Feeling curious about Vitamin A, which is also known as retinol?
You may be in-the-know about retinol and skincare, but what about what Vitamin A does internally for our organs and cells?
Vitamin A, along with other vitamins, minerals and compounds, is classed as being an essential micronutrient, which gives you can idea of how important it is to the human body.
However, unlike other vitamins, our body can’t actually make Vitamin A itself.
This means it’s down to us – our diet in particular – to provide us with the Vitamin A we need in order for our bodies to function healthily.
This article is dedicated to helping you find out all about Vitamin A, including what it does, how much you need of it, where to find it, and who might need to supplement their diet with it.
What is Vitamin A?
Vitamin A is the collective term for a group of fat-soluble nutrients.
The body stores excess Vitamin A in the liver until it’s needed, which means we don’t need a daily supply of it. However, we should still aim to get enough of it through our diet every week.1
Vitamin A is vital for eye health – particularly your retina. Your cells use Vitamin A to reproduce and grow, which is particularly important for skin health because skin has a high turnover of cells.
What’s more, the immune system uses Vitamin. (For more on the relationship between Vitamin A and vision, check out this article, ‘The role of Vitamin A in eye health.’)
As well as being called retinol, Vitamin A is also referred to as: beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, retinyl acetate and retinyl palmitate.2
- Vitamin A is the collective term for a group of fat-soluble nutrients
- We don’t need it every day; it’s stored in our liver until we do need it
- It’s important we still get enough Vitamin A through our diet though
What does Vitamin A do?
Vitamin A helps support:3
- Normal vision – not only does it create the pigments in the retina of the eye, but it is essential for normal vision and overall eye health.4
- Skin health – Vitamin A signals for our cells to grow faster rate, generating fresher, more youthful skin.
- Normal immune system function – by helping your body's natural defence and keeping your immune system working normally.
- Bone health - a 2017 study found that higher dietary consumption of Vitamin A may help keep bones healthy.
- Vitamin A is responsible for doing a lot of fundamental good in the body
- For instance, it’s essential for eye health and day and night vision
- Our cells use Vitamin A to reproduce and grow. Our immune system uses it to fight infections
How much Vitamin A per day do we need?
The amount of Vitamin A you need depends on the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for your age and sex.
Women need 600mcg of Vitamin A per day and men 700mcg.13
A medium sweet potato gives you around 1,100mcg and a medium raw carrot about 500mcg.14
How much Vitamin A do children need?
- 1-6 years – 400mcg daily
- 7-10 years – 500mcg daily
- 11-14 years – 600mcg daily15
- Vitamin A levels are determined by your age and sex
- Women need 600mcg of Vitamin A every day and men, 700mcg a day
- Children need anywhere between 400 and 600mcg a day
Vitamin A sources
Vitamin A, which is present in both animal and plant-based foods, is available in two main forms:
- Retinol - from animal products
- Carotenoids or beta-carotene - found in certain fruits and vegetables, including carrots, spinach and sweet potatoes. Our bodies convert beta-carotene into Vitamin A.16
Orange vegetables contain the most beta carotene, e.g. sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots and squash.
Other coloured vegetables, such as red peppers, contain beta carotene too (more on this below).
It’s also present in green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, greens and lettuce, although it is harder for the body to use the carotene from these sources.
The body can use the Vitamin A more easily in cooked or processed vegetables than in raw ones.17
Fruits with the highest level of carotene are also generally orange. For instance, ripe mango, papaya, cantaloupe melon and apricots, both dried and fresh food sources.
Overall, most people get all the Vitamin A they need from their diet, but some groups, such as vegans, can have low intakes.18
Note – it’s important not to overcook Vitamin A food sources because this can reduce the natural Vitamin A levels. Ultraviolet light can also lower the Vitamin A content of food, so avoid keeping your vegetables, particularly your fruit, in direct sunlight.2
- Vitamin A is present in both animal and plant-based foods
- It’s available as retinol, which is obtained from animal products and;
- Carotenoids or beta-carotene present in certain fruit and veg
What are the symptoms of a Vitamin A deficiency?
Vitamin A deficiency in the UK is rare.22
However, low levels could affect your night vision. Other symptoms include dry skin, flaky scalp and brittle hair.24
What happens if I consume too much Vitamin A?
You’d need to take a dose hundreds of times over the RNI for Vitamin A to do you some harm in the short term.25
However, consuming three times the RNI every day over several years may potentially impact bone and liver health.26
The NHS advises restricting liver and liver pâté to once a week or less because it’s rich in retinol.
It’s also important if you’re taking a Vitamin A supplement, that your daily dose doesn’t exceed 1.5mg.27
And finally, be careful you’re not accidentally doubling up on Vitamin A from different sources – for example, taking cod liver oil, plus a multivitamin.
- It’s rare for people to be deficient in Vitamin A in the UK
- Vitamin A deficiency can lead dry skin, flaky scalp and brittle hair, among other things
- If you’re taking a Vitamin A supplement, don’t take more than 1.5mg a day
When should I take Vitamin A supplements?
Vitamin A is fat-soluble, so it’s not necessary for you have it every single day because it’s stored in the body.
In the UK, the only people who need to take a supplement are those who have trouble absorbing Vitamin A or who don’t eat enough Vitamin A-rich foods.28
Should children take Vitamin A supplements?
The government recommends children aged six months to five years take a daily multivitamin that contains Vitamin A.29
Should women take a Vitamin A supplement during pregnancy?
Too much Vitamin A could damage the health of an unborn baby.
Because of this, pregnant women shouldn’t take supplements that contain Vitamin A, unless advised by a doctor. They should also avoid eating liver and pâté, which have high retinol levels.30
Handpicked content: Vitamin A in pregnancy
- If your body struggles to absorb Vitamin A or you don’t eat enough Vitamin A-rich foods, you may need to take a supplement
- The government recommends children aged six months to five years old take a daily multivitamin containing Vitamin A
- Pregnant women shouldn’t take supplements containing Vitamin A
4 of the best Vitamin A supplements
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These softgel capsules contain a combination of fish liver oil, Vitamin A & D. Take one capsule daily, preferably with a meal. Do not exceed the stated dose.
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Designed for children aged three-years-old and over, these juicy and chewy softies contain Omega 3, as well as Vitamins D, A, B6, B12, E and C.
Each softie contains 400ug of Vitamin A. Take one softie a day.
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Each softgel capsule contains 6mg of beta carotene. Take one softgel capsule daily, preferably with a meal. Do not exceed the stated dose.
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Customer rating: 4.2 stars
BetterYou MultiVit Oral spray is an expert blend of 14 essential vitamins and minerals – B vitamins, folic acid and Vitamins A, C, D, K1 as well as other key minerals - that work together to support your body’s immune system.
Containing 600IU of Vitamin A, this spray is specially formulated to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream, bypassing the digestive system.
Use four sprays a day – spray directly under the tongue or on to the inner cheek.
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"I have purchased this vitamin spray a number of times and absolutely love it. It is packed with vitamins and is so much nicer than swallowing multivitamin tablets."
So, there you have it, the foods, sources, functions, benefits and side effects of Vitamin A.
While it’s not essential we eat it every single day, it’s important we have adequate levels of it stored in our liver to help keep our body working as it should and for vital development.
From eye, bone and skin health, to your immune system, this single vitamin alone is responsible for making a whole lot of good take place, inside and out.
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
At the very start of this article, we mentioned Vitamin A (retinol) and skincare.
In this article, we explain the relationship between Vitamin A and the skin, ‘What does Vitamin A do for the skin?’
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Last updated: 27 July 2021