Vitamin A Vs Retinol

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When we think about skin care, we often think about the vitamins and minerals that are good for our skin. We know that Vitamin C is good for our immune system, but did you know that Vitamin A can be beneficial to your skin as well?

Vitamin A is found in many fruits and vegetables and is necessary for healthy vision. It also helps with cell turnover, which makes it great for acne-prone skin. However, there are other sources of vitamin A than just foods. Retinol is one of these sources, and it can be applied topically to help with wrinkles, fine lines, and acne.

Retinol is a form of vitamin A that has been concentrated into an oil-based form that can be applied directly to the skin in order to achieve the same benefits as consuming vitamin A through food sources alone.

Vitamin A Vs Retinol

Retinol is a type of retinoid found in vitamin A. Vitamin A is composed of two parts: retinoids, which include retinol, and carotenoids which inckude beta-carotine. Retinol is a type of vitamin A found in animal products like liver, kidney, eggs, and dairy products. Carotenoids, which hold greater amounts of vitamin A, are found in plants like dark and yellow vegetables, carrots, and fruits.


Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that has several important functions in the body.

  • It helps cells reproduce normally, a process called cellular differentiation.
  • It is essential for good vision. The first sign of a vitamin A deficiency is often poor sight at night.
  • It is needed for the proper development of an embryo and fetus.

Vitamin A helps keep skin and mucous membranes that line the nose, sinuses, and mouth healthy. It also plays a role in:

  • Immune system function
  • Growth
  • Bone formation
  • Reproduction
  • Wound healing

Vitamin A comes from two sources. One group, called retinoids, comes from animal sources and includes retinol. The other group, called carotenoids, comes from plants and includes beta-carotene. The body converts beta-carotene to vitamin A. Major carotenoids, including lycopene, lutein, and zeaxantuin, have important biological properties, including antioxidant and photoprotective activities.

It is rare in the developed world to have a serious deficiency of vitamin A. Symptoms include:

  • Dry eyes
  • Night blindness
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin problems

While vitamin A is essential for good health, it can be toxic in high doses. Never take more than the recommended daily allowance without first talking to your doctor.

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Acne, psoriasis, and other skin disorders

Prescription creams and pills containing retinoids, a synthetic form of vitamin A, are used to help clear up severe acne and psoriasis. They have also shown promise for treating other skin disorders, warts, and premature aging from the sun. Recent studies show that topical forms along with antioxidants may help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. These medications require close supervision by a doctor. Isotretinoin (Accutane), an oral medication for acne, can cause very serious side effects and must not be used by pregnant women or women of child-bearing age who are not taking birth control.

Eye disorders

Getting enough vitamin A in your diet is essential for good vision. Research shows that people who eat more foods with vitamin A are less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In addition, a large population study found that people who got high levels of vitamin A though their diets had a lower risk of developing cataracts. But researchers don’t know whether taking vitamin A supplements would work the same way. Vitamin A supplements may help slightly slow down the damage from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that causes poor night vision. However, the study used high doses, which can be toxic.

Measles

For children who have vitamin A deficiency, supplements can reduce the severity and complications of measles. Children who are deficient in vitamin A are more likely to develop infections, including measles. In areas of the world where vitamin A deficiency is widespread or where at least 1% of those with measles die, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends giving vitamin A supplements to children who have measles. However, vitamin A does not seem to help unless a child has vitamin A deficiency. Never give a child vitamin A supplements without a doctor’s supervision.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

People with IBD, either ulcerative colitis or Crohn disease, may have a hard time absorbing all the nutrients their bodies need. Doctors often recommend that people with IBD take a multivitamin, including vitamin A.

Cancer

Whether vitamin A can reduce the risk of cancer is not clear. People who eat a healthy diet with enough beta-carotene and other carotenoids from fruits and vegetables seem to have a lower risk of certain cancers, such as:

  • Breast cancer
  • Colon Cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Melanoma

Some laboratory studies suggest that vitamin A and carotenoids may help fight certain types of cancer in test tubes.

Few studies have shown that taking vitamin A supplements will help prevent or treat cancer. In fact, there is some evidence that it may be harmful. Taking beta-carotene or vitamin A supplements has been linked to a higher risk of lung cancer in people who smoke or drink alcohol. However, some researchers say more studies are needed to confirm this.

One preliminary study suggests that a topical form of vitamin A may reduce abnormal growth of cells on the cervix, called cervical neoplasia.

Researchers are also investigating retinoids, a synthetic form of vitamin A, for skin cancer. People with certain types of skin cancer tend to have lower levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene in the blood. However, studies that have looked at whether taking higher amounts of vitamin A or beta-carotene would prevent or treat skin cancer have had mixed results.

Dietary Sources

Vitamin A in the form of retinyl palmitate is found in:

  • Beef, calf, and chicken liver
  • Eggs
  • Fish liver oils
  • Dairy products, including whole milk, whole milk yogurt, whole milk cottage cheese, butter, and other cheeses

The body can also make vitamin A from beta-carotene and other carotenoids, which are fat-soluble nutrients found in fruits and vegetables that give them their color. Most dark-green leafy vegetables and deep yellow/orange vegetables and fruits, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin and other winter squashes, cantaloupe, apricots, peaches, and mangoes, contain substantial amounts of beta-carotene. By eating these beta-carotene-rich foods, you can increase levels of vitamin A in your body.

Available Forms

Vitamin A supplements are available as either retinol or retinyl palmitate.

Tablets or capsules are available in a variety of doses. The tolerable upper limit, or safe upper limit, is 10,000 IU. For any dose close to that amount, a doctor should help you determine the amount to take. Most multivitamins contain the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A.

Unlike vitamin A, beta-carotene does not build up in the body. However, there is some evidence that high doses of beta-carotene can carry some risk. Talk to your doctor before taking more than the recommended amount.

How to Take It

Vitamin A is absorbed along with fat in the diet. Take it with food.

Studies often use high doses of vitamin A. However, such high doses can be toxic. A doctor should monitor any high-dose therapy (any dose approaching the level of 10,000 IU for an adult, or above the recommended daily allowance for a child).

Daily dietary intakes for vitamin A are:

Pediatric

  • Infants, birth to 6 months: 400 mcg
  • Infants, 7 to 12 months: 500 mcg
  • Children, 1 to 3 years: 300 mcg
  • Children, 4 to 8 years: 400 mcg
  • Children, 9 to 13 years: 600 mcg
  • Boys, 14 to 18 years: 900 mcg
  • Girls, 14 to 18 years: 700 mcg

Adult

  • Men, 19 years and older: 900 mcg
  • Women, 19 years and older: 700 mcg
  • Pregnant women, 14 to 18 years: 750 mcg
  • Pregnant women, 19 years and older: 770 mcg
  • Breastfeeding women, 14 to 18 years: 1,200 mcg
  • Breastfeeding women, 19 years and older: 1,300 mcg

Precautions

Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, you should take dietary supplements only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.

Taking too much vitamin A when you are pregnant can cause serious birth defects. Because all prenatal vitamins contain some vitamin A, you should not take a separate vitamin A supplement.

Synthetic vitamin A can cause birth defects. Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant shouldn’t take this form of vitamin A.

Too much vitamin A is toxic and can cause liver failure, even death. Symptoms of vitamin A toxicity include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Dry skin and lips
  • Dry or irritated
  • Nausea or diarrhea
  • Hair loss

Vitamin A from foods is considered safe. But you can get too much from supplements. For adults, 19 and older, the tolerable upper limit for vitamin A is 10,000 IU per day. Talk to your doctor before taking any dose close to that amount.

People who have liver disease or diabetes should not take vitamin A supplements without their doctor’s supervision.

Smokers and people who drink heavy amounts of alcohol should not take beta-carotene supplements.

Both vitamin A and beta-carotene may increase triglycerides, which are fats in the blood. They may even increase the risk of death from heart disease, particularly in smokers.

Vitamin A is found in many different vitamin formulas. Supplements that say “wellness formula,” “immune system formula,” “cold formula,” “eye health formula,” “healthy skin formula,” or “acne formula,” all tend to contain vitamin A. If you take a variety of different formulas, you could be at risk for too much vitamin A.

If you take large doses of vitamin A, you may want to avoid eating carob. It increases the amount of vitamin A available in your body.

Possible Interactions

If you are being treated with any of the following medications, you should not take vitamin A without first talking to your health care provider:

Tetracycline antibiotics: People who take a type of antibiotic called tetracyclines and also take high doses of vitamin A may be at risk for a condition called intracranial hypertension, which is a rise in the pressure of brain fluid. Tetracyclines include:

  • Demeclocycline (Declomycin)
  • Minocycline (Minocin)
  • Tetracycline (Achromycin)

Antacids: One study suggests that the combination of vitamin A and antacids may be more effective than antacids alone in healing ulcers.

Anticoagulants (blood thinners): Long-term use of vitamin A or taking high doses may increase the risk of bleeding for those taking blood-thinning medications, particularly warfarin (Coumadin). Talk to your doctor before taking vitamin A.

Cholesterol-lowering medications (bile acid sequestrants): The medications cholestyramine (Questram) and colestipol (Colestid) may reduce your ability to absorb vitamin A and lead to lower levels in your body. A water-soluble form of vitamin A may help. Another class of cholesterol-lowering medications called statins may actually raise vitamin A levels in your blood.

Doxorubicin: Doxorubicin is a medication used to treat cancer. Test tube studies suggest that vitamin A may make the action of doxorubicin stronger. More research is needed to understand the effect. If you are undergoing treatment for cancer, ask your oncologist before taking vitamin A or any supplement.

Medications processed by the liver: Taking high doses of vitamin A along with some other medications that are processed by the liver may cause liver damage or even liver failure. Some examples of medications processed by the liver include acetaminophen (Tylenol), carbamazepine (Tegretol), isoniazid, and methotrexate. If you are taking any prescription medications, ask your doctor before taking vitamin A.

Neomycin (Mycifradin): This antibiotic may reduce the body’s ability to absorb vitamin A, especially when taken in large doses.

Omeprazole (Prilosec): Omeprazole, used for gastroesophageal reflux disease or heart burn, may interact with beta-carotene supplements. Researchers do not know whether it also affects the absorption of beta-carotene from foods.

Retinoids: These medications are a synthetic form of vitamin A and are sometimes prescribed in high doses. People who take retinoids should not take additional vitamin A supplements. In addition, these drugs can cause severe birth defects. Women of child-bearing age must have two negative pregnancy tests and be on two forms of birth control before taking these medications. Anyone taking retinoids will be monitored closely by their doctor. Retinoids include:

  • Acitretin (Soriatane)
  • Bexarotene (Targretin)
  • Isotretinoin (Accutane)
  • Tazarotene (Avage)

Tretinoin (Retin-A) is usually prescribed as a skin cream to treat acne or reduce wrinkles and is not as concentrated as other retinoids. However, you may still want to avoid taking a vitamin A supplement while using Retin-A.

Orlistat (Alli) and Olestra: Orlistat, a medication used for weight loss, and olestra, a substance added to certain foods, both prevent the body from absorbing fat and calories. They may also prevent the body from absorbing enough vitamin A. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that vitamin A and other fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins D, E, and K) be added to food products containing olestra. In addition, people who take either prescription orlistat or over-the-counter Alli may want to take a multivitamin.

vitamin a foods

Vitamin A is essential for overall health and well-being. Because the human body cannot make it, people must obtain this vitamin from their diet.

A person slicing a cantaloupe in a kitchen. There are several diced mangos on the kitchen counter.
Petrova Nina/EyeEm/Getty Images
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Vitamin A is an essential nutrient that plays a role in many bodily processes, includingTrusted Source:

  • immune function
  • reproduction
  • healthy vision
  • proper functioning of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs
  • skin health
  • growth and development

In this article, we describe 14 of the best sources of vitamin A and the recommended daily intake.

1. Beef liver

Animal livers are among the richest sources of vitamin A. This is becauseTrusted Source, like humans, animals store vitamin A in the liver.

A 3-ounce (oz) serving of pan fried beef liver contains 6,582 micrograms (mcg)Trusted Source of vitamin A, which equates to 731% of the daily value (DV).

The DV allows people to easily compare the nutrient contents of different foods. It is a percentage based on the recommended daily intakes of key nutrients from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Trusted Source.

As an organ meat, liver is high in protein. It also containsTrusted Source many other nutrients, including:

  • copper
  • vitamin B2
  • vitamin B12
  • iron
  • folate
  • choline

Lamb liver and liver sausage are other rich sources of vitamin A.

2. Cod liver oil

Fish livers are also excellent sources of preformed vitamin A, with 1 tablespoon of cod liver oil providing 4,080 mcgTrusted Source.

This and other fish oils are among the richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which help fight inflammation and protect the heart. ResearchTrusted Source also suggests that they may treat or prevent depression.

Cod liver oil is also an excellent source of vitamin D, with 1 tablespoon containing 170%Trusted Source of the DV.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS)Trusted Source, vitamin D boosts immunity and plays a role in bone health. It may also protect against depression.

3. Sweet potato

One whole sweet potato, baked in its skin, provides 1,403 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A, which is 156% of the DV.

The vitamin A present in this root vegetable is in the form of beta carotene. ResearchTrusted Source suggests that this compound may help protect against age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Some studiesTrusted Source also suggest that beta carotene may help protect against cancers, such as prostate cancer, but the results are mixed.

Sweet potatoes are also:

  • low in calories
  • a source of vitamin B6, vitamin C, and potassium
  • high in fiber
  • have a low glycemic index, helping to control blood sugar levels

For a healthful meal, try having a baked sweet potato in the skin with a salad and a source of protein, such as salmon or tofu.

For more in-depth resources about vitamins, minerals, and supplements, visit our dedicated hub.

4. Carrots

Carrots are rich in beta carotene. Half a cup of raw carrots contains 459 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A and 51% of the DV.

A large carrot contains around 29 caloriesTrusted Source. This makes for a light and healthful snack, especially when eaten with hummus or guacamole.

Carrots are also rich in dietary fiber, which can help prevent constipation and promote better gut health.

5. Black-eyed peas

Beans are an excellent source of plant-based protein, and they are also rich in fiber. Each cup of boiled black eyed peas contains 66 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A and 7% of the DV.

Black-eyed peas are also a good sourceTrusted Source of iron.

Studies support the role of various types of beans in promoting heart health. For instance, researchTrusted Source has linked eating beans with a lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.

Other researchTrusted Source has shown that eating beans can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Black-eyed peas are a versatile ingredient. Use them in salads, soups, and stews.

6. Spinach

Like other leafy green vegetables, spinach contains a wealth of nutrients.

Each half-cup of boiled spinach provides 573 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A, which is 64% of the DV.

This serving also provides 17%Trusted Source of the DV for iron and 19%Trusted Source of the DV for magnesium. Magnesium plays a role in over 300 processesTrusted Source in the human body.

Some researchTrusted Source indicates that spinach can lower blood pressure and improve heart health.

Sautéed spinach makes a tasty side dish, and spinach also works well in pasta dishes and soups.

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7. Broccoli

Broccoli is another healthful source of vitamin A, with a half-cup providing 60 mcgTrusted Source, which is 7% of a person’s DV.

Half a cup of broccoli contains just 15 caloriesTrusted Source and is also an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin K.

Vitamin K is essentialTrusted Source for bone metabolism and blood clotting, while vitamin C enhancesTrusted Source immune function and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Eating cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, may reduceTrusted Source a person’s risk of developing some cancers, due to the presence of a substance called sulforaphane.

People can roast, steam, or fry broccoli, enjoy it in soups, or add it to salads.

8. Sweet red pepper

A half-cup of raw sweet red bell pepper provides 117 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A, which is 13% of the DV.

This serving only contains around 19 caloriesTrusted Source and is rich in vitamin C, vitamin B6, and folate.

Bell peppers are a great source of antioxidants such as capsanthinTrusted Source. They also contain quercetinTrusted Source, which has anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties.

Try scrambling bell peppers with eggs, eating them in sandwiches, or serving sliced peppers with a healthful dip.

9. Mango

A whole, raw mango contains 112 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A, or 12% of the DV.

Mangoes are rich in antioxidants and dietary fiber, which can contribute to better gut function and help control blood sugar.

This fruit is delicious on its own, but it works equally well in a tropical fruit salad or mango salsa.

10. Cantaloupe

A half-cup of this summer melon provides 135 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A, which is 15% of the DV.

Cantaloupe is a great sourceTrusted Source of the antioxidant vitamin C, which boosts immune function and protects against several diseases.

Eat fresh cantaloupe on its own, with other fruit, or in a smoothie.

11. Dried apricots

For a sweet treat that is rich in vitamin A, snack on dried apricots.

Ten dried apricot halves contain 63 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A, which is 7% of the DV. Dried fruits are also high in fiber and antioxidants.

However, dried apricots also contain a lot of sugar and calories, so it is important to consume them in moderation.

12. Pumpkin pie

Pumpkin pie is another treat rich in vitamin A, with one piece containing 488 mcgTrusted Source or 54% of the DV. This is because, like other orange vegetables, pumpkin is rich in beta carotene.

Pumpkin is also a good source of antioxidants, such as vitamin C, lutein, and zeaxanthin.

ResearchTrusted Source indicates that high intakes of these substances can preserve vision and prevent common eye diseases.

Eating pumpkin pie is less healthful than eating plain pumpkin, so enjoy it in moderation to avoid consuming too much sugar.

13. Tomato juice

A three-quarter cup serving of tomato juice contains 42 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A, which is 5% of the DV.

Tomatoes are also rich inTrusted Source vitamin C and lycopene, which are antioxidants.

Like pumpkins, tomatoes and tomato juice contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which may benefitTrusted Source eye health.

14. Herring

A 3-oz serving of pickled Atlantic herring provides 219 mcgTrusted Source of vitamin A, or 24% of a person’s DV.

Herring is also a good sourceTrusted Source of protein and vitamin D.

As a fatty fish, herring is a great option for those who want to increase their omega-3 intake for heart and brain health.

In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA)Trusted Source recommend eating 2 servings of fatty fish each week.

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Recommended intake of vitamin A

There are two main typesTrusted Source of vitamin A:

  • Preformed vitamin A: This comes in the form of retinol and is present in animal-based food sources, including meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products.
  • Provitamin A: This comes in the form of carotenoids, mainly beta carotene. It is present in plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

To aid the absorption of vitamin A, a person needs to include some fat in their diet. It is also important not to overcook foods, as this reducesTrusted Source the amount of vitamin A in them.

The ODSTrusted Source list the recommended dietary allowances for vitamin A as follows:

DemographicDaily amount (mcg)
Males aged 14+900
Females aged 14+700
Pregnant teens aged 14–18750
Pregnant adults aged 19+770
Breastfeeding teens aged 14–181,200
Breastfeeding adults aged 19+1,300
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Summary

Many foods, both plant-based and from animals, contain good amounts of vitamin A.

Vitamin A deficiency is uncommon in the U.S., and most people do not need to worry too much about counting vitamin A values.

The best way to ensure an adequate nutrient intake is to eat a varied and balanced diet, full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthful fats, and lean proteins.

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