Sunscreens + Vitamin A

This features weekly tips and advice from a revolving cast of industry leaders, on hand to discuss your beauty dilemmas, from blemishes to Botox. To submit a question, e-mail

Q: I’ve been hearing all of these reports lately about sunscreens formulated with vitamin A that increase the risk of skin cancer. The headlines sound pretty scary. What’s the best way to keep myself safe from the sun without doing damage to my skin?

A: There have been some studies showing that retinyl palmitate, a type of vitamin A, caused an increased incidence of tumor development in rats. But it’s hard to make the jump to say that the same holds true for humans without much additional research. It may not be the case, and there’s not enough evidence to support that conclusion at this point. Also worth considering: When vitamin A is present in a sunscreen—and it often is not present—the amounts used are extremely small.

As far as ideal sunscreen is concerned, look for a broad-spectrum product that protects against UVA and UVB damage. SPF 30 offers protection that’s adequate for most people, and it offers the biggest bang for the buck. As you go higher than SPF 30, any added sunscreen benefits sort of fall off quickly and are not as noticeable. The key is to apply a good enough coating of the product—one ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass, is considered adequate to cover your body—and to reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating heavily. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, even so-called “water-resistant” sunscreens may lose their effectiveness after 40 minutes in the water. Sunscreens rub off as well as wash off, so if you’ve towel-dried, be sure to reapply sunscreen to avoid a burn.

James Hammer is a cosmetic chemist who analyzes and formulates products for the beauty industry. He works with the Pharmasol Corporation in Easton, MA.
—Kari Molvar
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