Vitamin A in Skincare

Vitamin A in Skincare

Vitamin A Discussion


There is a lot of confusing information available regarding the use of Vitamin A in cosmetics.  Some say the ingredient should be avoided entirely, and some say it’s a great ingredient to include in your routine.  I’m going to present the various sides of the issue, and conclude with why I think the pros of Vitamin A outweigh the cons.

First, let’s define what we’re talking about.  Retinol, retinal, retinoid, and retinyl palmitate are all members of the same class of molecules.  They have the same central core, and only differ by a few substitutions on the outskirts of the molecule.  They’re essential for our body, and together can be lumped together as various forms of Vitamin A. 

Vitamin A is found in a variety of foods such as dairy products, and can be produced by the body from beta-carotene, the colorful pigment found in carrots and sweet potatoes.  Our bodies transform the various retinoids into retinoic acid, which was found in the 1960’s to be an effective treatment for acne.  It was also seen to result in fewer wrinkles and smoother skin.  The retinoids can help to prevent wrinkles, and are one of the few topical treatments that can help remove wrinkles that you may already have. 

It does this by binding to skin receptors.  This signals the body to remove the outermost layer of skin (evening skin tone) and to thicken the layers underneath, which helps to smooth out wrinkles.  The ingredient can also help boost levels of collagen in the skin, which is the protein that helps to keep the skin firm and elastic, and which also probably contributes to the wrinkle-fighting ability.

One disadvantage to retinoids is that they tend to degrade when exposed to light.  Another disadvantage is that they can cause the outer layer of skin to thin slightly.  This makes the skin more sensitive to sunlight, and some dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen product if you include Vitamin A in your beauty routine, or apply it at night.  Finally, Vitamin A can be a skin irritant, depending on which form is used.  Retinol is one of the most irritating, while retinyl palmitate is one of the least irritating.

Retinol is a non-prescription option.  It’s converted to retinoic acid in the skin, which is the form most useful to the body.  However, retinol is even more unstable than most other Vitamin A variants, and over the course of several weeks will quickly decompose upon exposure to air, light, and / or heat.  It’s also one of the more irritating options.

One of the mildest options, and more stable options, is called retinyl palmitate.  It’s the product of reacting retinol with natural long-chain fatty acids.  It makes the material less irritating and less likely to decompose.  However, it’s at the heart of the Vitamin A debate, and it all started with a study performed in 2000 by the National Toxicology Program.  They wanted to study how retinyl palmitate-treated skin would react to sunlight.  They tested the ingredient on mice who were then exposed to sunlight.  The results showed that the mice swabbed with 2.0% retinyl palmitate (a relatively high amount - it’s normally used around 0.1-0.25% in cosmetics) had a higher rate of skin tumors than the other group.  However, the “control” group (mice who received a cream containing no retinoids) also had a high rate of skin lesions.  One of the “inactive” ingredients in the cream base used in the study turned out to be a possible carcinogen, which clouded the results.

On one side of the argument is the Environmental Working group, a nonprofit watchdog group who studies cosmetic ingredients.  They issued a warning after the 2000 study that Vitamin A in combination with a sunscreen posed a cancer risk to humans.  Opposing the EWG are dermatologists and toxicologists from the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Board, also a nonprofit group, who study cosmetic ingredients and determine their safety profiles.  According to their extensive (204 page) PDF report (available at the link below):

“In conclusion, the available evidence from in vitro and animal studies fails to demonstrate convincing evidence indicating that retinyl palmitate imparts an increased risk of skin cancer. Furthermore, while no human data examining this relationship are available, decades of clinical observations support the notion that retinyl palmitate is safe for use in topical applications such as sunscreens”.

The CIR is the most trusted source of cosmetic ingredient safety due to their diligence, expertise, and their method of collecting all available data instead of just relying on one study.  The NTP study from nearly 20 years ago has never been reproduced or tested under real-life conditions.  The safety of the ingredient is supported by multiple accredited organizations.  The following are links to articles which discuss this issue further (note: some of these may be behind “paywalls” and may require a small purchase to access the article).

Retinyl palmitate is fully approved for use in cosmetics.  It can enhance the appearance of dry skin, and its method of action serves to “brighten” the skin, resulting in a more rejuvenated appearance with a diminished appearance of wrinkles.  While we must always be alert to new testing results as they come available, for now, retinyl palmitate (used in small amounts and with the avoidance of sun directly after application) appears to be both safe and effective, and can be a valuable part of a beauty.

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