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 retinyl palmitate 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) studies they got wrong. Here’s why retinyl palmitate is harmless – the most friendly retinoid for sensitive skin:

What 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.

Related: Which Form Of Vitamin A Is Best For You?


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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 before they give you wrinkles and dark spots
  • It boosts collagen, the protein that keeps skin firm
  • It speeds up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process) to reveal brighter and smoother skin

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

Retinyl Palmitate is the last resort. Only when ALL other gentler forms of retinoids (like retinaldehyde and granactive retinoid) irritate your skin too, you should consider trying Retinyl Palmitate.

If even this bothers your skin, retinoids are just NOT meant for you.

Related: Is Retinaldehyde A Gentler Alternative To Retinol?

Does Retinyl Palmitate Have Any Side Effects?

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

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Is Retinyl Palmitate In Sunscreen Dangerous?

Let’s address the elephant in the room now. A few years ago, the Environmental Working Group 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.

Related: How Do Antioxidants Work And Why Do You Need Them?

What Are The Best Skincare Products With Retinyl Palmitate?

The Bottom Line

Retinyl Palmitate is the gentlest BUT 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!