What is the Difference Between Vitamin a and Retinol?

L. Jablonsky

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin which is vital to biological development in human beings and animals. Retinol, an ingredient commonly found in skin care products, is derived from animal sources. Vitamin A and retinol have slight differences, but retinol is simply one form of the vitamin.

Retinol face cream may help reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
Retinol face cream may help reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

The terms vitamin A and retinol may be used interchangeably, but this neglects the components of the vitamin's molecular structure. Vitamin A is found in different forms, including preformed retinoids and provitamin cartenoids. Retinoids, such as retinol, are derived from animal sources, such as eggs and dairy foods. Carotenoids, including beta-carotene, are found in carrots, broccoli, squash, and other types of vegetables. Approximately 10 percent of carotenoids derived from plants are provitamin-A carotenoids.

Carrots are a great source of vitamin A.
Carrots are a great source of vitamin A.

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Vitamin A is fat-soluble, which means that certain fats and minerals are required to absorb the vitamin into the body. This vitamin can be stored in the body for a few days or even a few months. After intake, the body can convert vitamin A into retinol. People can take vitamin A supplements in addition to eating the natural sources of retinol and beta-carotene. Vitamin A supplements are available in the forms of retinyl palmitate or dietary retinol.

Retinol is found in many skin care products, especially those targeted toward aging skin.
Retinol is found in many skin care products, especially those targeted toward aging skin.

Research shows that the regular intake of vitamin A or its derivatives could alleviate symptoms of certain conditions and improve overall health. It is an anti-oxidant, as it neutralizes harmful free-radicals in the body and on skin. Generally, vitamin A is associated with visual functions, as people with a deficiency of the vitamin display symptoms such as keratomalacia, or night blindness; xerophthalmia, or dry eye; and retinal damage. Taking the vitamin could improve any of the aforementioned conditions.

Broccoli is a source of carotenoids.
Broccoli is a source of carotenoids.

By themselves, vitamin A and retinol do not have a significant effect if they are applied directly on the skin. Enzymes must combine these forms into retinoic acid. Forms of these substances are used in skin products targeting oily, combination, and aging skin. Retinol is found in skin care products such as eye cream and face cream.

Vitamin A and retinol, if taken or applied in large quantities, will dry out the skin. This side effect makes the vitamin a good ingredient for skin which produces an excessive amount of sebum, or oil.

Other forms of the vitamin A molecule found in skin products include tretinoin and isotretinoin. These retinoids are found in popular skin creams and acne medications. These products containing different forms of Vitamin A derivatives address oily skin, acne, psoriasis and other skin conditions.

Vitamin A and retinol taken in large quantities will dry out the skin.
Vitamin A and retinol taken in large quantities will dry out the skin.

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Discussion Comments


@Jennythelib - You're right. When I was a teenager, I was on Retin A for my acne. The doctor (and my mom) made a big deal of asking if I was sexually active and making sure I knew about the risk of birth defects. My mom went so far as to offer to get me the Pill if I was thinking about having sex and said I wouldn't get in trouble for asking.

The thing with these acne medicines is that the people who most want them--young women--are also those at most risk for an unplanned pregnancy.


I'm sure that there are people who can benefit from vitamin A supplements, but I want to make sure that people know that the fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A and D being the best known) can be toxic if taken in large doses. If you take too much vitamin C, you'll get diarrhea. It's water-soluble, not fat-soluble, which means your body can't store it. It gets rid of the excess.

But your body can and will store vitamins A and D, so it's important to know what you're taking and add it up to make sure it's not too much. You can get really sick from an excess amount of vitamin A--it can cause birth defects, liver damage, and other nasty problems.

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