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). Officials in Germany and Norway have cautioned that retinyl palmitate and other vitamin A ingredients in cosmetics could contribute to vitamin A toxicity due to excessive exposure (German BfR 2014, Norwegian SCFS 2012a).

The evidence, while not definitive, is troubling. The sunscreen industry adds vitamin A to nearly 18 percent of the beach and sport sunscreens, 17 percent of moisturizers with SPF, and 13 percent of all SPF-rated lip products in EWG’s 2015 sunscreen database.

Skin damage and cancer for sun-exposed skin

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.

Cosmetics Contribute to Vitamin A Toxicity

Retinol and other forms of vitamin A in cosmetics can contribute to excessive vitamin A intake. The German and Norwegian governments have cautioned that retinol and other vitamin A additives in cosmetics could cause people to take in toxic amounts of vitamin A.

Too much pre-formed vitamin A, including retinol, retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinyl linoleate, can cause a variety of health problems, including liver damage, brittle nails, hair loss, osteoporosis and hip fractures in older adults. Excessive vitamin A can cause skeletal abnormalities in a developing fetus. For that reason Norwegian health authorities have cautioned women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to avoid products with vitamin A (Norwegian SCFS 2012b). Older women at risk for osteoporosis should avoid excessive vitamin A because it undermines bone density. Children can suffer a variety of ill effects from too much vitamin A in food and cosmetics (Norwegian SCFS 2012a).

Norway limited the concentration of retinol in cosmetics to 0.3 percent and retinyl palmitate to 0.55 percent until the European Commission implemented cosmetics regulation across the European Union in 2013. That action vacated national regulation. German, regulators recently recommended restricting the concentration of vitamin A in cosmetics for face and hand care and barring the substance in lip and body care products, including lotions and sunscreens.

Consumer At Risk

EWG’s independent analysis of sunscreens and other cosmetic products has found retinyl palmitate, in hundreds of sunscreens, skin lotions, lipsticks and lip sunscreens – all of which appear to pose safety concerns for consumers. Retinol is a common anti-aging ingredient, most commonly available by prescription. Retinyl acetate and retinyl linoleate are in more than 1,000 personal care products in EWG’s Skin Deep database.

Five full years after EWG sounded the alarm about retinyl palmitate, the FDA still hasn’t taken a position on the safety of vitamin A and related chemicals 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, retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, and retinoic acid.

If you are undergoing skin treatments for medical purposes with any form of vitamin A, 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.


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EWG provides information on sunscreen products from the published scientific literature, to supplement incomplete data available from companies and the government. The ratings indicate both efficacy and the relative level of concern posed by exposure to the ingredients in this product - not the product itself - compared to other sunscreens. The ratings reflect potential health hazards but do not account for the level of exposure or individual susceptibility, factors which determine actual health risks, if any. Methodology | Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions

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