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The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Vitamin A in Skincare

Updated: Mar 5

About the author: Dr V.P.S Ghotra

Dr Ghotra received his MD degree from Maastricht University and a PhD from Leiden University. Complementing his substantial academic credentials, he acquired a Master's degree in Ageing and Aesthetics from the prestigious University of Manchester. Leading his clinic in the vicinity of Amsterdam, Dr. Ghotra specializes in an array of minimally invasive aesthetic procedures. His expertise encompasses a wide range of treatments, from the precision of Botulinum toxin applications to the innovative techniques involved in thread lifts, fillers, and the latest advancements in laser therapies, providing his patients with cutting-edge solutions in the field of aesthetic medicine.

In the ever-evolving landscape of skincare, Vitamin A derivatives remain a key focus for both aesthetic professionals and skincare enthusiasts. My experience as an aesthetic physician has provided me with insights into the efficacy, cost, and accessibility of these potent ingredients. This blog aims to shed light on the different forms of Vitamin A, compare their effectiveness, and underline the critical role of tretinoin acid, especially in the context of its availability and insurance coverage.

Vitamin A Derivatives: The Spectrum of Options

Tretinoin, known scientifically as retinoic acid, is a powerful derivative of Vitamin A. Unlike other retinoids such as retinol in 'SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0' or retinaldehyde, tretinoin does not require conversion by the skin to become active. This direct action allows tretinoin, available in brands like 'Obagi' and 'Retin-A', to be more potent and effective in accelerating cell turnover and stimulating collagen production

Vitamin A in skincare, primarily known through its derivatives called retinoids, offers a range of options:

  1. Retinol: A favourite over-the-counter (OTC) product, retinol is celebrated for its anti-ageing and skin-refining properties. Despite its popularity, it's less potent than prescription forms and requires conversion to retinoic acid in the skin.

  2. Retinaldehyde: Slightly more potent than retinol, retinaldehyde is also available as an OTC product. It strikes a balance between efficacy and gentleness.

  3. Retinyl Palmitate: This mild ester form of Vitamin A is commonly found in cosmetic formulations, ideal for sensitive skin but with limited potency.

  4. Tretinoin (Retinoic Acid): As the acid form of Vitamin A, tretinoin is a prescription-only medication known for its direct and potent effects on the skin.

Efficacy and Cost Considerations

The efficacy of Vitamin A derivatives varies significantly. Tretinoin, the most potent form, directly influences skin renewal and collagen production. On the other hand, OTC forms like retinol and retinaldehyde offer a gentler approach but are less effective due to their need for conversion in the skin.

An often overlooked aspect of these derivatives is the cost. Many skincare brands advocate their OTC products containing Vitamin A, which can be expensive. Contrary to popular belief, the more efficacious forms like tretinoin are generally more affordable. Moreover, in many cases, they are partly covered under general health insurance policies, making them a cost-effective option for patients.

Accessibility and Prescription Requirements

Tretinoin stands out not only for its efficacy but also for its prescription-only status. This requirement ensures that patients receive a professional assessment before use, which is crucial given tretinoin's potent nature. In my clinic, we start treatments with a comprehensive skin analysis using state-of-the-art systems like Visia and Vectra, ensuring a customized approach for each patient.

The prescription-only status of tretinoin also means that it's not as readily accessible as OTC options. However, this can be beneficial. It ensures that patients receive the right concentration and formulation for their skin type and concerns, under professional guidance. Moreover, the partial insurance coverage for these prescription retinoids can make them more accessible financially, despite the initial perception of prescription medication being more expensive.

Comprehensive Insights Through Key Questions

As an aesthetic physician, I often encounter numerous questions about the effective use of tretinoin. This expanded guide is designed to address these queries in detail, offering a deeper understanding of how to harness the full potential of tretinoin in skincare.

How to Choose the Right Concentration for Beginners?

For beginners, especially those with sensitive skin, starting with a lower concentration, typically around 0.025%, is advisable. Products like 'Renova 0.02%' offer a gentler introduction. The right concentration should balance effectiveness with minimizing potential irritation, taking into account individual skin sensitivity and tolerance.

What is the Ideal Method to Apply Tretinoin?

Applying a pea-sized amount of tretinoin evenly across the face is recommended. This amount is sufficient to cover the entire face without overuse. The product should be applied to clean, dry skin, ideally 20-30 minutes after washing the face to ensure the skin is thoroughly dry. This method helps maximize absorption and effectiveness while minimizing potential irritation.

Why Should Certain Facial Areas be Avoided?

Sensitive areas like the immediate eye area, corners of the mouth, and nostrils should be avoided because the skin here is thinner and more prone to irritation. Tretinoin can cause redness and peeling, which can be more pronounced in these delicate regions.

What Constitutes an Effective Tretinoin Routine?

An effective routine balances regular application with skin tolerance. Consistent, thin applications are key. Overuse does not increase efficacy but can lead to increased side effects like dryness and irritation. The goal is to maintain a disciplined routine that allows the skin to adapt and benefit from tretinoin.

How to Determine the Optimal Frequency of Application?

Begin with an application every third night for the first few weeks, then observe your skin's response. If well-tolerated, gradually increase to every other night. The optimal frequency varies; some may achieve the best results with nightly use, while others may find alternate nights or even twice a week sufficient.

What is the Target Frequency for Long-Term Use?

The target frequency for long-term use of tretinoin is ideally nightly application. However, this depends on individual skin tolerance. Some users may find that their skin responds better to less frequent applications. It's a balance between maximizing benefits and minimizing irritation.

How Can Moisturizers Aid in Tretinoin Use?

Moisturizers play a crucial role in counteracting the drying effects of tretinoin. Products like 'CeraVe' or 'Neutrogena Hydro Boost' can be applied after tretinoin to provide necessary hydration. Alternatively, applying a moisturizer before tretinoin (a technique known as 'buffering') can help reduce initial irritation, making the treatment more tolerable.

What is 'Buffering' and How Does it Help?

'Buffering' involves applying a layer of moisturizer before tretinoin. This technique can reduce the intensity of tretinoin's contact with the skin, thereby reducing irritation and redness. It's particularly useful during the initial phase of tretinoin use or for those with sensitive skin.

Why is Sun Protection Crucial When Using Tretinoin?

Tretinoin increases the skin's sensitivity to UV rays, raising the risk of sunburn. Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily, regardless of the weather, is critical. This not only protects against sun damage but also helps maintain the benefits achieved with tretinoin, as UV exposure can exacerbate signs of ageing and pigmentation.

Why Should Tretinoin be Used in the Evening?

Tretinoin is best used in the evening due to its photosensitive nature. Nighttime application aligns with the skin’s natural repair cycle, enhancing the effectiveness of tretinoin. Additionally, this reduces the risk of UV-induced degradation of the product and subsequent skin irritation.


In conclusion, while the allure of OTC Vitamin A products is strong, especially with the marketing efforts of various skincare brands, it's important to understand the differences in efficacy, cost, and accessibility between these products and prescription options like tretinoin. With its proven efficacy and potential insurance coverage, Tretinoin can be a more viable and effective option for many patients seeking substantial skin improvements.

As always, my approach is to offer ethical, evidence-based treatment options. I encourage anyone considering Vitamin A derivatives for skincare to consult with a skincare professional. This ensures not only the selection of the most suitable form of Vitamin A but also a tailored treatment plan that aligns with individual skin needs, lifestyle factors, and financial considerations.

Ready to Transform Your Skin Care Routine?

Discover the remarkable benefits of tretinoin for your skin. Whether you're looking to combat signs of ageing, address acne concerns, or simply enhance your skin's overall health and appearance, tretinoin could be your key to success. But remember, the right approach and guidance are essential.

Schedule a personalized consultation today at our clinic near Amsterdam! 

Let's create a customized treatment plan tailored to your unique skin needs, backed by our expertise in minimally invasive facial aesthetic procedures. Don't wait to embark on your journey towards healthier, more radiant skin.

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