These days vitamin A seems to be the darling of skincare. Also known as retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, and retinoic acid, it's often the star of face creams, lotions, sunscreens, and serums. But more and more research indicates that vitamin A can actually be extremely dangerous, especially the ways we are using it.
The History of Vitamin A in Skincare
In its natural form, vitamin A is a hugely important vitamin for healthy skin and eyes. It exists in liver, butter, and eggs, and beta-carotene (which our body converts to vitamin A) is in carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes, to name just a few delicious foods. Once we ingest vitamin A, our body converts it to retinoic acid.
In the 1960s scientist began playing around with topical versions of retinoic acid, to see if we could experience the same skin benefits through topical applications. They immediately noticed that their patients experienced less acne, as well as a reduction in wrinkles and overall smoother skin. Retinoids work so well by increasing collagen production, removing our top layer of skin to even skin tone, and thickening the layer of skin beneath which removes wrinkles.
Don't Go into the Sunlight!
Here's the kicker though: retinoids degrade in sunlight. This means that if you're using a face cream that you apply in the morning, it's immediately ineffective as soon as you step outside. And if you are using a vitamin A rich cream in a glass jar that's exposed to sunlight, it's probably no longer working.
Even more important? Because retinoids remove your top layer of skin, they increase you sensitivity to sunlight. If your using retinoids, you should absolutely avoid sunlight to reduce your chance of sunburn. But this might be tricky as, according to the Environmental Working Group's 2017 database, vitamin A is currently added to about 14% of the beach and sport sunscreens, 15% of moisturizers with SPF, and 6% of all SPF-rated lip products.
Sun + Vitamin A = Cancer?
But there's an even scarier side effect to vitamin A and sunlight. The issue is that when vitamin A is used on skin that's exposed to sunlight, it increases the risk of cancerous tumors. A 2010 published study by the National Toxicology Program, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, studied how retinyl palmitate treated skin reacts to sunlight. Mice treated with retinol palmitate had a much higher rate of skin tumors than the control group, and the NTP concluded that vitamin A can increase excess skin growth, known as hyperplasia, and in sunlight, retinol-palmitate forms free radicals that damage DNA. The study has been contested ever since by sunscreen scientists and cosmetic industry representatives (many off whom have financial ties to retinoid products).
The FDA has yet to create any type of restrictions, but the EWG- our gold standard for safe skincare- has put out a warning against using SPFs that contain retinyl palmitate or retinoic acid.
Too Much Vitamin A
Finally, in a completely separate finding, officials in in Germany and Norway have warned that as Americans and Europeans already eat a lot of pre-formed vitamin A in our diets, added vitamin A ingredients in cosmetics could contribute to vitamin A toxicity due to excessive exposure.
Too much pre-formed vitamin A can cause many health issues including liver damage, brittle nails, and hair loss. It can also cause osteoporosis and hip fractures in older adults-who are often the target of anti-wrinkle creams containing vitamin A. It can also cause birth defects in developing fetuses, so Norway has warned women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to avoid products with Vitamin A. German Health officials have also recommended restricting the concentration of vitamin A in cosmetics for face and hand care, and banning it entirely in lip and body care products.
So What Should You Do?
The FDA is late to the party as usual, and so far they have not created any regulations against vitamin A in skincare. But, based on the scientific findings throughout the world, we strongly suggest you follow the recommendations put forth by Norway and Germany, and avoid vitamin A in your skincare products, especially if you are pregnant, breast feeding, or at risk of osteoporosis.
Make sure to absolutely avoid any retinoids in sunscreen- remember, not only is vitamin A ineffective in sunlight, but it massively increases your chances of skin cancer and sunburns. If you feel that you absolutely must use retinoids for a skin issue, use those products before bed when you won't risk sun exposure. And if you're looking for clean skincare that is retinoid free, you can rest assured that all of Alder New York's skincare fits that bill.