Vitamin A and its derivatives are very well known to cause skin irritation and photosensitivity (supported by a recent government scientific study, lead by the National Toxicology Program within the National Institutes of Health, made public in 01/11: Photococarcinogensis Study of Retinoic Acid And Retinyl Palmitate). This study also found that when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, these derivatives speed the development of skin tumor and lesion formation. Mice treated with small doses of retinyl palmitate and light ultraviolet exposure developed skin tumors faster than untreated, light-exposed mice or those with an applied control cream.
While certain night creams and facial lotions are safe to use at night and highly effective anti-aging potions, many of the derivatives cause increased skin sensitivity following use and therefore leave the skin extra sensitive during the day. They can also remain on skin as trace particles, even after face washing. Hence, people who use skin treatments with a form of vitamin A (retinoic acid) are instructed to practice strict sun avoidance, even when using the treatment only at night.
The larger issue at hand, and the basis for the warning in our editorial “Mirror, Mirror: The Twisted Fairytale of Anti-Aging,” is that topical retinoids are blended into numerous cosmetic products and sunscreen lotions. Despite the robust data and supportive studies demonstrating that vitamin A can trigger carcinogenic activity on skin, the FDA and government have delayed taking action to restrict it in sunscreens and cosmetics. In fact, the sunscreen industry is known to add vitamin A to over 20% of its sunscreens, daily facial moisturizers with sunscreens, and SPF-rate makeup products (EWG’s 2013 sunscreen database).
Furthermore, many sunscreens simply do not provide adequate protection from UVA rays that penetrate deeper into skin and are responsible for creating free radicals, which are highly reactive and damage skin cells and DNA, promote skin aging, and cause skin cancer. Laboratory tests from ten different studies (Allen 1996, Beeby200, Cantrell 1999, Damiani 2007 & 2010, Dondi 2006, Hidaka 2006, Knowland 1993, Sayre 2005, Serpone 2002) show that most of the FDA-approved UV filters in sunscreens actually release skin-damaging free radicals when exposed to UV radiation. Sunscreen may not be adequate in protecting skin that’s exposed to lotions or cosmetics containing vitamin A, and could potentially accelerate damage.
Another source of vitamin A exposure is that which we ingest naturally through our daily diet from both animal and plant sources. Manufactured forms of vitamin A are usually found in dietary supplements and fortified processed foods, in the form of retinyl acetate or palmitate, as well as retinol. This is the form used in prescription creams and many anti-aging potions. While vitamin A is necessary for good health, it can be toxic at high doses. Excess vitamin A has been associated with reproductive and developmental toxicity, and acceleration of skin tumors and lesions in sunlight. Therefore, prenatal vitamins containing vitamin A are particularly cautioned against, as well as any topical skin preparations.
There is a very fine line between safe doses of vitamin A to keep your body healthy, and extremely excessive doses that can do a great deal of damage. While the dangers and toxicities associated with vitamin A are still being closely studied, in order to follow the precautionary principle it’s reasonable to limit our exposures to both synthetic and natural forms.
The recent evidence supporting vitamin A and its derivatives’ ability to cause skin tumors and lesions, coupled with its ubiquitous presence in our creams, lotions, sunscreens, cosmetics and so on, makes this ingredient highly concerning here at True Goods. Even the most cautious consumer using anti-aging vitamin A skincare formulas only at night, washing their face carefully, and applying sunscreen daily, may still be at a moderately high risk of developing skin damage.
- “The Problem With Vitamin A” in Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Sunscreens (2013), on www.ewg.org.
- “What Scientists Say About Vitamin A in Sunscreen” from EWG on June 27, 2011 onwww.ewg.org.
- CIR (Cosmetics Ingredient Review). 2007. 2005-06 Annual Review of Cosmetic Ingredient Safety Assessments. International Journal of Toxicology 2008 27: 77. DailyMed. 2010. RETIN-A (tretinoin) cream. Available: http://dailymed.nlm.nih.gov/dailymed/drugInfo.cfm?id=17670 Davies RE and Forbes PD. 1988. Retinoids and Photocarcinogenesis. J. Toxicol.-Cut.& Ocular Toxicol. 7(4): 241-253.
- NTP (National Toxicology Program). 2010. Draft Technical Report on the Photococarcinogenesis Study of Retinoic Acid and Retinyl Palmitate [CAS Nos. 302-79-4 (All-Trans-Retinoic Acid) and 79-81-2 (All-Trans-Retinyl Palmitate)] in SKH-1 Mice (Simulated Solar Light And Topical Application Study). Scheduled Peer Review Date: January 26, 2011. NTP TR 568. NIH Publication No. 11-5910.
- “Vitamin A (Retinol)” from the University of Maryland Medical Center Supplement Guide on June 24th, 2013, on https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/vitamin-a-retinol.