Structural formula of Vitamin A / Retinol

Retinol / Vitamin A

What is Retinol / Vitamin A?

“Vitamin A is a group of unsaturated nutritional organic compounds that includes retinol, retinal, retinoic acid, and several provitamin A carotenoids (most notably beta-carotene).” – Wikipedia

Vitamin A / Retinol dangers

This substance belongs to the groups:

Bioaccumulation category


Developmental toxicants symbol curious chloride

Developmental toxicants

Reproductive toxicants category

Reproductive toxicants

Environmental hazards symbol curious chloride

Environmental hazards

Irritants and allergens symbol by curious chloride

Irritants and allergens

Carcinogens-curious symbol chloride


Symbol for animal-derived substances


Organ system toxicants

Retinol is the active substance of vitamin A and they are often used synonymously.

Vitamin A has numerous functions in our bodies and it is, for example, beneficial for the eyes, the mucous membranes, and the immune system. It is an important vitamin where long-term deficiency can lead to infectious diseases and blindness. However, on the contrary to vitamin B or vitamin C that are water-soluble, vitamin A is fat-soluble. So, as vitamin A is fat-soluble, our bodies dispose of it very slowly. This means that excess vitamin A intake might accumulate to toxic levels in our bodies.

When does retinol/vitamin A become dangerous?

Normal consumption and low doses of retinol (vitamin A) are well tolerated. High doses, through for example daily skin applications of retinol, so-called topical retinol are of concern especially for pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant according to numerous health agencies, including Germany, Norway, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Retinol and pregnancy

“It has long been known that the synthetic retinoids (…) can cause birth defects in humans as well as in many other animal species. (…) These preparations are therefore not given to pregnant women or to women of childbearing potential unless there is a very strong reason for it.

Treatment (with retinoids) on women of childbearing potential requires that protection is used against getting pregnant… Despite precautions, birth defects due to synthetic retinoids have occurred.

The injuries consist of facial, skull, heart, throat, and central nervous system malformations that can cause mental effects. Extra sensitivity to these drugs (retinoids) and damage from them occurs very early during pregnancy, so early that the woman may not even be aware that she is pregnant.” writes the Swedish Medical Products Agency (MPA). (Translated from Swedish)

The MPA also writes that excess intake of vitamin A (mostly through supplements) can give unspecific symptoms like

“headache, nausea and vomiting, fatigue and irritability. Other symptoms may include scaly skin, double vision, and hair loss, as well as liver damage and bone tissue damage. Children who receive too high doses of vitamin A for a long time may experience growth inhibition.” (Translated from Swedish)

Other concerns

While the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) also concludes that retinol in connection to pregnancy may damage fertility or the unborn child, they also add that it:

“causes serious eye irritation, may cause long-lasting harmful effects to aquatic life and may cause an allergic skin reaction.”

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (previously the Breast Cancer Fund) identifies that retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate (versions of retinol) in combination with sunlight increases the risk of cancer. Furthermore, they also link retinol and its compounds to developmental and reproductive toxicity.

Skin tumors may be developed faster on sun-exposed skin due to retinoid ingredients.

Is vitamin A/retinol vegan?

Vitamin A may be derived from animals but it can also be sourced from plants or manufactured synthetically.

The animal-derived vitamin A’s are known as retinoids (includes retinol and retinaldehyde) and can be found in foods such as liver, eel, fish, eggs, meat, and in enriched dairy products and margarine.

The vegan version, derived from fruits and vegetables, is actually not a vitamin but a provitamin called carotenoid. The carotenoid is first converted to vitamin A in our bodies.

Vitamin A is included on the “Animal-derived Ingredient List” from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA writes that vitamin A

“can come from fish liver oil (e.g., shark liver oil), egg yolk, butter, lemongrass, wheat germ oil, carotene in carrots, and synthetics.”

How is it used?

In cosmetic products*, vitamin A/retinol and its derivatives are famous for their use in skincare products, such as exfoliants, masks, skin conditioners, anti-acne creams, anti-aging creams, moisturizers, and lotions.

Vitamin A supplements can be used to prevent vitamin A deficiency, from either disease or poor diets.

We use the European Commissions definition of Cosmetics:
“Cosmetics range from everyday hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste to luxury beauty items including perfumes and makeup”.

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