Retinol: What It Is, How It Works, Uses, Health Benefit


Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A. It performs functions in the body that are tied to vision and normal human development. It’s commonly used as a dietary supplement and to treat skin conditions.


What It Is

Retinol is a form of vitamin A. Contrary to popular belief, vitamin A is not a single vitamin. Instead, it encompasses two families of compounds called retinoids and carotenoids. Retinol is one of the compounds in the retinoid family. 

Retinol is yellow in color. It is fat-soluble, which means that it dissolves in fat, unlike most other vitamins that are water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body’s fat, unlike excess water-soluble vitamins, which are passed out in urine.

Retinol is also known as vitamin A1 and you might see it being referred to as preformed vitamin A. You may sometimes see retinol being used interchangeably with vitamin A, despite this being technically incorrect.

How It Works

When retinol enters the body, it is converted to retinal and retinoic acid. And it is those forms that it performs its functions in the body. When the other forms of vitamin A like carotenoids entire the body, they are first converted to retinol before being changed to retinal and retinoic acid.


Retinol is only naturally found in foods derived from animals. Foods like milk, cheese, butter, fish, cod liver oil, liver, and meat are all good sources of retinol.

This is in contrast with the carotenoids (provitamin A) that are found in leafy green vegetables, orange and yellow vegetables, tomatoes, and fruits. Some non-animal sourced foods like cereal are also fortified with retinol.


Retinol is used in dietary supplements and in skin care.

Dietary Supplement

Retinol is sometimes used as a dietary supplement to treat or make up for vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness and xerophthalmia (non-reversible damage to the cornea), and retinol supplementation is used to treat and prevent these conditions. 

Sometimes this supplementation is in the form of drugs taken orally as tablets or capsules. Other times, the retinol is injected directly into the muscles so that it can be absorbed into the bloodstream quickly.

Skin Care

Retinol has many functions in the skin care and cosmetics products its included in. For one, it’s an anti-aging ingredient. When applied topically, it helps reduce wrinkles, treat hyperpigmentation, and generally lessen signs of skin aging. 

Retinol is also used to treat acne and acne scarring. Many over the counter acne-fighting creams and gels have retinol as the active ingredient. Skin care and cosmetic products made to treat hyperpigmentation, texture, and psoriasis often add it to their formulations.

How retinol works in the skin is that it changes the way cells in the dermis and epidermis function. More specifically, it increases the rate at which these cells divide to make new cells. It also improves the production of collagen in the skin.

Health Benefits

Retinol, whether consumed directly from animal food sources or supplements, plays some roles in the body. They include:

  1. Eyesight: Retinol is responsible for making the pigments in the eye’s retina and it promotes good night vision. When there are inadequate amounts of it in the body, vision can become impaired. Night blindness and total blindness can develop.
  2. Healthy growth and development: Retinol plays a vital role in cell growth and differentiation. In this way, it supports the normal development of the heart, kidneys, lungs, and many other organs, and helps maintain their proper functioning.  


Vitamin A nutritional needs are mostly quantified in terms of retinol. The recommended dietary intake of retinol for adult men is 900 micrograms (mcg) Retinol Activity Equivalent (RAE). For adult women, it is 700 mcg RAE. Pregnant women and lactating women are advised to get up to 770 mcg RAE and 1,300 mcg RAE, respectively. 

You may find that some labels for dietary intake recommendations use international unit (IU) as the unit of measurement. To convert from one unit of measure to the other, you can use the formula: 1 IU retinol = 0.3 mcg RAE.

This recommended dietary intake can be met either through your regular food choices or through nutritional supplements. 


In normal doses, retinol is well tolerated and doesn’t cause any side effects or complications. But when consumed or taken in excessively high doses, retinol may cause problems like:

  • Feeling sick, dizzy, and nauseous.
  • Having headaches, skin irritation, and pain in your joints and bones.
  • Birth defects (if a pregnant woman takes excessively high doses)
  • Acute vitamin A poisoning, which typically occurs when an adult takes several hundred thousand IUs of vitamin A at once. 
  • Chronic vitamin A poisoning, which is generally seen in adults who frequently take more than 25,000 IU daily
  • Liver damage

Excessive intake of retinol can also result in a coma or even death. It’s possible but unlikely that you will consume excessive amounts of retinol through food alone. Usually, when the levels of retinol in the body become toxic, it’s as a result of too much retinol supplementation.

A Word From Get Meds Info

Retinol is an essential nutrient in the human diet. It’s critical for the development and normal functioning of many organs in the body. As such, you should try as much as possible to get your daily recommended intake of Vitamin A.

As with most other vitamins and nutrients, it may be best to get your daily requirements from food sources, except otherwise recommended by a healthcare professional. Retinol is also one of the few skincare ingredients that have its effectiveness solidly backed by science. 

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