Retinyl Palmitate is a form of Vitamin A that made the headlines a couple of years ago, when the Environmental Working Group claimed that sunscreens with this ingredient may accelerate the risk of skin cancer. Is that really true? What is Retinyl Palmitate and why is it used in sunscreens and other skincare products anyway?
What is Retinyl Palmitate and what does it do?
Retinyl Palmitate is a combination of Retinol, which is pure Vitamin A, and Palmitic acid. It is easily absorbed by the skin, where it is converted first into Retinol and then into Retinoic Acid. Like all forms of Vitamin A, Retinyl Palmitate has antioxidant properties and helps fight and prevent premature aging by stimulating the production of collagen and elastin and regenerating skin cells. In addition, it helps treat acne.
Side effects of Retinyl Palmitate
Retinyl Palmitate is gentler than other forms of Vitamin A and thus more suitable for those with sensitive skin. However, it could still cause irritations, redness and peeling in some people which is why you should start by using products that contain it in small concentrations (but not too small or it won’t be effective!) and apply them only every other day until your skin has got used to it. If you do that, and those symptoms still persist after a couple of weeks, then stop using it immediately. If not, you can increase its concentration or frequency of application. Just make sure these products come in opaque tubes and bottles, though, as Retinyl Palmitate soon oxidises when exposed to light and air. In jars, this ingredient usually loses its effectiveness after only 30 days.
Is Retinyl Palmitate in sunscreen dangerous?
A couple of years ago The Enviromental Working Group raised concerns that Retinyl Palmitate in sunscreens could cause cancer. However, like many of their reports, this too was based on bad science. They cited a study that appeared on the National Toxicology Program, in which mice were treated with small doses of Retinyl Palmitate and exposed to ultraviolet light. The scientists found that these mice developed skin tumours faster than those treated with a control cream. This sounds scary, doesn’t it? But don’t go and throw away your Retinyl Palmitate products just yet.
A group of dermatologists has examined the findings of the National Toxicology Program and concluded that Retinyl Palmitate is safe and that there is no proof that it causes cancer in humans. On what did they base this conclusion? First of all rats are very different from humans and can develop cancer from lots of substances that are instead safe for us, so just because something is bad for them doesn’t mean it’s bad for us too. In addition, the NTC study was performed on rats that are highly susceptible to skin cancer when exposed to UV light even when they’re not treated with Retinyl Palmitate, so we need to be very careful before extrapolating these animal study results to humans.
Secondly, while it is true that other studies have shown that Retinyl Palmitate (like other retinoids) is a photosensitizer that causes the formation of free radicals, it is also true that just like in the study from the NTC, in them Retinyl Palmitate was tested on its own too. But as Dr Wang points out “retinyl palmitate operates within the skin as only one component of a complex antioxidant network. For example, when a sunscreen with retinyl palmitate is applied to the skin, a number of antioxidants work together to alleviate the risk of free radical formation seen in these in vitro experiments. If studied on its own – outside of this environment – its antioxidant properties can rapidly be exhausted, allowing the production of oxygen radicals.” There is actually proof that, when Retinyl Palmitate is used in suscreens that also include stabilizing ingredients, it is safe and doesn’t pose any risks for human health. In any case, because retinoids can make skin more susceptible to sun damage, I prefer to use them at night.
The Bottom Line
Retinyl Palmitate, like all forms of Vitamin A, has strong antioxidant properties that help fight premature aging and can be used to treat acne too. But, although less irritating than other forms of Vitamin A such as Retinol and thus more suitable for those with sensitive skin, it can still cause irritations, burning, peeling and photosensitivity. However, when properly formulated in a sunscreen (ie stabilizing ingredients are added to it, which is what usually happens anyway), it doesn’t pose any risks for human health. What’s really dangerous is not using sunscreen at all!
Do you use products with Retinyl Palmitate?