The news media seems to be filled from one week to the next with contradictory messages about what’s harmful or beneficial for consumers from a health standpoint. One scare that’s been laid to rest for the time being is the idea that a common sunscreen ingredient actually causes skin cancer. Retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) was the focus of concern recently. In early 2010, the Environmental Working Group issued a health warning about the supposed cancer risk of this substance.
What Is This Ingredient & Why the Concern?
Retinyl palmitate is an additive that is used in many products including foods and medications. The fact that its use is so prevalent in consumer products is one reason it was targeted for investigation by the National Toxicology Program. This is not in itself a cause for concern. Many commonly used substances including aloe vera are under the same type of scrutiny.
The concern over retinyl palmitate is that it can break down and produce “free radicals” when exposed to UVA radiation from the sun. However, it has not been shown that this ingredient negatively impacts cell function in a real life setting when used in a sunscreen. Dr. Steven Wang (director of dermatologic surgery at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center) headed up a team to investigate and analyze the current data from studies involving this ingredient and found no cause for concern in the use of this sunscreen additive.
Get Information from Qualified Dermatologists – Not From the TV
The health scare that hit the news appears to be the result of premature reporting based on insufficient information. This is not uncommon in the field of news reporting when scientific studies are taken out of context for the purpose of generating reader or viewer interest among consumers. A closer examination of the actual study parameters and results often shows no more than a tenuous link to a supposed health risk.
For example, Dr. Wang cautions against extrapolating from the results of studies that expose cell cultures to just one ingredient: “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.” He also points out that dermatologists have been prescribing topical and oral vitamin A products (retinoids) for decades with no reported rise in skin cancer risk. Some retinoids are actually prescribed to diminish the incidence of skin cancer in high-risk patients.
The conclusion from the evidence collected so far is that sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate do not cause skin cancer. Using sunscreen is a very important (and scientifically supported) sun safety practice for reducing cancer risk and slowing the aging process in the skin.