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 is A313 and what's in it
- Whether it's the same as Avibon
- What it does and how it changed my skin
- 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).
Does A313 Work?
Alright, so here's my experience. I will confess that I skipped the "building up" stage and jumped right into nightly applications since I'd already been using Shani Darden Retinol Reform (reviewed here). At the time, its active ingredient was a retinol ester, so I figured A313 would be similar.
Boy, was I wrong! I was surprised to discover that A313 is much stronger. Not only did my skin get dry and flaky for the first few weeks, it also itched like crazy every night (but more on that in a moment!). It wasn't irritated, though—just peeling around my chin and nasolabial folds, as you can see in the "before" photo on the left.
I haven't experienced that kind of peeling with any other over-the-counter retinoid, and I've tried plenty of them. (Besides Retinol Reform, I've used The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane, Drunk Elephant A-Passioni, and Osmosis MD Renew Advanced Retinal Serum, to name just a few.)
The peeling was very similar to what you get when starting prescription Retin-A, minus the redness and extreme dryness. I dealt with it by using my Foreo Luna to buff off the flakes, and stepping up my daytime hydration with heavier moisturizers and moisturizing masks. I also applied Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster every morning, since niacinamide has been found to reduce dryness. It all paid off, because after three months, the flakiness and dry skin significantly improved.
After about two or three months, I noticed I had more of a glow, and my skin was smoother, more even-toned... and dare I say it, "plumper." In reading other reviews, I know I'm not the only one who has witnessed this phenomenon. This stuff works some kind of magic overnight because when you wake up, your face just seems fuller and firmer, as well as softer and more hydrated. I've never had results like that from any other skincare product!
It also helps to keep pores clean and any breakouts under control. I've found that in conjunction with a BHA (I love COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid), it speeds the healing of existing blemishes and prevents acne and blackheads from developing in the first place. I hear that some people just use it as a spot treatment, and you could certainly do that, but it will be more effective if you apply it all over.
And this is my skin now, after using A313 for almost three years. (I only took breaks for a few months here and there to test other treatments, but I always go back to it!) All I am wearing on my skin here is some Kosas Revealer Concealer to cover dark circles, and a tiny bit of W3ll People Bio Base powder foundation around my nose and chin, where I get redness.
No, it didn't eradicate my freckles, but I'm really happy with my ongoing results. I think the fine lines around my eyes have actually softened, and I don't get any side effects at all now. Overall, my skin just seems thicker and more resilient!
I would even go as far as saying that the results are comparable to a mild Retin-A. As someone who finds prescription retinoids too strong, but most over-the-counter retinoids too weak, A313 hits that perfect sweet spot in the middle. Even though it only contains a retinol ester, it is surprisingly powerful, and I've now tested it against so many other retinoids that I know it works.
How to Use A313
This product doesn't come with any specific usage instructions, just general warnings like:
- Don't use it if you have an allergy to one of the ingredients
- Don't use it on infected or weeping skin lesions, mucous membranes or burns
- Talk to your doctor before using it if you are pregnant
- Don't store it above 25°C (77°F)
So they kind of leave you on your own, but not to worry—I've got some suggestions:
1. Use it at night: Although the pamphlet in the box actually says "one or two times a day," I recommend applying it at nighttime only. In general, it's better to use retinoids before bed because they break down in sunlight. And trust me, this is not a cute treatment. It's going to make you look like you dipped your face in Vaseline, which probably isn't the daytime look that you're going for.
2. Make sure your skin is dry: Some dermatologists believe that applying retinoids to damp skin increases the risk of irritation (since damp skin is more permeable and enhances absorption). But others say this is a myth, so it's really up to you. If you want to be on the safe side, try waiting about 20 minutes after washing your face.
3. Use a pea-sized amount: A little goes a long way, so a pea-sized dab should be enough to cover your entire face. You can also use it on your neck and chest, if you like (which might take another half-pea).
4. Spread it in a thin layer: I'm going to warn you right now, the texture is just like petroleum jelly, or a pure lanolin nipple cream like Lansinoh. In other words, it's a thick, translucent ointment that coats your skin in a shiny film. What I find easiest is to apply it to my face in quadrants (so one quarter-pea at a time), and then spread it all around. You can also use it on any eye-area wrinkles. Just don't go too close to the lash lines, and use it more sparingly there, because you don't want it to seep into your eyes.
5. Skip night cream: I never use moisturizer on top of A313. Since it has such an ointment-like texture, it already feels nourishing enough. Plus, it is quite occlusive, so any humectants would have trouble penetrating through it—meaning your night cream would have very little benefit. That said, if it's too strong for you, you can use moisturizer underneath to "buffer" it. More on that below!
6. Wear sunscreen: This one goes without saying. A good sunscreen is always essential, but even more so when using retinoids. Check out my guide to the best mineral sunscreens if you need some recommendations.
How Often to Use A313
If you're new to vitamin A, it's important to go slow at first—especially because this happens to be one of the strongest over-the-counter retinoids. Instead of diving in like I did, try the "1-2-3" rule:
- Once a week for the first week
- Twice a week for the next two weeks
- Three times a week for the next three weeks
- Every other night (if tolerated) for the next few months
- Nightly (if tolerated)
If your skin is already used to retinoids, you can probably do more frequent applications right away. Either way, you'll get the best results if you can eventually get to the point where you're using your retinoid at least three times a week.
How Long Does A313 Take to Work?
Just like a prescription retinoid, it starts "working" right away, but most people will go through an initial adjustment period involving dryness, irritation and itching. This typically lasts about four to six weeks. During month two, as these side effects subside, you should start seeing some improvements in your skin.
But stick with it, because the most noticeable results will manifest after three months. By that time, you can expect a smoother texture, more even tone and increased clarity. However, wrinkles take the longest to treat, with changes occurring after six months and even more so after one year.
Why Does A313 Itch?
Itching is a common and expected side effect. As I mentioned, I experienced it during the first few weeks—I would apply the retinoid, go to bed, and then be woken up in the night with the urge to scratch my face off! Many readers have told me that they went through the exact same thing.
But don't worry, this is a normal part of the retinoid adjustment period, and happens because it makes your skin drier. As your skin builds up a tolerance, the itching should disappear completely. With me, it took about one month of riding it out with consistent use before the itching stopped, never to return again.
In the meantime, there are some things you can do if the itching is too much to bear. You can back off on the frequency of your applications, or try "short contact therapy," which means applying the retinoid for a short period of time and then washing it off. Gradually increase the amount of time that it's left on your skin until you tolerate leaving it all night. Also make sure that you are moisturizing well, and even buffering with moisturizer if necessary (see below).
Can You Mix A313 with Moisturizer?
Another way to reduce any itching, dryness or irritation is to "buffer" your retinoid with moisturizer. You can either apply a layer of moisturizer to your skin before you put on A313, or mix it with equal parts moisturizer. This will dilute it, so it won't be as strong. But you'll want to gradually cut back on the moisturizer over time in order to get the full benefits.
Does A313 Cause Purging?
If you're acne-prone and new to retinoids, your skin might go through an initial purge. But purging is actually a good thing because it means the retinoid is bringing up clogged sebum that was trapped under the skin surface. This process usually lasts only a month or so. It's less likely, but also possible, that A313 could cause regular breakouts if it just doesn't agree with your skin. See my tutorial for how to tell the difference between purging and breakouts.
How to Layer A313
Any products with an acidic pH should go on your skin before you apply A313. That means AHAs and BHAs, as well as acidic forms of vitamin C (like L-ascorbic acid). I recommend leaving them on your skin for a good 20 to 30 minutes before you layer the retinoid on top—otherwise, you could reduce their effectiveness. Just keep in mind that these will increase your risk of irritation, so you may want to take a break from them until your skin adjusts.
Non-acidic night serums, such as niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and vitamin C derivatives, can also go on before your retinoid. Once they have absorbed, you can apply the retinoid—no waiting period necessary.
Where to Buy A313
If you follow me on Instagram, you might remember "A313 gate," which happened when the company first released the North American packaging and a bunch of us suspected that it might be fake. Fortunately, I was able to confirm with both Pharma Développement and ASA Distribution (the North American distributor) that the two versions are 100% legit. The only reason there's different packaging here is for regulatory reasons: "Following government requirements, the packaging has to have an English translation and meet the American classification of the ingredients."
To be sure, I also purchased new tubes of each. I got the French one from Skin Color and the North American one from Amazon (sadly, it's no longer sold there). In my testing, I detected zero difference in texture and most importantly, performance, so I'm confident you'll get the same amazing results no matter which one you buy! Here's where to shop:
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