Our Guide to the Most Effective Internal + Topical Skin Supplements

by Marie Veronique

Retinol

We are diehard enthusiasts for the benefits of vitamins A+C on skin health. Decades of academic research supports their efficacy and safety—administered properly, their positive effects are unmatched, especially when used together. Our skin and our systems need appropriate amounts of both of these vitamins to function, so we generally suggest a combination of topical and internal supplementation and diet. 

Vitamin A

Internal

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—although it’s important to note that the beta-carotene (or pro-vitamin A) that you get from orange-colored root vegetables and dark leafy greens is utilized less efficiently than the retinyl esters, the "animal" vitamin A you get from cream, butter, liver or cod liver oil. It’s safe for vegetarians to take supplements of up to 5000 IUs of vitamin A daily. If you suffer from acne, you may also want to add an internal vitamin A supplement (we suggest cod liver oil) and add 10-15 mgs zinc picolinate a day, as well.

Topical

It is much more effective to add a topical vitamin A to your skin care routine than to attempt to nourish your skin from the inside out using internal supplements. But this requires choosing the right retinoid—which is not always easy given the marketing clamor that surrounds this particular ingredient. Making a good choice requires you to read labels, but vitamin A derivatives are usually easy to spot and avoid. The three ingredients below 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) that it needs.
  • Retinyl propionate—This ingredient’s bragging point is that it doesn’t cause skin irritation, but this is due to the fact that, like retinyl acetate, very little of it is converted to retinoic acid (so very little is happening overall).
  • Retinyl palmitate—This appears in many acne and anti-aging creams, but like the two options above, the body does not convert enough of it to retinoic acid for it to be very helpful.

Additionally, 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 that is already present.)

Unfortunately, the retinyl palmitate cautionary has convinced watchdog groups to warn people off of all forms of topical vitamin A, which is unfortunate, because forty years of studies support 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.

Retinoids that work (safely, of course)

Retinol—what we use in our Gentle Retinol Serum and Treatment Retinol Serum—is the form of vitamin A that can be transported through the human bloodstream. It is also the soluble form of vitamin A that your skin converts to retinoic acid as needed, thus avoiding the irritation caused by applying straight-up retinoic acid. Retinol delivers similar results to retinoic acid, but they are slower to appear. The wait is well worth it to those who have sensitive skin or wish to avoid irritation. 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. Anywhere from 0.1% (if skin is quite sensitive) to 1% is good.

Retinoic acid is the form of vitamin A that the skin actually uses. It binds onto 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. It’s important to work with your dermatologist to get the right dosage.

B Vitamins

Internal

B vitamins are crucial to maintaining healthy skin—two in the complex particularly stand out. For mitochondrial support and anti-aging, take up to 1500 mgs of vitamin B3 (as niacinamide, not niacin) daily. Also take a B vitamin complex to ensure you don’t become deficient in the other Bs. Vitamin B5, aka pantothenic acid, helps to control acne by breaking down sebum. Please see 6 Tips for Treating Persistent Acne for more details.

Topical

Vitamin B3, aka niacinamide, has long been established as an aid to fighting inflammation. New research shows it also offers significant anti-aging benefits for its role in boosting mitochondrial function. For both anti-aging and sun protection benefits, vitamin B3 should be applied topically in a serum containing at least 5% niacinamide.

Vitamin C

Internal

Our diet is our only source of vitamin C—in fact, we belong to a tiny group of mammals (which includes fruit bats and guinea pigs) whose bodies 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 supplementation. Vitamin C is water soluble, so what you don’t use will just be excreted, therefore we recommend 1000-2000 mgs per day. The antioxidant actions of vitamins C and E complement each other—400 IUs of vitamin E per day is plenty.

Topical

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. When it comes to skin care, topical delivery of vitamin C is ideal as it targets the tissue you want repaired or improved. For topical vitamin C to work in skin care, 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 lower)

Vitamin A+C

In what might be the best news of all about the value of applying your daily quota of vitamins directly to your face, 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.” 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.

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Gentle Retinol Serum

Gentle Retinol Night Serum

Our high tech formula permits anhydrous Vitamin C and microencapsulated retinol, with stabilization assist from Vitamin E, to coexist to deliver near-miraculous results.

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Treatment Retinol Serum

Treatment Retinol Serum

Clears pores and controls breakouts. Boosts collagen production and speeds cell turnover with retinol and Vitamin C to smooth fine lines and wrinkles.

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Vitamin C+E+Ferulic Serum

Vitamins C+E+Ferulic Serum

Vitamin C, E and Ferulic Acid combination delivers a sun protection boost to daily sunscreen. Besides providing antioxidant protection, Vitamin C works at night to rebuild collagen.

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Have a question about our blog content and how it may apply to your own skin concerns? Email us to get personalized advice from our on-call estheticians, or browse our Product Recommendations.