Woman applying moisturizer on cheeks

Thanks to its ability to treat such a wide variety of skin concerns, vitamin A has become an extremely popular skin care ingredient.

If you have ever looked into vitamin A, then you have probably also come across retinoids, retinol and retinoic acid. Each one of these is vitamin A, but in a slightly different form.

Confused about the differences between each one?

Here is everything you need to know…

What Does Vitamin A Do?

Before looking into the different forms of vitamin A, let’s take a look at exactly what this ingredient does for the skin.

One of its biggest benefits is the way in which it can significantly increase the skin’s natural production of collagen.

Why is this important?

Well, around 70% of the dermal layer of your skin consists of collagen. This protein is produced by the skin itself and gives your skin its structure, along with its smoothness and firmness.

Sadly, as you age, the amount of collagen that your skin produces rapidly declines. In fact, some experts say that after the age of 25, you lose about 1% of your collagen each year. It doesn’t help that there are so many environmental and lifestyle factors that also degrade the skin’s collagen, from pollution to sun exposure to a poor diet.

Infographic on younger versus aging skin

But, don’t worry, vitamin A is here to help…

Vitamin A plays a huge role in collagen production, and can really speed this back up. This then has the effect of minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, making the skin look so much smoother and younger.

In addition to encouraging collagen building in the skin, vitamin A also stimulates the fibroblast cells in the skin into producing healthier tissues. This then means that each of your skin cells are stronger and healthier, leaving your skin more resilient.

That’s not all…

Vitamin A also speeds up your cell turnover process. This is the rate at which your body naturally sheds dead skin cells, enabling them to be replaced with fresh new ones.

Speeding this process up means that your complexion will take on a fresher and more radiant appearance. Clogged pores will be a thing of the past, meaning that acne breakouts will also become so much less frequent, as well as less severe.

Why Does Vitamin A Have Several Derivatives?

So, as you likely already know, vitamin A has several derivatives.


Well, it all dates back to the 1960s. This is when vitamin A was first used to treat the skin, with severe acne being its target. The form of vitamin A used for this was called Tretinoin, which was quite a pure and potent form of the vitamin.

The studies carried out at the time proved to be successful when it came to treating acne, but other results were also noticed…

Participants found a significant reduction in their wrinkles, and also saw their skin become visibly smoother.

In the 1980s, more and more discoveries were made in the many ways that vitamin A could benefit the skin.

However, there was one big problem…

Tretinoin was found to be quite irritating to the skin, resulting in:

This led to the development of vitamin A derivatives, in order to find a version of this wonder-ingredient that could be used by as many people as possible.


Let’s begin by looking at the most potent form of vitamin A out there…

These are known as retinoids, one of which is Tretinoin, mentioned above. Retin-A is another retinoid that you may have come across.

Since retinoids are so strong, and have a high chance of causing the skin irritations mentioned earlier, they are only available with a prescription.

Wondering how you would be able to get a prescription for a retinoid?

You would need to be dealing with one of the following:

  • Severe acne
  • Serious sun damage
  • Very deep and pronounced wrinkles

Why would you want to use retinoids when the side effects can be so irritating?

Because, as mentioned above, this is the most potent form of vitamin A out there, meaning that it brings about results much faster than the other derivatives.


Retinol is probably the most well-known form of vitamin A out there.

It is used in a wide variety of skin care products, in varying concentrations.

Wondering what makes retinol less effective than prescription retinoids?

It’s not necessarily less effective, it’s more that retinol simply takes slightly longer to have an effect on the skin when compared to prescription retinoids.

Why is this?

Well, when you apply prescription retinoids to your skin, your skin is able to put these to use immediately. However, when you apply retinol, your skin first needs to convert this into retinaldehyde, and then to retinoic acid, before it can actually use it. This conversion process can take a few weeks, which is why the effects aren’t visible quite as quickly.

However, the advantage of retinol is that its side effects are fewer and less severe. It can actually be quite a gentle ingredient, depending on the concentration of it used in a product.

The results of retinol are also cumulative. This means that the more you use the ingredient, the more effective it will be.

One thing to keep in mind…

While retinol may be gentler than prescription-strength retinoids, side effects do still occur.

For this reason, it is always best to begin with a lower concentration of retinol, especially if this is your first time using vitamin A on your skin. You should also only use retinol every other day or so at first. Give your skin the chance to get used to this ingredient, before increasing how often you use it.

What should you do if you experience any side effects when using retinol?

This depends on how severe your side effects are…

If they are not too serious and you are using a low concentration of retinol, and not using it too often either, then keep going with the retinol for now. It can take two or three weeks for the skin to become accustomed to retinol, after which your side effects should fade.

If they don’t seem to be disappearing after this time, or if your side effects are quite severe to begin with, stop using the ingredient and give your skin some time to heal. You may then need to switch to a lower concentration of retinol.

Retinyl Palmitate

Retinyl palmitate is made by combining retinol with palmitic acid.

Wondering what the point of this is?

It makes the ingredient even more gentle, and therefore more accessible to a wider range of skin types.

So, what’s the difference between retinyl palmitate and the other vitamin A derivatives out there?

Well, because the vitamin A in this derivative has been diluted down, it does take longer for the skin to convert it into retinoic acid, in order to actually use the ingredient.

Does this mean that retinyl palmitate is less effective?

No, it just means that you will have to wait slightly longer for the results to become apparent. The final results that you experience from retinyl palmitate will still be comparable to the other vitamin A derivatives – you just won’t experience these quite as quickly.

Of course, the results do also depend on how much retinyl palmitate has been used in a product. If a high concentration of the ingredient is used, it can sometimes be just as powerful as retinol.

One thing to keep in mind…

While retinyl palmitate is fantastic at increasing collagen production, it is less effective at boosting skin cell turnover. This means that retinyl palmitate isn’t commonly used to treat acne, but it still makes for a stellar anti-aging ingredient.

This is why you will find retinyl palmitate formulated into a wide range of anti-aging skin care products.

When should you use retinyl palmitate instead of retinol?

Retinyl palmitate is a great ingredient to use in eye care products. The skin around your eyes is extremely delicate and fragile, being up to ten times thinner than the skin on the rest of your face. It doesn’t take long for retinol to cause irritations and sensitivities in this area, making retinyl palmitate a much more suitable alternative.

If you need some inspiration, check out the Lionesse Amber Eye Cream as an example.

It combines retinyl palmitate with a variety of peptides and botanical extracts, making it powerful at targeting fine lines and deeper wrinkles, but gentle enough to not irritate the skin around the eyes.

Is your skin prone to sensitivities?  

If so, retinyl palmitate will likely be the best vitamin A derivative for you to use. Of course, it can still cause irritations, so make sure that the product you choose also contains plenty of hydrating ingredients and soothing botanical extracts.

Can’t find any products to suit your skin?

Try the Lionesse Black Onyx Serum and the Black Onyx Cream.

Both contain retinyl palmitate, along with sodium hyaluronate for skin hydration and a number of skin-calming extracts.

Moving On Up

As mentioned earlier, it is always best to begin with a milder form of vitamin A for the first time.

However, once your skin has grown accustomed to this, there is no reason why you can’t increase the potency of the vitamin A you are using.

For example, if you begin with retinyl palmitate, you could then move on to a retinol product after a few months. Alternatively, you could stick with retinol palmitate, but switch to a product that contains the ingredient in a higher concentration.

Things to Know When Using Vitamin A on Your Skin

Are you going to be using vitamin A on your skin for the first time?

Make sure that you start off slow, even if you are using a gentler derivative, such as retinyl palmitate. This gives your skin time to tolerate the ingredient, minimizing your chances of experiencing side effects.

A patch test is always essential to begin with.

How do you carry out a patch test?

You simply apply the new product to a small area of your skin, and then wait for 24 to 48 hours, because this is how long it usually takes for the skin to react to new ingredients. If, after this time, your skin seems normal, you can then go ahead and use the product on the rest of your face or body.

Applying cream onto arm

You should also be aware of the fact that vitamin A can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. This applies to all forms of the vitamin, even the milder derivatives. Not only that, but vitamin A breaks down when it comes into contact with light, making this an ingredient that you should use at night, rather than during the day.

Since vitamin A is so susceptible to light degradation, make sure that the vitamin A product you choose has been formulated in dark, opaque packaging. This will prevent too much light from entering into the product and breaking down its ingredients.

A pump dispenser is also a better option for vitamin A products than a jar-type container.


Because the air will also cause this ingredient to degrade. A pump-style dispenser limits the amount of air that is able to enter into a product, therefore prolonging its shelf life, as well as its potency.

A syringe-style dispenser, such as the one that comes with the Lionesse Amber New Age Syringe, would be even more beneficial when it comes to protecting the vitamin A in a product.

Vitamin A is one of the most-researched anti-aging skin care ingredients out there, making it no surprise that it has been appearing in an increasing number of skin care products. This is an ingredient that really could benefit just about everyone, no matter your skin type or the skin concerns you are dealing with, making it worth understanding the differences between each of the vitamin A derivatives available.