Is Retinol About To Be Banned In Cosmetics?

Eggs-Rich Source of Vitamin A

Retinol is one of a number of vitamin A derivatives that is used in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products.  When I wrote about it last time I glossed over one of its drawbacks.  Along with the rest of the vitamin A family overdosing can have some very serious health issues. Vitamin A is fat soluble and as such it is possible for it to build up in the body’s fat deposits. In extreme cases this can lead to birth defects.

This is basically another example of where the dose makes the poison.  Many things, even apparently wholesome things like vitamins, can be harmful at the wrong level.  Overdosing on vitamin tablets is a real possibility.  And in theory, you could get the same effect from an anti-ageing cream with a high retinol content.

I have to say the scenario is a bit far fetched.  Retinol is expensive to buy as a raw material for the cosmetic manufacturer, so they tend to be fairly cautions about how much they put in the product.  And the products themselves are sure as heck expensive for the end user.   I can’t imagine many people having the cash to seriously overdose on them.

Nonetheless the diligent guys in the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment have done some sums and have come to the conclusion that the vitamin A in various forms, retinol being one of them, coming from cosmetics is contributing to the amount of vitamin A consumers are exposed to and it ought to be limited.

Nobody will want to use retinol if the maximum permitted level is too low to do any good to the skin, so that will effectively kill off one of the few effective anti ageing actives.

We are a long way from a Europe wide ban so there is no need to stock up on your favourite just yet.  But these things build up momentum so it might well be that we will start seeing the negative press stories coming along soon when journalists pick up on it.  I have to say that I am not convinced that anyone has ever come to any harm from using retinol containing products, but I am pretty sure a lot of people have bought them and not got any benefit from them.   You need to use them for a long time to see much effect, and a lot of products simply don’t contain enough to do any good  in the first place.  It might be as well to get them off the market for those reasons.

Here is my post on retinol itself.

10 thoughts on “Is Retinol About To Be Banned In Cosmetics?”

  1. Well, I’ve been using creams containing retinol or retinaldehyde for the past 5 years. And it’s only those that helped me fight my acne breakouts. Actually when I use them I encounter one or two pimples every now and then, whilst with any other cream I had many more.
    I am actively concerned about the amount of vitamin A that I consume- since I’m in a reproductive age- with these creams but my dermatologist was reassuring about the fact that even with them, the skin doesn’t absorbe much..
    I suppose it’s the only ingredient we have that can fight both acne, scarring and even ageing better than most of the rest..

    1. @Chrysa I think your dermatologist is on the right track. Not only is there not a huge amount of active in most creams in the first place, your body metabolises them pretty quickly. When they first came out the potential risk was identified and was widely discussed. Lots of precautions and warnings were put in place. But since then we have had several decades of use with no real ill effects coming to light. All the warnings are still in place even though, so you get the impression the risk is higher than it actually is.

      @Tom I agree. But I have a feeling most of the retinol made and used does neither any harm nor any good. Concentrations in the products are too low, and consumers wouldn’t use enough product if there was because it would cost too much. There doesn’t seem to be any provision in the regulatory framework to ban something on the grounds of ‘let’s face it, we are all wasting our time and money here guys’.

  2. It is a bit of a catch 22 situation for the OTC product manufacturer:
    add in enough to have a noticeable (?any) effect in a reasonable time frame and increase the risk, or decrease concentrations to eliminate risk whilst lowering the outcome.

    I personally think that the OTC products seem safe to use even when considering a family but it would be prudent to stop the treatment for a few months when trying for a child. Keeping the ‘heavy duty’ stuff as prescription only adds a layer of protection as well.

  3. She also pointed out the fact that everytime she attended a conversion, people of the companies kept claiming that fact-that retinol in otc skin products wouldn’t cause health issues-but they reccomended women to stop using retinol creams while pregnant. And the main reason they did that was in case someone lost her child during pregnancy,she wouldn’t turn against them for compensation.. In a few words, avoiding legal battles.

  4. Nicki - FutureDerm

    Hi Colin,

    I’m a researcher and I run a skin care company, FutureDerm, which specializes in optimized concentrations of ingredients proven effective in peer-reviewed studies, stabilized in novel delivery systems.

    I’m not that concerned that retinol will be banned in concentrations of 1.0% or less. I’ve read at least one study that demonstrates tretinoin (Retin-A) is twenty times more potent than retinol. So tretinoin 0.02% is like retinol 0.4%. Tretinoin 0.04% is like retinol 0.8%.

    My greater concern is that retinol will be banned in concentrations like 1.5% or 2.0%, which I have seen and which can be really irritating for people who have not tried retinol before and who do not know how potent it can be.

    Check out my blog for more if you’d like:—-until-now

    All the best,

  5. Well, I don’t know about a system-wide ban in Germany, where in fact I do live. But from my experiences trying to score the 0.5 retinol product from Skinceuticals, I have come to find that they only sell it in 0.3 concentration in Germany. I couldn’t even find anything greater than this in their online brochures so it looks like it could be a Germany-specific policy. But for sure they sell higher concentrations as part of their regular portfolio in other countries.

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