A study by U.S. government scientists suggests that retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight (NTP 2012).
The evidence, while not definitive, is troubling. The sunscreen industry adds vitamin A to more than 20 percent of the beach and sport sunscreens, daily face sunscreens and SPF-rate makeup products in EWG’s 2013 sunscreen database.
Vitamin A is an anti-oxidant that is added to skin products because manufacturers believe it slows skin aging. They may be right in the case of lotions and night creams used indoors, but the federal study of vitamin A’s carcinogenic properties raised the possibility that it may speed the growth of cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight. Scientists have known for some time that vitamin A can spur excess skin growth, known as hyperplasia. They also have found that in sunlight retinyl palmitate can form free radicals that damage DNA (NTP 2000).
In 2010, EWG reviewed the raw study data, which had been published on the website of the National Toxicology Program, the inter-agency federal research group that conducted the tests, along with the federal Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research. EWG found that when lab animals were coated with a cream laced with vitamin A and then exposed to the equivalent of nine minutes of maximum intensity sunlight every day for a year, the development of tumors dramatically accelerated, compared to two control groups (NTP 2009).
In December 2010, the FDA and NTP teams published a draft report consistent with EWG’s findings. On January 26, 2011, the NTP Board of Scientific Counselors unanimously adopted this position. (NTP 2010, NTP 2011). The NTP published the final report on this project last year (NTP 2012). In it the NTP concludes that both retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid, another form of Vitamin A, sped up the development of cancerous lesions and tumors on UV-treated animals.
Despite the strong scientific evidence that vitamin A can trigger carcinogenic activity on skin, the FDA has delayed taking action to restrict retinyl palmitate in sunscreens. The agency has ordered additional studies. At this point, the NTP and FDA have spent more than a decade studying the safety of vitamin A ingredients on skin. While it is important that scientists thoroughly explore causes of sunlight-stimulated illness, the FDA’s decision to delay action in favor of more studies will almost certainly postpone regulatory action indefinitely.
Meanwhile, EWG’s analysis of cosmetic ingredients has found retinyl palmitate and retinol, another form of vitamin A, in hundreds of sunscreens, skin lotions, lipsticks and lip sunscreens – all of which appear to pose safety concerns for sun-exposed skin.
Three full years after EWG sounded the alarm about retinyl palmitate, there is still no FDA position on the safety of vitamin A ingredients in cosmetics. Most cosmetics companies have not removed these ingredients from sunscreens and other skin and lip products. Sunscreen scientists and trade groups continue to dispute EWG’s warning (Wang 2010).
EWG recommends that consumers avoid products containing vitamin A, retinyl palmitate and retinol.
If you are undergoing skin treatments with any form of vitamin A for medical purposes, you should do so in consultation with a dermatologist, apply treatments at night if possible, and always practice strict sun avoidance when using these powerful ingredients on your skin.
Click here for EWG’s 2011 science update on vitamin A.