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The problem with vitamin A

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 20 percent of the beach and sport sunscreens and 12 percent of daily face sunscreens in EWG’s 2014 sunscreen database.

Vitamin A is an antioxidant 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 raised the possibility that it may speed the growth of cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.

Scientists have found that vitamin A can spur excess skin growth, known as hyperplasia and that in sunlight retinyl palmitate can form free radicals that damage DNA (NTP 2000).

In 2010, EWG analyzed raw study data published on the website of the National Toxicology Program, the inter-agency federal research group that had tested retinyl palmitate, in concert with the federal Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research. EWG concluded that the government scientists had produced evidence that the development of skin tumors dramatically accelerated, compared to control groups, 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 (NTP 2009).

In December 2010, the NTP and FDA teams published a draft report that reached essentially the same conclusion as EWG (NTP 2010). In January 2011 the NTP Board of Scientific Counselors unanimously adopted this position (NTP 2011). The NTP published the final report on this project in 2012 (NTP 2012). In it the NTP concluded that both retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid, another form of Vitamin A, sped development of cancerous lesions and tumors on UV-treated animals.

Despite this strong scientific evidence,,the FDA has delayed taking action to restrict retinyl palmitate in sunscreens. Instead, it has ordered more studies. At this point, the NTP and FDA have spent well 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 has almost certainly postponed regulatory action.

EWG’s independent analysis of sunscreens and other cosmetic products 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.

Four 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 sunscreens, and other skin and lip 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 science review of vitamin A and skin safety.

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