How safe are Retinol and Retinyl Palmitate?
One day, thinking about my daily interactions with customers
I realized that probably every fifth questions I am being asked is “do you use retinyl
palmitate in any of your products”. Nevertheless, it turns out, only few people
know why retinyl palmitate is considered dangerous – they just know “it’s bad”
and they “don’t want it in their products”. This is why I’ve decided it’s time to
write this post. Let’s see what there is to be said about this controversial
What is the difference between Retinol and Retinyl Palmitate?
Retinol is a form of vitamin A – called by some “animal
vitamin A” (because it is found in eggs, milk, beef, chicken and fish oil). The
compound has a small molecule that can be broken into other even smaller ones,
all of which belong to the “retinoid” family. (Just for reference – the form of
vitamin A considered as “plant form” is beta carotene, also known as – pro-vitamin
Retinyl palmitate is also a form of vitamin A but it is formed
by two compounds – retinol and palmitic acid (obtained by palm oil).
Both ingredients, if not metabolized, are not beneficial because
they can’t interact directly with the cell. Nevertheless, thanks to specific enzymes
in the skin they are converted to retinoic acid – the one that “does the job”.
But what is the job it actually does?
Why are retinol and retinyl palmitate used in skin care
Retinol and retinyl palmitate are very powerful antioxidants.
They protect the living cells from free radicals, considered to be one of the leading
causes for premature aging. Neutralizing the free radicals is of high importance
for preserving the good condition of the skin, which is why both forms of
vitamin A are key ingredient in all kinds of creams, serums, masks and
sunscreens (in particular retinyl palmitate – it is widely used in all kinds of
sun protective skincare products). They are also believed to improve collagen
and elastin synthesis, as well as, regenerate the skin on cellular level. Their
molecules are relatively small and they easily penetrate into the deeper layers
of the skin. Once absorbed, after certain transformation, both retinol and retinyl
palmitate are converted to retinoic acid – the compound that is actually “responsible”
for the above mentioned beneficial effects. So far so good, but this is not where the
Reasons NOT to use Retinol and Retinyl Palmitate:
Since retinol acts as a powerful exfoliating agent, by
aggressively shedding the outer layer of epidermal cells, it causes thinning of
the skin and greatly increases the risk of sunburns and UV induced damage –
appearance of sun spots, formation of wrinkles, dryness, redness, irritations etc.
Apart from that retinol is considered unsafe for pregnant women
and breast-feeding, because it has teratogenic effect – it increases the risk
of occurrence of birth defects. Let’s not forget that vitamin A is fat soluble
– if you overdose it, it builds up in your liver. Once there, the deposits take
quite a while to be metabolized and excreted. And we are not only talking about
retinol taken as supplement. Though there is no conclusive scientific data on the subject, it is possible that even the small amount you absorb by applying your
favorite face cream every evening, can affect the developing fetus. Here it is
important to mention that only the animal form of vitamin A (retinol and retinyl
palmitate, respectively, as its derivative) can have negative effect. The plant
form (carotene) is nontoxic, because the body doesn’t metabolize the molecule
unless it is necessary for a certain biological process – therefore, it
metabolizes it only when it needs it. In other words – eating too many carrots
will not harm your baby, even though they are rich in provitamin A.
Retinol is also suspected to have mutagenic effect (not only
on pregnant women), because the molecule alters in the presence of UV light (in
other words – when you are out, in the sun). When the molecule is broken down,
it produces free radicals that can damage the cells and increase the chance of
developing cancer. At the same time, as
we all know, since the good manufacturing practice is not adopted by all
cosmetic companies we do not always know what exactly we put on our skins. I am
mentioning that because both retinol and retinyl palmitate, if not synthesized properly,
not stored in the appropriate containers and under the conditions required, can
have more negative effects, than positive – on your skin and on your body.
According to a study, conducted by the National Toxicology
Program, retinyl palmitate, when applied topically, increases the risk of
cancer in lab animals. Though the study was not conclusive it resulted in a lot
of arguments (some still ongoing). Many people say, that since it is FDA approved,
there is “no reason to worry” because “many test were performed and none of
them clearly stated retinyl palmitate was potentially dangerous”. Unfortunately,
the sad truth is, there are other compounds that were once approved by the FDA
and later turned out to be hazardous. “Not enough conclusive data” is not
equivalent to safe. I’d prefer to not take the risk, and so we don’t use these ingredients in our products here at La Mav. We use many other
antioxidants that are proven safe instead!