NIH panel links Vitamin A in sunscreen to skin tumors

A key independent science advisory panel has voted to confirm federal researchers' conclusion that retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A found in two-fifths of U.S. sunscreens, speeds the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight.

The panel, meeting at a National Institutes of Health research center in North Carolina, today concurred with a pivotal draft assessment published last month by the National Toxicology Program, an interagency federal body that uses toxicology and molecular biology to evaluate chemicals for possible human health risks.

"A compound that causes skin damage and tumors on sun-exposed skin has no place in sunscreens or other daytime skin products," said Jane Houlihan, EWG senior vice president for research.

The NTP assessment, confirmed by its advisory board of 11 scientists from leading academic medical and industry research groups, found that when test animals coated with a mix of retinyl palmitate and skin cream are exposed to ultraviolet light, a major component of sunlight, the cream with retinyl palmitate has the perverse effect of stimulating the growth of skin tumors.

Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., senior scientist with Environmental Working Group, addressed the panel today, urging them to support the NTP assessment. "This research will help fill the long-standing data gap on the safety of retinyl palmitate in personal care products used on sun-exposed skin," Naidenko said.

The panel's action is likely to have a significant impact on the U.S. sunscreen industry, which adds vitamin A to 41 percent of its sunscreens, ostensibly to combat aging (EWG 2010). Among the popular brands that contain vitamin A are Coppertone, Banana Boat, Panama Jack, Hawaiian Tropic, and Neutrogena.

The conclusions of the NTP and its advisory panel mirror EWG's analysis of raw NTP study data published early last year. EWG's findings drew widespread attention in the press and on health information sites on the Internet.

Today's action effectively demolishes objections from sunscreen industry-funded groups, including the Personal Care Product Council, paid consultants to sunscreen makers and the Skin Cancer Foundation, which receives money from sunscreen makers in exchange for its seal of approval.

More than 200 sunscreens from 44 companies listed vitamin A or retinyl palmitate on their labels in 2010, according to EWG's analysis of beach and sport sunscreens with SPF ratings of 15 or higher.

Following the release of EWG's May 2010 indictment of vitamin A in sunscreen, two manufacturers – Mexitan and Dr. T's Supergoop! – responded within weeks by marketing new, vitamin A-free formulas.

In light of the NTP's troubling findings, now confirmed by the advisory body, more sunscreen makers can be expected to offer vitamin A-free products for the 2011 summer season.

It is not clear how the federal Food and Drug Administration will react to the NTP conclusions. The agency announced it would set rules for sunscreens back in 1978, but despite repeated promises, it has yet to issue comprehensive sunscreen regulations.

In the spring, EWG plans to release its fifth annual sunscreen guide, rating this year's crop of products for safety and efficacy. As was the case last year, sunscreens free of vitamin A will garner higher ratings.

The NTP's December 2010 draft assessment summarizes a one-year cancer study that culminated more than a decade of research by the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), jointly funded by the NTP and FDA. Since 2001 the center has published 17 studies and reviews on the toxicity and chemistry of retinyl palmitate on skin. These documents show that the chemical breaks down in sunlight to photomutagenic compounds, forms skin damaging-free radicals, and "[causes] events that affect a large segment of the chromosome" (Mei 2005, 2006; Xia 2006).

The NTP studied the effects of ultraviolet light exposure on test animals whose skin had been treated with vitamin A-laced cream. Scientists concluded that vitamin A hastened tumor and lesion growth and caused the number of skin lesions and cancerous tumors to proliferate.

In light of those findings, EWG recommends that manufacturers of cosmetics, sunscreens and other personal care products remove retinyl palmitate from all products to be used on sun-exposed skin and that consumers avoid buying products that contain this chemical.

Read EWG's technical comments on NTP study of retinyl palmitate.

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EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.

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