French women are famous for their flawless, foundation-free skin—and perhaps the reason why is a cult-favourite retinol called A313. Just like its predecessor, Avibon, this pharmaceutical-grade vitamin A cream is sold over-the-counter at pharmacies in France. And if you ask me, it's one of the country's best beauty secrets.
But you don't need a flight to Paris in order to buy it (although that would be nice!). It's also widely available for purchase online, no prescription required. I first stumbled upon it back in 2018, and it's been a part of my skincare routine ever since. Spoiler alert: After experiencing such incredible results, which I'm sharing below, it has become my all-time favourite retinoid (and that's saying a lot!).
In this review, I'll be covering what's in A313, how it compares to Avibon, how it transforms your skin, and how to use it for best results.
If you're keen to try an inexpensive yet powerful retinoid, read on.
What Is A313?
To understand why it has such a cult following, you need to know about Avibon, another French pharmacy retinoid that was made famous by Gwyneth Paltrow. Like many North Americans, I first heard about Avibon in an old Goop newsletter:
"Avibon is hard to find outside of France, but it's one of my very favourites. It's full of Vitamin A, which is wonderful for the skin, getting rid of blemishes, tough dry spots and preventing wrinkles (they say). I know an older movie star who uses this every night and she has the most amazing skin!"
When Gwyneth wrote that back in 2012, Avibon instantly achieved cult status. Even so, it remained out of reach for most people, since you had to actually go to France in order to buy it. Alas, I didn't manage to make it there before the manufacturer, Sanofi, suddenly discontinued it in 2013. According to OTC bulletin:
Sanofi has stopped marketing its Avibon vitamin A skin ointment in France. After batches of the ointment were recalled in March 2013 due to "product stability" problems, Sanofi's "various attempts at improvement" had not resulted in "a product that met current quality standards," a spokesperson for the French firm told OTC bulletin.
Lucky for us, A313 is the next best thing—in fact, I think the formula might be even better!
Is A313 Retinol?
As you can see above, the ingredients list looks slightly different depending on whether you are looking at the French or North American packaging. Here's my translation of the French version:
Composition: Synthetic Vitamin A (from concentrate) in oily form — 200,000 IU (international units)
Excipients: Macrogol 4000, Macrogol 400, Polysorbate 80
And here's what you see if you buy it in North America:
Ingredients: PEG 400, PEG 4000, Polysorbate 80, Retinyl Palmitate 200,000 IU per cent
Rest assured, I have confirmed with the manufacturer (Pharma Développement) that the formula is exactly the same for both. Although there's nothing on French tube or box that specifies which form of vitamin A they're using, it is indeed 200,000 IU of retinyl palmitate.
What is retinyl palmitate? It's not retinol, but it is another type of retinoid called a retinol ester. Retinol esters are the mildest vitamin A derivatives, because they need to be converted three times within our skin before they become active retinoic acid.
Now, here's where it gets confusing. According to Pharma Développement, the 200,000 IU is equivalent to just 0.06% retinyl palmitate. But since 1 IU of vitamin A is equal to 0.3 micrograms of retinol, we can calculate that there are 0.6 grams in each 50 gram tube, which works out to a 0.12% concentration of retinol.
Either way, the amount of the active ingredient is a lot lower than you'd think. But based on my personal experience and results, as well as feedback from dozens of readers over the years, I suspect that the base ingredient is what makes it act like a much stronger retinoid.
The retinyl palmitate is suspended in a base of polyethylene glycol (a.k.a. PEG or "macrogol"), which has two key benefits. One, it helps to stabilize the vitamin A so that it stays active and does not break down. And two, it acts as a penetration enhancer to help the vitamin A get into your skin.
Is A313 the Same As Avibon?
Now, you're probably wondering how it differs from Avibon (which is no longer available).
First of all, while A313 has 200,000 IU of vitamin A, Avibon had five times that amount: 1,000,000 IU. Avibon also contained three retinol esters (retinyl acetate, retinyl propionate and retinyl palmitate) instead of just one.
However, Avibon had a lanolin base, and I suspect that may be why there were stability and quality issues that led to the product being discontinued. It was also fragranced, whereas A313 is unscented.
All in all, I think the A313 formula is probably superior. Despite the fact that you're getting less vitamin A, it is working more efficiently because the polyethylene glycol is keeping it active and maximizing penetration. "Stronger" is not necessarily better!
What Does A313 Do?
The manufacturer doesn't make any claims regarding what it can treat. But based on the current research about retinyl palmitate, here's what you might expect:
- Thickens the skin: This study concluded that topical retinyl palmitate increased the thickness of the epidermis and increased collagen within the dermis. Another study, on retinyl palmitate combined with glycolic acid, found that together, they thickened the epidermis as well as improved skin hydration.
- Reduces fine lines and wrinkles: According to this study, retinyl palmitate significantly reduced eye-area wrinkles after 30 days. This study also found that retinyl palmitate reduced skin wrinkling.
- Improves sun damage: A retinyl palmitate-based oil produced an improvement with not only fine lines and wrinkles, but also pigmentation, uneven tone, roughness, firmness and clarity in this 12-week study. Another study hypothesized that a retinyl palmitate cream contributed to the partial repair of photoaged skin by increasing collagen deposits in the dermis.
- Clears acne: Although I couldn't find any specific research on retinyl palmitate and acne, we know that vitamin A derivatives can help keep skin clear by increasing cell turnover (as per this report).