Which supplementation works best for skin, internal or topical…or both?

by Marie Veronique


Vitamins A and C are absolutely essential to good skin health, but our answer on how to take them may surprise you!

Vitamin A


Sufficient Vitamin A is necessary for good vision, a healthy immune system, and proper cell growth. A well-balanced diet gives most of us enough Vitamin A, though bear in mind that the beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A that you get from orange-colored root vegetables and dark green leafy plants is utilized less efficiently than the retinyl esters, the "animal" Vitamin A you get from cream, butter, liver or cod liver oil. If you are a vegetarian it’s safe to take supplements of up to 5000 IUs of Vitamin A daily. If you are suffering from acne you may also want to supplement with Vitamin A (cod liver oil is good) and add zinc picolinate, 10-15 mgs a day.


It is much more useful to put vitamin A on your skin than to try to consume additional vitamin A to nourish your skin from the inside out. However, that requires making the right retinoid choice, not necessarily an easy prospect given the marketing clamor that surrounds the vast plethora of product choices. It involves reading labels, but the Vitamin A derivatives are usually easy to spot. To get started, here’s a list of the vitamin A derivatives that are best to avoid, if only because they are a waste of money:

  • Retinyl acetate--the skin can convert some, but not much, of this compound into the vitamin A derivative (retinoic acid) it needs.
  • Retinyl propionate--same thing. Its bragging point of not causing skin irritation is due to the fact that not much is happening because not much is converted to retinoic acid.
  • Retinyl palmitate--appears in many acne and anti-aging creams. Again, the body does not convert enough of it to retinoic acid to be very helpful.

In addition, the Environmental Working Group suggests that under some circumstances, when used in a sunscreen for example, retinyl palmitate may enhance tumor growth (please note the important distinction--retinyl palmitate does not induce tumor growth but may, under certain conditions, enhance the growth of a tumor already present.)

Unfortunately the retinyl palmitate cautionary has convinced watchdog groups to warn people off all forms of topical Vitamin A, which is a shame. Studies going back forty years demonstrate over and over the benefits of retinol and retinoic acid. Vitamin A is essential for normal skin differentiation and development, increases elasticity and collagen synthesis, improves water barrier properties and is the only substance we know of that reverses signs of photo aging.

The beneficial retinoids

Retinol is the form of vitamin A that can be transported through the bloodstream inside the human body. It is also the soluble form of vitamin A that your skin converts to retinoic acid as needed, thus avoiding the irritation that comes with applying straight-up retinoic acid. Because retinol degrades quickly in an acidic medium and when exposed to oxygen careful label reading is required: look for encapsulated retinol in fairly high concentrations.

Retinoic acid is the form of vitamin A that the skin actually uses. It binds on various receptor sites on cells in tissues throughout the body to switch genes on and off. Accutane, Retin-A, and Differin are varying strength retinoic acid medications prescribed by dermatologists. Retinoic acid can cause irritation, but it is sometimes the preferred treatment, especially if you are struggling with severe acne. Working with your dermatologist to get the right dosage is well worth the effort.

Vitamin C


Our only source of Vitamin C is our diet. In fact we belong to a very tiny group of mammals (including fruit bats and guinea pigs) that don’t make their own Vitamin C. Because Vitamin C performs so many functions and we use so much of it in the course of a day almost everyone can benefit from supplementing with extra Vitamin C. Up to 1,000 to 2000 mgs a day is fine; it’s water soluble and what you don’t use will just be excreted. It’s good to take it with Vitamin E because the antioxidant actions of C and E complement each other. A daily dose of 400 IUs of Vitamin E is plenty.


The skin benefits of Vitamin C are legion: it is required for tissue growth and collagen synthesis, inhibits melanin synthesis, protects against UV damage and has significant utility in the treatment of photodamage and/or skin wrinkling. For skin care topical delivery is ideal as it targets the tissue you want repaired or improved.

For topical Vitamin C used in skin care to work certain conditions must be met:


  • Must be ascorbic acid
  • Must be fresh (not oxidized)
  • Must be in concentrations of 10% or higher
  • Must be at a low pH, 3 or even lower


Best of the Best

In what might be the best news of all about the value of applying one’s daily quota of vitamins directly to one’s face, the study Retinoids in the Treatment of Skin Aging suggests that “topical application of a preparation containing both retinol and vitamin C could reverse, at least in part, skin changes induced by both chronological and photoaging.” In general, it seems that the greatest effects of vitamin C topical supplementation are seen when it is combined with other micronutrients, such as vitamin E and retinol.

The Verdict

Which way to supplement? When it comes to Vitamin A, topical retinoids are definitely the route to clear, smooth skin, and oral supplements are usually unnecessary. As for Vitamin C, oral supplements of Vitamin C are probably a good idea for those of us who don’t enjoy diets similar to a fruit bat’s, but topical applications are again our first choice for skin care. The big surprise is that, out of all the options, the greatest benefit appears to derive from topical applications of both Vitamin C and A.


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