What is it?
What are the effects?
This substance belongs to the groups:
Retinol is the active substance of vitamin A and they are often used synonymous.
Vitamin A has numerous functions in our bodies and is for example good for 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 water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin B and C, vitamin A is fat-soluble which means that dispose of it is slow and excess intake might accumulate to toxic levels.
Low doses of retinol (vitamin A) are well tolerated. High doses, through for example daily skin applications of vitamin A/retinol, is of concern especially for pregnant women (or women trying to become pregnant) according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), German and Norwegian health agencies.
The Swedish Medical Products (state) Agency (MPA) urges to the same precautions, “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 if there is not 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.” (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)
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) identifies that retinol “may damage fertility or the unborn child, 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 link the substance and its compounds to developmental and reproductive toxicity.
Skin tumours may be developed faster on sun exposed skin due to retinoid ingredients.
Vitamin A may be derived from animals. But it can also be sourced from plants or be synthetically manufactured.
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 margarines. 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). They write 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?
Retinol is mainly used as a supplement to prevent vitamin A deficiency, especially in developing countries. Western countries more often have the opposite problem; people get too high doses through supplements and creams.
In cosmetic products*, vitamin A / retinol and its derivatives can for example be found in skin conditioners, anti-acne creams, anti-aging creams, moisturizers and lotions.
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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