Is the Vitamin A in Sunscreen Really Bad for You?

Skin Care

Recently, everyone from the major news networks to local newspapers to bloggers have been featuring the latest in research from the Environmental Working Group, stating that the vitamin A (as retinyl palmitate) in sunscreens may not be safe and may actually accelerate the rate of cancer growth.   The Environmental Working Group mentions that over 41 percent of the sunscreens in the United States feature the compound.  The EWG also added that high levels of SPF (those above 50) offer a “false sense of security” to consumers.

What the Medical/Scientific Community Knows For Sure at this Point

At this point, the EWG has made a request to the FDA to review the use of retinyl palmitate in sunscreens.  The reasons for this were at least three-fold:

  • Vitamin A increases photosensitivity in the skin. This means that vitamin A tends to make the skin more susceptible to UV exposure.  This is a fact that has been well-established within the dermatological community for years (as stated in this 2004 study in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health), and for this reason, many dermatologists have consistently recommended to use retinoids at night.
  • Vitamin A breaks down in sunlight, and forms free radicals in the presence of UVA and UVB radiation, according to a 2007 study in Vitamins and Hormones. The EWG cited this particular study in making its request for further review to the FDA.  Obviously, it is not beneficial to have free radicals forming on the surface of your skin – preventing oxidation is one of the reasons you use UV protection in the first place!  For the sake of caution, this fact alone is reason enough to switch to a sunscreen without vitamin A.   However, if it makes you feel any better for using retinyl palmitate-containing sunscreens in the past, many of these sunscreens contain other antioxidants, which were likely to have neutralized some (if only some) of the oxidative compounds that were released onto your skin.  I’m certainly not saying to use them now – I’m just trying to make you feel a little better, 🙂 .
  • High SPF is more effective UVB protection than lower SPF, though no form of protection is 100%. In brief, UVA is longer-wavelength and not rated on sunscreens in the U.S.; UVB is shorter-wavelength and is the number on the bottle.  According an algorithm from Dr. Rachel Herschenfeld, SPF 30 allows 1/30 UVB rays, or 3.3% through, meaning it blocks about 96.6% of UVB rays; SPF 50 allows 1/50 UVB rays, or 2.0% through, meaning it blocks 98.0% of UVB rays.  I personally prefer higher ratings – why pay for 97% when you can get 99%?  However, I do see the Environmental Working Group’s point in advising the public that high SPF’s are not synonymous with perfect protection.  For one, higher UVB ratings do not necessarily mean higher UVA protection (for instance, compounds like Mexoryl and Tinosorb are excellent UVA protection, but are sometimes available with UVB protection of SPF 30).  For another, sunscreen ratings are made from a rating scale using about 1 gram of product per cubic centimeter area, which is quite a bit higher than the average person uses.  Lastly, sunscreen tends to wear off with sweat, water exposure, UV exposure, and daily wear and tear – so unless you are using a bottle a day and reapplying every 2 hours, you are getting more than 2.0% of the UVB rays from your SPF 50 sunscreen application.  I personally see a dermatologist, wear a wide-brimmed hat and clothing with a UPF of 30-50, and, yes, still maximize my sunscreen use!

What Needs to be Evaluated Closely

The Bottom Line

These are exciting times in the medical/scientific community, and the FDA is scheduled to make a decision on the safety of vitamin A in Fall 2010.  In the meantime, here are some guidelines:

  • Visit your dermatologist. As I always say, I am a medical student, not a physician yet.  As I am growing and learning, I love to write about exciting thoughts and findings in this blog, but the key words here are that I am learning.  Please consult your dermatologist!  (Or, conversely, if you are a scientist and would like to contribute something to this piece, please feel free to comment below).
  • You may wish to use your vitamin A-based products only at night.   Retinoids have long been considered a gold standard in anti-aging within the dermatological community, and they still have vast clinically proven benefits.  However, because it appears that retinyl palmitate breaks down to produce free radicals in the skin following UV exposure, it may not be advisable to use products that contain retinyl palmitate during the day.  Furthermore, because retinoids in general tend to make the skin more susceptible to photodamage, it may be wise to use retinoids during the day.  I personally use retinol-containing products at night.
  • Give the EWG and the FDA a break! After talking to some friends and family members outside of the medical community, there seems to be a lot of distrust in the EWG and FDA right now.  Whether due to the current trend for “all natural” products (the prevalent belief that all things “natural are good, chemical are bad,” while neither is entirely true) or actual viable complaints, many consumers tend to think that neither side is seeing the big picture (one being overprotective, the other not enough), and that is beside the point.  We are living in exciting times, and the scientific and medical communities are full of brilliant people who are constantly increasing our knowledge base and reflecting the advancements in our research journals.  With that said, until the FDA makes its decision in the Fall of 2010, I’m seeing my dermatologist, using – and often reapplying- retinyl palmitate-free sunscreen (with Mexoryl or Tinosorb for UVA protection and high SPF for UVB protection), and donning a big ol’ hat!  🙂

Have any thoughts on this hot issue?  Please feel free to comment below!

Photo courtesy: Kailua Vacancy Originally uploaded by Bright Tung

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  • danni

    So, my skin is sensitive to vitamin A and Retinol, but I have seen a HUGE difference in my complexion and wrinkles since I started using a product with Vitamin A. People are telling me I look younger! Retinoids bind to corresponding receptors in the skin. This peels off the top layer, which evens skin tone, and thickens the layers below, which smoothes out wrinkles. Retinoids also boost collagen, a protein that keeps the skin firm and springy, by blocking the genes that cause it to break down and increasing other gene activity responsible for its production.

    Yes, it does make me sensitive. But its worth it. I have tried all the Vitamin A creams, and the only ones that work for my sensitive skin are the Made from Earth Firming Serum and the Lady Soma Renewal Serum. I just switch between the two. The Lady Soma is probobly my favorite.

  • Pingback: Retinyl Palmitate and You: Imperfect Together? * Sundicators()

  • Beat Eczema

    Guess I have to look up the ingredients found in the sunscreen that I am planning to purchase. Thanks for sharing such invaluable information. This is certainly something new. I did not know that Vitamin A can actually break down to form free radicals when exposed to the sun.

  • Wow! This is certainly something new. I did not know that Vitamin A can actually break down to form free radicals when exposed to the sun. Guess I have to look up the ingredients found in the sunscreen that I am planning to purchase. Thanks for sharing such invaluable information.

  • As a follow up to your post and my comment above. Here is one study that absolutely contradicts what EWG comments make specifically as it relates to retinyl palmitate. There are lots more and I will post as I come across them. This from the Society of Investigative Dermatology Journal Vitamin A exerts a photoprotective action in skin by absorbing ultraviolet B radiation.
    Antille C, Tran C, Sorg O, Carraux P, Didierjean L, Saurat JH.

    Department of Dermatology, University Hospital, Geneva, Switzerland.
    Retinyl esters, a storage form of vitamin A, concentrate in the epidermis, and absorb ultraviolet radiation with a maximum at 325 nm. We wondered whether these absorbing properties of retinyl esters might have a biologically relevant filter activity. We first used an in vitro model to assess the photoprotective properties of retinyl palmitate. We then applied topical retinyl palmitate on the back of hairless mice before exposing them to 1 J per cm2 ultraviolet B, and assayed the levels of thymine dimers produced in epidermal DNA 2 h following ultraviolet B exposure. Finally, we applied topical retinyl palmitate or a sunscreen on the buttocks of human volunteers before exposing them to four minimal erythema doses of ultraviolet B; we assayed the levels of thymine dimers produced 2 h following ultraviolet B exposure, and determined the intensity of erythema 24 h after ultraviolet B. In vitro, retinyl palmitate was shown to be as efficient as the commercial filter octylmethoxycinnamate in preventing ultraviolet-induced fluorescence or photobleaching of fluorescent markers. The formation of thymine dimers in mouse epidermis was significantly inhibited by topical retinyl palmitate. In human subjects, topical retinyl palmitate was as efficient as a sun protection factor 20 sunscreen in preventing sunburn erythema as well as the formation of thymine dimers. These results demonstrate that epidermal retinyl esters have a biologically relevant filter activity and suggest, besides their pleomorphic biologic actions, a new role for vitamin A that concentrates in the epidermis.

  • mason

    Great topic. I always use vitamin-A sunscreen for protecting my skin from UV rays.

  • Amanda

    Great post. I basically stay out of the sun all together when using a topical vitamin A (or retinol) cream, even up to a week or so after stopping it.

  • Love this blog, one of my most frequent stops. I’m linking to your blog on mine!

  • Kevin

    FD, great review and you raise some very interesting questions. First, retinyl palmitate does not convert to retinoic acid when it is applied to the skin. Retinol is converted to retinoic acid (RA). RA has been proven in numerous studies to be chemo-preventative as well as chem-therapeutic.

    We have over 30 years of clinical and observed data that shows retinoic acid prevents skin cancers and should be used as often as sunscreens.

    However, one needs to be cautious when using retinoids. Because you are exfoliating the corneal layer (protective layer of the skin) you will be more susceptible to burns which can increase your chances of generating free radicals in the skin.

    Retinoic acid works by speeding up the cellular turnover cycle in the skin which prevents cancerous cells from gaining a foot hold in cellular DNA (damaged cells are pushed through the skin cycle quicker which does not signal the other cells to become damaged).

    Yes, night time application is best. However, you are still removing the protective layer which can make things vulnerable no matter the time of day.

    Bottom line, use a sunscreen that reflects sun rays. The next most important thing you can use on your skin is a retinoid.

  • nadia

    I was told by my derm that Vitamin A creams such as Retina-A actually decreses my chance of getting skin cancer or wrinkles.hmm…so does that mean I should stop applying it at night?

  • John

    EWG is right to point out that almost all organic sunscreen agents, regardless of the SPF and PPD value they achieve, provide protection only for a couple of hours because they penetrate the skin and there’s evidence that supports the idea that they make matters worse unless reapplied every 2-3 hours, in addition to after swimming or after using a towel (PMID: 17015167, PMID: 15908756 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]). While the latter is understandable and true for all sunscreen agents, reapplying every 2-3 hours is wearisome, uneconomical, taxing for the skin and altogether plain unrealistic. For that reason those sunscreen agents should be deemed inappropriate for use by the general public.
    They are also right to point out that the only organic filters that seem to provide long-lasting protection are the Mexoryl variety, Tinosorb M and Tinsorb S (PMID: 17035717, PMID: 14528058). However, I feel more studies are needed on the subject of sunscreen penetration in order to solidify our trust in certain organic filters. On the other hand, there is a multitude of studies on pubmed from different sources that prove the fact that inorganic filters, either in micronized or nanoparticle form, don’t penetrate healthy human skin.

    My suggestion is to examine carefully what EWG is saying without being dismissive and start demanding better sunscreen formulations.

  • ruben

    Since Retinyl Palmitate is the ester of retinol it is much more STABLE than Retinol + It’s not used as an active ingredient in sunscreen but more to protect your oils from oxidation while heating them up and thus the concentration is usually arond 0,1/0,5%. I’m pretty sure this is once again one of those misinterpretated information from some damn group that tries to scare people….just like the whole paraben story.

  • That’s a good point, Kimme, I have not seen any studies yet, but I’ll be on the lookout…

  • Has there been any research on the vitamin A derivatives found in hair products? Often times those products remain on the scalp for a while, could those contributes to scalp problems. I personally have been using hair treatments containing beta-carotene and other vitamin A derivatives for a long time.

  • Oooh this is interesting… and scary at the same time. with all these companies boasting about their retinol formulas being the best. Great post! And great suggestion to use it at night. I always recommend a sunscreen with the use of retinol……
    but just a question which sunscreens that you know of contain vitamin A?


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