Spotlight On Retinyl Palmitate

by Gio
is retinyl palmitate an effective alternative to retinol?

So you want to use retinol but the littlest sprinkle turns your skin into a red, itchy, painful mess? Boo hoo!

Retinol is one of those antiaging divas sensitive skin can’t stand. Dare to put them in touch and it’ll repay you with irritation.

But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the anti aging power of retinoids (the family retinol belongs to). Retinol may be too strong for you, but it’s little cousin retinyl palmitate is way gentler and will get along with your skin much better.

But, wait! Didn’t the Environmental Working Group warn us that causes cancer? Yep, but the EWG can’t read a scientific study properly even if their life depended on it.

I don’t want to diss anyone, but this is one (of the many) they got wrong. Here’s why retinyl palmitate is harmless and the most friendly retinoid for sensitive skin:

What The Heck Is Retinyl Palmitate?

Retinyl Palmitate is the gentlest form of Vitamin A. It’s made with retinol and palmitic acid. Here’s the family tree:

Retinyl palmitate ⇒ Retinol ⇒ Retinaldehyde  Retinoic acid

As you can see, retinyl palmitate is the farthest away from retinoid acid. Retinoic acid is the active form of vitamin A. All forms of retinoid must be converted to it to work their magic on wrinkles.

Retinaldehyde is the most effective because the conversion takes one step. Retinyl palmitate, on the other hand, must first be converted into retinol and then into retinoid acid.

This long conversion process makes retinyl palmitate more gentle than all other forms of retinoids. The trade off? It’s the one that takes the longest to work. 

What Does Retinyl Palmitate Do For Your Skin?

Retinyl palmitate is a retinoid and, like all retinoids, it helps fight premature aging in three different ways:

  • It destroys free radicals
  • It boosts collagen
  • It speeds up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process)

But, it does this very slowly. It takes a very long time to see some results. I’m talking months, not days.

That’s why I recommend retinyl palmitate only to people with sensitive skin who can’t tolerate any other form of retinoids.

peter thomas roth un-wrinkle peel pads 01

Side effects of Retinyl Palmitate

Again, retinyl palmitate is a retinoid so it has all the benefits AND side effects of retinoids.

Even though it’s the gentlest form, you still need to start slowly. Once or twice a week at first and then build up frequency from there. Use too much too soon and you could still end up with an irritation.

Make sure whatever product you use comes in opaque, air-tight tubes and bottles. Like its relatives, retinyl palmitate loses a bit of its effectiveness when exposed to light and air (it’s not the most powerful retinoid to begin with so you don’t want to make it even weaker).

Related: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Retinoids Products Packaged In Jars

Is Retinyl Palmitate in sunscreen dangerous?

Let’s address the Environmental Working Group controversy now. A couple of years ago, they came out with the idea that retinyl palmitate in sunscreens causes cancer.

Their evidence? A study in the National Toxicology Program. Scientists treated mice with small doses of retinyl palmitate and exposed them to UV light. They found these mice  developed skin tumours faster than those treated with a control cream. Scary, isn’t it? Isn’t sunscreen supposed to protect us from cancer?

Before you throw away all your sunscreens with retinyl palmitate, you’ll be happy to know that the results of that study don’t apply to humans. According to a group of dermatologists who reviewed the study, Retinyl Palmitate is safe and there’s NO proof that it causes cancer in humans.

On what did they base this conclusion? A few things:

  1. Humans aren’t rats. A lot of substances that cause rats in mice are totally harmless for us humans.
  2. The mice used in the study belong to a species that is highly susceptible to skin cancer when exposed to UV light EVEN when they’re NOT treated with retinyl palmitate.
  3. Retinyl palmitate was tested on its own.

Let’s take a closer look at that last point. 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.

Those oxygen radicals can cause cancer (and wrinkles). But we all have lots of weapons to neutralise them (antioxidants anyone?) and stay safe.

Studies show that when Retinyl Palmitate is used in suscreens that also include stabilizing ingredients, it’s safe .

What Are The Best Skincare Products With Retinyl Palmitate?

  • Murad City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 PA++++ ($65.00): available at Feel Unique, Look Fantastic, Nordstrom and Sephora
  • Neostrata Bionic Eye Cream ($46.50): retinyl palmitate + lactobionic acid (exfoliant) + antioxidants. Available at Skinstore.


The Bottom Line

Retinyl Palmitate is the gentlest if least effective form of retinoids. And nope, it doesn’t cause cancer. If you have sensitive skin that can’t tolerate other forms of retinoids, give it a go. Everyone else, let’s stick to retinol!

Do you use products with Retinyl Palmitate? Share your faves in the comments below.



EyeGraffiti May 15, 2012 - 1:39 pm

Must say I really enjoyed reading this post, because I’m a bit of an ingredient nerd myself. I mostly use product from Lush but must admit I need to go over my sunscreen products and double check them!

beautifulwithbrains May 15, 2012 - 8:44 pm

Phlox, I’m glad you enjoyed it, and yay, another ingredient nerd! It’s a very interesting topic isn’t it?

Sophie May 16, 2012 - 4:51 am

I absolutely love your Know Your Ingredients posts. I learn so much, because you explain everything so well. Thanks, G.

beautifulwithbrains May 16, 2012 - 5:57 am

Sophie, thanks. I’m so glad you find them helpful. 🙂

Makeup Morsels May 16, 2012 - 6:28 am

arghhh it’s so frustrating to me when people base these claims on shaky science and then freak everyone out. it’s good we have the other side of the story too from blogs like yours. love these posts as usual, always well thought out and informative! I’m not sure if my sunscreens contain this ingredient, guess I should go check, right? 🙂

beautifulwithbrains May 16, 2012 - 12:41 pm

Makeup Morsels, I agree, that is so annoying. These organizations should consult real scientists before making false claims and scaring everyone. And sadly their misinformed claims are picked up by the media everywhere whereas the same attention isn’t paid to the other side who refutes them based on science so that fewer people know the truth. Hopefully this post will help someone realise that retinyl palmitate isn’t dangerous at all but can actually be very effective at treating the signs of aging.

Marianthi May 16, 2012 - 6:43 am

Just to say I love your posts. Thank you so much for your time and effort.

beautifulwithbrains May 16, 2012 - 12:42 pm

Marianthi, you’re welcome and thank you! I’m glad you like these posts. 🙂

Janessa May 16, 2012 - 1:57 pm

Wow, thank you so much for clearing up this issue! I have heard about retinyl palmitate and it’s ‘risks’ and didn’t know what to believe before reading this. I was talking to my chemistry teacher about some skincare ingredients the other day because we’re learning some structures and they have some of those ingredient names in there. :]

beautifulwithbrains May 16, 2012 - 6:25 pm

Janessa, you’re welcome. Like all retinoids, retinyl palmitate can cause irritations in some people, but apart from that, it’s safe and effective. And it is a shame that it’s getting a bad reputation because of people spreading misinformation about it.

And that’s good that you’re studying a bit of cosmetics science at school too. 🙂

productnerd May 31, 2012 - 11:26 pm

Thank you so much for this informative info! I’ve been currently using retynils in Roc deep wrinkle treatment and I’ve heard so much negatives until I started researching around and finding more positives on this beneficial ingredient. Great post!

beautifulwithbrains June 1, 2012 - 8:30 am

productnerd, you’re welcome. Retinoids are very beneficial ingredients that can help skin in lots of ways, but sadly they don’t work for everyone and that’s why they get some bad reviews. But I believe that they’re ingredients that should be used by anyone who can as they can really help you look younger for longer.

Vana January 31, 2019 - 7:10 am

Dear Gio, I would appreciate if you could tell me your opinion about Bourjois Healthy Mix BB Cream, actually about its ingredients?
Like you can see from the link below, this product contains Retinyl Palmitate, and also Titanium Dioxide.
According to its ingredients, would you say it is a good product?

Thank you so much in advance! xo xo

Gio February 7, 2019 - 5:15 pm

Vana, it depends on your skin type. It’s not moisturising enough for dry skin. If you have oily skin and just want an even tint and a sprinkle of antioxidants, it’ll do.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.