sure we are meeting our vitamin A requirements. Hopefully, this has helped clarify how to go about doing that, along with addressing concerns about possible toxicity.
As always, would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas!
Have you tried vitamin A for acne or other skin problems?
What results have you noticed?