Acne and Vitamin A: Does Vitamin A Help Acne?


Vitamin A is crucial for clearing up your skin, but you may need a different kind than you get from carrots.

Are you ever confused by claims like these?

“Vitamin A is a miracle vitamin for your skin!”

“Eating Vitamin A-rich foods is dangerous!”

“Vitamin A cures acne!”

“You should never take vitamin A supplements because they can be toxic!”

“You can get all the vitamin A you need from carrots and other yellow-orange vegetables!”

If you’ve read up on vitamin A, you’re probably aware that it’s both important for health – including skin health – and that it can be dangerous if you get too much of it. This has resulted in many mainstream health experts warning people to avoid all vitamin A supplements, and instead shoot for the USDA’s absurdly low RDA recommended amounts, meeting these daily requirements with fruits and vegetables.

I think this is probably well-meaning, but fundamentally wrong – and your acne may be suffering for it.

First, let’s talk about why vitamin A is so critical for your skin.

How Does Vitamin A Help Acne?

Have you heard of Accutane (isotretinoin, aka 13-cis-retinoic acid)? How about Retin-A (tretinoin, aka all-trans-retinoic acid)? Both of these drugs have a form of vitamin A as the active ingredient. (Not that we recommend them – see below.) Retinoids (forms of retinol, also called preformed vitamin A) combat acne in the following ways. Retinoids:

  • Help prevent dead skin cells from sloughing off and clogging pores
  • Reduce the amount of oil your skin produces, which also reduces pore-clogging
  • Suppress androgen formation (androgens in the skin are a major cause of acne)
  • Protect fats from oxidation (which keeps cell damage and inflammation at bay) [1] [2]

Clearly, vitamin A is a power vitamin for skin! But know this: not all vitamin A is created equal. Some forms of vitamin A are ineffective, so you’ve really got to make sure you’re getting the right kind.

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Retinoids vs. Carotenoids: When Vitamin A Isn’t Vitamin A

There are two main classes of vitamin A – retinoids and carotenoids.

Retinoids – which include retinol and its various metabolites – are the forms of vitamin A that are biologically active in the body. They do vitamin A work. Retinol is found in animal foods, especially liver, but also eggs and dairy products.

Carotenoids are actually yellow-orange pigments, which are found in things like carrots and brightly-colored fall leaves (cool, huh?).  Of the 600 or more carotenoids that have been identified, only a few can be turned into bioavailable vitamin A by the body. The main one is beta-carotene (although alpha-carotene, gamma-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin are also forms of provitamin A).[3]  Dietary sources of provitamin A carotenoids include carrots, sweet potatoes, some dark green veggies, and basically any yellow-orange fruit or vegetable.

Now, provitamin A carotenoids like beta-carotene have their own good work they do in the body as antioxidants and other beneficial roles I won’t get into here. But this work is not vitamin A work. In order to do vitamin A work, beta-carotene must be absorbed and converted to retinol in the small intestine.

The problem here is that the body doesn’t absorb and convert carotenes nearly as efficiently as retinol. On average, your body only gets 1/12 (that’s one-twelfth) of the vitamin A activity from carotenes as from the same quantity of retinol!

But don’t think you can address that by diving back into your bag of baby carrots – the more beta-carotene you consume, the less efficiently your body absorbs it![4]  Sad face.

The takeaway here is that it’s great for your health to eat lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, but it is difficult to meet your total vitamin A needs from plant sources alone. That’s why it’s important to include plentiful preformed vitamin A – retinol – in your diet.

Are You Vitamin A Deficient?

It’s not easy to identify a vitamin A deficiency with a blood test unless your levels are really low. That’s because vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is stored in the liver, and the liver releases it as it’s needed to keep your blood levels relatively constant. However, when these liver stores start running out, blood levels of vitamin A start dropping, and you may develop symptoms.
Early symptoms of vitamin A deficiency include:

  • Night blindness (reduced ability to see in low light)
  • Impaired immunity, susceptibility to infections[5]
  • Rough, dry skin, including hyperkeratosis pilaris (rough bumps on the backs of the arms)[6]

Even if you don’t have these symptoms, you may have too-low vitamin A levels if you have less-than-ideal beta-carotene absorption and don’t regularly eat high-retinol foods like liver. Many factors inhibit the body’s ability to use beta-carotene from food, including:

  • Gut damage (which many acne suffers have!)
  • Strenuous exercise and other stressors
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Zinc deficiency
  • Consumption of polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils such as canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, peanut oil. Olive oil is fine!)
  • Low dietary fat[7]

Furthermore, you may go through vitamin A faster, and therefore need to replenish your supplies more often, if you have inflammation, since the liver releases vitamin A to help deal with inflammatory conditions in the body.[7]  The vast majority of acne sufferers have chronic inflammation – that’s why those zits are swollen, red, and painful!

So in short, our guess is that many people with acne are in the deficient to nearly deficient ranges – and it’s definitely worth boosting that intake!

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How Much Vitamin A Do I Need to Get Each Day?

The percent daily value on nutrition labels in the U.S. is based on an intake of 5,000 IU of vitamin A per day.[8]  For optimal acne-busting and overall health, we think you should get about twice this much.

If you are getting at least 4,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day and sufficient vitamin K2, you can very safely consume 10,000 IU of retinol each day.[9]  (Note that if you are not getting sufficient quantities of vitamins D3 and K2 and you consume 10,000 IU of retinol daily, over time, you are putting yourself at risk for vitamin A toxicity!)

Keep in mind as well that vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, so our bodies can store it up for when it’s needed. That means that you can get your vitamin A in spurts – a big dose one day a week in a dinner of liver, for example, can supply you with enough vitamin A to last you until next week!

How Can I Increase My Vitamin A Intake?

So glad you asked. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT take retinol as a pill unless this is under the careful direction of your physician. As you may have heard, vitamin A toxicity is a serious matter – basically, once your liver storage capacity is all used up, those storage cells get packed so full that some of them burst and release various vitamin A metabolites into the blood stream, disrupting your body’s oh-so-careful regulation of vitamin A blood levels. The effects of this are numerous, but among the more serious are severe birth defects and miscarriages, liver abnormalities, and bone mineral loss (think osteoporosis). Oh, and even coma and death, if you go really overboard.[9]  Even supplementing with the more innocuous beta-carotene has been linked with increased incidence of cancer in certain populations.[10]

So don’t do that. Instead, get your vitamin A from whole food sources, which contain a natural variety and balance of retinoids or carotenoids and other nutrients. Liver – from beef, lamb, goat, pork, chicken, or fish – is the absolute best source of preformed, highly absorbable vitamin A (animals store vitamin A in their livers, just like we do). Consider eating 1/4 to 1/2 pound of liver once per week (1/4 pound of beef liver contains about 30,000 IU of retinol).[11]

Lamb and goat liver tend to be a little milder than beef liver, in our experience, so they can be a good way to ease into eating liver. When it comes to liver, always go grass-fed! The liver stores toxins and antibiotics that can result from animals raised in feedlots. Also, liver is naturally pretty lean, so eat your liver with some fat to maximize that fat-soluble vitamin absorption.

Pastured eggs and dairy products also contain retinol – though we don’t recommend dairy for other acne-causing reasons, so stick with pastured eggs (about 300 IU per egg).

And finally, you can top it all off with a diet rich in varied yellow-orange (and some dark green) fruits and vegetables for some less-absorbable but still very healthy carotenoids. Sweet potato, pumpkin and winter squashes, carrots and cantaloupe are great choices, as are dark greens like kale, collards, and spinach. These plant sources have about 1,500 – 3,000 IU of provitamin A per half cup (cooked) serving.[12]

If you’re not hot on eating liver (though it’s really yummy fried up with bacon, garlic, onions, and greens!), an alternative source of retinol is fermented cod liver oil (FCLO) (which you can read more about here). We recommend the Green Pastures FCLO / butter oil blend, as the butter oil is a primo source of vitamin K2. One-half teaspoon a day of Green Pastures FCLO gives you about 4,600 IU of retinol, or half of your daily vitamin A needs, in a very natural form.[13]  If you are consuming no other animal products, you might take up to a full teaspoon each day.

Also, you don’t need to worry about whether eating your fruits and veggies will put you over the 10,000 IU mark. Carotenoids do not contribute at all toward vitamin A toxicity, so eat those carrots and sweet potatoes to your heart’s content. The worst thing that can happen if you get too much beta-carotene from food is that your skin might turn orange! (Totally reversible, don’t worry.)[13]

As I mentioned previously, make sure you’re also getting plenty of D3 and K2. You can get your D from daily sun exposure or supplementation (we recommend 5,000 IU per day – read our post on vitamin D for more info). K2 is found in fermented foods and in the butter oil fraction of Green Pastures FCLO / butter oil blend. Supplementation in pill form is also an option.

A Word on Isotretinoin, Tretinoin, and Other Synthetic Vitamin A-Based Acne Treatments

I mentioned these vitamin A-based acne treatments earlier in this post, but before I sign off I want to emphasize that these treatments are in no way “natural” or “healthy.” In food, vitamin A shows up in hundreds of different forms and along with gazillions of other molecules that affect their absorption and metabolism in ways we can’t even begin to understand. Isotretinoin (Accutane and other brands) contains a very large dose of one particular form of vitamin A that naturally occurs in the body only in very small quantities. Some of the effects of isotretinoin are consistent with vitamin A toxicity (e.g. severe birth defects, possible bone mineral loss with prolonged use), and some suggest vitamin A deficiency, as the isotretinoin may block the more appropriate vitamin A metabolites in the eyes, brain, and nerves.[14]

Prolific health blogger and holistic health practitioner Chris Kresser asserts that it is definitely possible to get the acne-defeating benefits of retinoids by eating foods naturally high in them – and with none of the terrible side-effects![15]

Key Takeaways

Okay, that was a lot of information! I hope knowing the “whole story” will help you feel confident in your food and supplement choices when it comes to meeting your vitamin A needs – for your skin, and for your overall health, too! To summarize the main points:

  • Vitamin A has a number vital acne-fighting functions.
  • Aim to get 10,000 IU of vitamin A, mostly in the form of retinol, each day. Get this by eating 1/4-1/2 pound of liver weekly, or by taking 1/2 teaspoon of fermented cod liver oil (blended with butter oil for K2) per day. Also eat plenty of pastured eggs, yellow-orange fruits and vegetables, and dark leafy greens.
  • Make sure you balance your vitamin A intake with at least 4,000 IU of vitamin D3 each day, either from sun or supplements, plus sources of vitamin K2 (fermented foods).
  • Check any multivitamin supplements you may be taking. If they contain vitamin A (as retinol, beta-carotene, or something else), discontinue them.
  • While having robust vitamin A levels is important if you’re trying to cure acne, it is only one piece of the overall acne-and-health puzzle! Check out our book to learn how to heal your acne with an all-natural diet and lifestyle.
Sources (click to expand)

  1. Ross, A. C. (2006). Vitamin A and Carotenoids. In M. E. Shils, M. Shike, A. C. Ross, B. Caballero, & R. Cousins (Eds.), Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease (10th ed., pp. 351–375). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ^
  2. Jaminet, P., & Jaminet, S.-C. (2012). Vitamins A, D, and K2. In Perfect Health Diet (pp. 265–280). New York: Scribner. ^
  3. Chapman, M. S. (2012). Vitamin A: history, current uses, and controversies. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, 31(1), 11–6. ^
  4. Ross, A. C. (2006). Vitamin A and Carotenoids. In M. E. Shils, M. Shike, A. C. Ross, B. Caballero, & R. Cousins (Eds.), Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease (10th ed., pp. 351–375). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ^
  5. Chapman, M. S. (2012). Vitamin A: history, current uses, and controversies. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, 31(1), 11–6. ^
  6. Kresser, C. (n.d.). Nutrition for Skin Health. ^
  7. Fallon, S., & Enig, M. G. (2002). Vitamin A Saga | Weston A Price. Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from ^
  8. National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). Daily Value. Dietary Supplement Label Database (DSLD). Retrieved May 22, 2014, from ^
  9. Jaminet, P., & Jaminet, S.-C. (2012). Vitamins A, D, and K2. In Perfect Health Diet (pp. 265–280). New York: Scribner. ^
  10. Druesne-Pecollo, N., Latino-Martel, P., Norat, T., Barrandon, E., Bertrais, S., Galan, P., & Hercberg, S. (2010). Beta-carotene supplementation and cancer risk: a systematic review and metaanalysis of randomized controlled trials. International Journal of Cancer. Journal International Du Cancer, 127(1), 172–84. doi:10.1002/ijc.25008 ^
  11. National Institutes of Health. (2013). Vitamin A. Office of Dietary Supplements. Retrieved May 21, 2014, from ^
  12. Higdon, J. (2007). Vitamin A. Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from ^
  13. Fallon, S., & Enig, M. G. (2009). Cod Liver Oil Basics and Recommendations | Weston A Price. Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts. Retrieved May 22, 2014, from ^
  14. Logan, A. C., & Treloar, V. (2007). The Clear Skin Diet (pp. 14–16). Naperville, IL: Cumberland House. ^
  15. Kresser, C. (n.d.). Nutrition for Skin Health. ^


  1. Gaby says

    As a vegan, would the plant based food sources of vitamin A not be enough?

    As I saw in another comment you answered, you said
    “assuming you’re not eating animals, you can get sufficient vitamin A from taking a retinol-form vitamin A capsule, around 10,000 IU per day.”

    But didn’t you say
    “DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT take retinol as a pill unless this is under the careful direction of your physician.
    Instead, get your vitamin A from whole food sources,” (of which you suggested mostly non-vegan sources)

    And I saw in another answer to another comment
    “We more strongly recommend avoiding supplements containing retinyl palmitate, which is the synthetic form of retinol.”

    Retinyl palmitate of which is in a seemingly vegan vitamin A supplement I found here:

    Please help me clear up the confusion as to how I should get my 10,000 IU!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Gaby! Sorry about the confusion here – we’ve changed our stance on this, and now think that taking retinyl palmitate is totally fine. So that’s what I would recommend for getting your 10,000 IU. We were basing previous warnings on some outdated/skewed info, and once we brushed up more on the science/data we found that there doesn’t appear to be any significant difference between synthetic retinyl palmitate and the palmitate found in animal foods. Hope this clears that up! 🙂

      • Marie says

        Hi there. Thank you for all of the great information. I am not vegan or vegetarian, but I don’t eat a lot of meat. I do eat eggs daily, though. Will taking 10,000 IU of Vitamin A daily take it over the top to toxic for me, and if so, how much should I take?

        • Devin Mooers says

          I don’t think that much vitamin A should be a problem. I see numbers like 20,000-30,000 IU per day as a good tolerable upper limit. Some studies/observations have indicated that if you have adequate vitamin D intake/levels, then you can tolerate more like 200,000-300,000 IU of vitamin A per day! A, D, and K2 all seem to balance each other out. In the case of D, it’s good to make sure you’re in the 25-40 ng/mL range as a general health precaution. I think 10,000 IU of vitamin A is fine, generally speaking.

  2. Lindsay says

    Hi devin,
    I just got your CSF book and in one of your sections in the book you recommend eating 1/4 lb of liver OR taking x4 dessicated liver capsules per day. However, after reading the website article above that you posted got me confused now because it seems like your contradicting yourself. In this website article you state to NOT take vitamin a supplements but in your book you say to take x4 dessicated liver capsules. What is the right answer? Also, I’m interested in taking the liver capsules because the thought of eating liver makes me sick! I’m not a vegetarian or vegan BTW just can’t stomach liver. THANKS!

  3. Gavin says

    Not sure if you look at these older blog comments anymore, but in case you do, what should I as a vegan eat to get a lot of vitamin A? I’ve been on Accutane and while it worked short term and didn’t cause me any problems, the acne came back. Animals are my friends (and I don’t eat friends), so that’s out of the question. I’m thinking I could eat a lot more carrots or something but any other ideas? Thanks!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Gavin! I look at them occasionally, not as much as I could though. 😛 Animals are my friends too, and… okay, let’s not get into that discussion! I really hear you on this and it’s a very complex issue for me personally. I feel a bit hurt at the implication/judgment that all meat-eaters are eating their friends, and as such are bad people, or that meat-eaters couldn’t possibly ever be friend with animals, etc… egads, it’s hard to talk about this stuff without offending people. Suffice it say, assuming you’re not eating animals, you can get sufficient vitamin A from taking a retinol-form vitamin A capsule, around 10,000 IU per day. I was going to recommend the Pure Encapsulations one but that’s partially based on fish liver oil so I won’t! Find another one that suits you and give it a try – it’s a much safer way to get vitamin A than taking Accutane. Full-fat dairy and egg yolks can also supply small amounts of retinol-form vitamin A, which when combined with orange / dark green veggies might be sufficient, but taking a retinol-form supplement at least for a little while can be a good way to get that level up. It’s worth noting that fluoride in water, toothpaste, pesticides, Teflon, etc. absolutely nukes vitamin A levels in the skin, driving up your requirements for A. It’s possible that in a much lower-toxin world, we would require much less vitamin A that we seem to in order to avoid acne. Hope you’re well!

  4. Martha Hoefel says

    Hi! I know you recommend the Garden of Life vitamin E supplement, which happens to have vitamin K, 5,000IU of vitamin A, selenium, and vitamin d. Would this be a good source of Vit A to keep taking? So far I have noticed some good effects, (my acne does not seem to get inflamed anymore…still have some bumps and clogged pores) but am still waiting to be less ‘oily’. I am also taking vit c, zinc, probiotics and Marine Collagen daily. Thanks for all of your insight!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Martha! That’s awesome that you’re seeing some benefit from taking this. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was mostly due to the vitamin E content, which reduces lipid peroxidation (a prime acne trigger). It’s got very little K, and the vitamin A is beta-carotene so won’t do much for your skin compared to retinol-form A. If you want to try a more potent form of vitamin A, try Pure Encapsulations Vitamin A (aff link) or a similar 5,000-10,000 IU per day *retinol* form instead of beta-carotene.

      Also what form of vitamin C are you taking? This is little-known, but ascorbic acid can interfere with ceruloplasmin synthesis in the liver (ceruloplasmin is required for proper copper metabolism/use in the body). Whole-food vitamin C is safer for the body based on my research/reading – acerola, camu, rosehips, or similar whole-food-based form of vitamin C. Ascorbic acid also insanely boosts iron absorption – not good, since that can worsen lipid peroxidation in the body (and also acne).

      • L says

        Hi, I looked up your suggestion for “Pure Encapsulations Vitamin A” and it says it is sourced from Cod Liver Oil. I thought in another article you said NOT to take cod liver oil?

        • Devin Mooers says

          I did say that, but that’s due to the amount of PUFA you get when you take, say, a teaspoon of CLO. You get a small fraction of that amount by taking one of the vitamin A capsules – the vitamin A is concentrated from the cod liver oil, so you get a lot less PUFA and more vitamin A. There are also A-only supplements that aren’t from cod liver oil if you want to go that route! (E.g. Genestra A-Mulsion)

  5. Otto says

    What about the butter in in the Green Pastures CLO? Thought we were avoiding all dairy products?

    Also is initial purge-breakout common?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Butter’s pretty fine IMO, as long as it’s from grass-fed cows. It contains some hormones but likely not enough to cause a serious issue. We’re currently not recommending FCLO, actually, just have yet to update our blog. This is due to new research we’ve come across about PUFA and lipid peroxidation and how that can trigger acne. We’ve updated our book recently with new vitamin A recommendations (liver, liver capsules, vitamin A capsules, etc.), and will try to update the blog when we can!

      Initial purge-breakouts almost always happen when you make a big dietary shift, or go cold turkey on topical treatments or BC pill or antibiotics, or make similarly large and abrupt changes. Dairy also contains a lot of iodine which can cause transient acne due to fluoride/bromide purging.

  6. Evarist Vella/ Pineappledeficiency says

    Very well written article loved reading it your sense of humour while writing makes the article interesting to read while it is still full of high quality information. What i would add under the subtitle how does vitamin A help acne is that vitamin A regulates your sebaceous gland, and if the sebaceous gland is not properly functioning it will lead to multiple problems with your skin. keep up the amazing work i will be recommending this page to my friends.

    • Devin Mooers says

      I’m still not entirely clear on this. Most supplements contain retinyl palmitate, which I believe is the form the liver stores vitamin A in, but not sure. Retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A, AFAIK. I still don’t know whether retinyl palmitate from supplements is safe for long-term consumption. If you turn up any research on that, please let me know. If I could recommend that to people, it would help many folks boost their A intake if they can’t get a source of grass-fed liver or liver capsules. But eating 4-8oz of liver per week is a great way to get vitamin A and tons of other great nutrients!

  7. Victoria says

    Thank you for such a well through out post! I have been dealing with mild comedonal acne on my chin for 6 months now and I am totally averse to prescription meds. From my own searches I have decided to try eating liver once per week because I don’t really eat any vitamin A containing foods (excerpt for the beta-carotene kind) so I would love to see if this alongside other dietary and lifestyle changes will improve my skin texture.

    Have you ever experienced success in treating this type of “bumpy skin” acne with diet?

    Many thanks


    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Victoria! Sorry for the insane delay on this. Yeah definitely, keratosis pilaris tends to be a sign of vitamin A deficiency, and often clears up with increased retinol-form A intake. Certainly happened for me. Fluoride also severely inhibits vitamin A in the skin, so avoiding all sources of fluoride can be a big help with boosting effectiveness of vitamin A you’re already getting.

  8. Sophie says

    I just started taking a “Dry Vitamin A” tablet by Country Life to see if it will help improve acne. Does this sound ok to you?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sophie! Not sure. I’ve read in at least one place that dry vitamin A might not be as beneficial as vitamin A in oil (i.e. softgels). Really, we think the best way to get vitamin A is through liver (eating liver or taking liver capsules (aff link)), and from eating eggs and such, and vitamin A pills are really a distant second. If you chose to do that, I’d pick something like Carlson’s or Pure Encapsulations Vitamin A softgels.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Nyi! Zincovit looks like a pretty good multi, though without knowing the individual forms of each vitamin/mineral, it’s hard to say how good it really is. For Cotrim, we really don’t recommend taking antibiotics long-term. SO many people who come to CSF, buy our book, and try our program have long-standing gut problems and other systemic problems from taking antibiotics. Consult your doctor on this, of course. Our book has a big section on why we don’t recommend treatments like antibiotics for acne, since they don’t do anything about the root causes of acne. I hope this helps!

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