Would it be disastrous to apply vitamin enriched cosmetics and develop skin cancer as a result? Would it be a calamity to pay $120 for a vitamin C eye serum that accelerates skin aging?  You’re running these risks if you’re not carefully checking what you’re putting on your skin.

In 2010, actress Melanie Griffith underwent skin cancer surgery at age 52.

Clare Oliver died from melanoma at age 26 long before she had time to worry about external signs of skin aging. However she did worry about sunburn and generously applied sunscreens while enjoying time at the beach. Numerous studies report that the most frequent users of sunscreens develop the same type of skin cancer that killed Clare (Beitner 1990, Autier 1998, Wolf 1998, Westerdahl 2000). Other studies demonstrate skin cancer incidence continues to rise in spite of the fact that more people are using sunscreens than ever before (Aceituno-Madera 2010, Jemal 2008).

Clare Oliver died of skin cancer at age 26. During her final days, she urged people to stay away from sun tanning beds having become convinced her cancer was kick-started by 11 tanning sessions she bought under a “buy 10 get one free” offer when she was 19 years old.  She was diagnosed with melanoma at age 22.  Whether in the tanning salon or at the beach, Clare was a frequent sunscreen user. Unfortunately, studies demonstrate that frequent sunscreen use is associated with an elevated risk of melanoma.


It’s time to look very hard at what you’re putting on your skin. The root problem behind damaging side effects is free radical generation which is the source both of skin cancer and skin aging.  One study found that three common sunscreen ingredients generate more free radicals on human skin after one hour of sun exposure than were generated on untreated skin (Hanson 2006). To help compensate for the uptick in free radicals, manufacturers add vitamin antioxidants in the hopes they will neutralize the free radicals generated by the chemical sunscreen. However to make these vitamins stable in formulations, chemists alter them which can transform them from being anti-oxidant to being pro-oxidant. These altered vitamin forms find their way into thousands of cosmetic products to justify manufacturers’ anti-aging advertising claims. The net result? Accelerated rates of skin cancer and skin aging.

Vitamin C from anti-oxidant to pro-oxidant

Vitamin C in its natural and biologically active form is named ascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid is by far the most effective and potent skin care vitamin you can apply to your skin. Not only is ascorbic acid your skin’s front line defense against free radical damage, but is also the key enabler of every step of collagen synthesis. You must apply pure vitamin C topically to maintain skin health benefits because epidermal levels diminish 425% by middle age and it’s impossible to replenish levels by taking vitamins (Shindo 1994, Levine 2001).

Cosmetic manufacturers are well aware of these considerations explaining the vast array of commercial vitamin C skin serums and creams sold as anti-aging formulas.  However ascorbic acid is notoriously unstable due to its anti-oxidant properties. The very oxygen you breathe is a free radical, and as soon as ascorbic acid in a water solution is exposed to air, it starts donating electrons to neutralize oxygen free radicals and quickly degrades. To overcome this limitation, manufacturers combine ascorbic acid with other molecules to make it more stable. Therein is the problem. The molecules they attach convert the skin loving vitamin C into a proven hazardous substance.

Just one example – vitamin A

Most people have heard of prescription vitamin A for use in clearing up acne and eliminating fine lines and wrinkles. These properties led manufacturers to add versions of vitamin A to cosmetic formulas to enhance their anti-aging marketing claims. However vitamin A is very unstable when exposed to sunlight, so chemists derived a version that added a molecule of a fatty acid named palmitate to the base vitamin A. Known as retinyl palmitate, the derivative is common in sunscreens and skin care products.

In January of 2011, the US Department of Health and Human Services convened its board of scientific counselors working under the auspices of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) to assess mounting evidence that retinyl palmitate promotes cancer when exposed to sunlight. The findings of the NTP Board are that retinyl palmitate is carcinogenetic when exposed to sunlight (NTP 2011). In spite of the findings and the 20 years of research prompting the NTP review, the allure of being able to make anti-aging claims led to more rather than less retinyl palmitate skin care products marketed to consumers.  In 1992 there were 355 such formulations and in 2000 the number of offerings jumped to 667 Burnnet 2011).

From vitamin A palmitate to vitamin C palmitate

The villain isn’t the vitamin – it’s the palmitate. Researchers reporting in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology discovered this when they investigated what happens when you apply ascorbyl palmitate to human skin. Ascorbic acid is water soluble, and cosmetics manufacturers wanted a vitamin C serum that’s oil soluble to allow them to make claims of better skin penetration. So chemists attached oil soluble palmitate to water soluble ascorbic acid and invented ascorbyl palmitate.

The authors of the journal article expected to report that a better penetrating form of ascorbic acid is an even better antioxidant. Instead they were alarmed to find out that ascorbyl palmitate “promotes ultraviolet-B induced lipid peroxidation and cytotoxicity in keratinocytes”(Meves 2002). So what does that mean? In a nutshell it means if you apply a vitamin C serum containing ascorbyl palmitate before you head for work in the morning that you’re accelerating skin aging and laying the groundwork for skin cancer.  Follow the four step explanation below to understand why.

1)      Ascorbic acid is water soluble and skin is oil soluble. Attaching palmitate to ascorbic acid enhances penetration because palmitate is a lipid and passes through the skin’s lipid barrier carrying the ascorbic acid with it.

2)      The idea behind ascorbyl palmitate was to have the same effect on individual skin cells. Just like the skin has a lipid barrier, so do individual skin cells. These cellular lipids are like lightning rods to UV radiation.  When UV destroys these lipids, the process is called lipid peroxidation (LPO). The promise of ascorbyl palmitate is that it will penetrate cell walls just like it penetrates the skin barrier and carry the vitamin C inside cells to neutralize intra-cellular free radicals.

3)      The destruction of cellular lipids by UV produces highly toxic chemicals and the worst offender is named 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal. Among its destructive properties is its activation of an enzyme named JNK that destroys skin protein/collagen. The authors of the study were testing the promise of ascorbyl palmitate and they fully expected to find that it would neutralize, or at least put a damper on the production of these highly toxic lipid peroxidation metabolites.

4)      Instead they found out the complete opposite. While the ascorbic acid portion very effectively neutralized free radicals inside the cells, the lipid portion (palmitate) proved “catastrophicoutside the cells. The palmitate dramatically increased lipid peroxidation and promoted generation both of 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal and JNK. The result was skin cell death on a “massive scale”. It’s not often that researchers use such colorful adjectives to describe a finding and suggests the level of shock they felt.  As consumers, the more frightening news is that the amount of ascorbyl palmitate used in their experiments was a tiny fraction of the amount used in most cosmetic formulations. The authors warn against concentrations exceeding 100-300 M (micromoles). Many products contain concentrations of ascorbyl palmitate as high as 15 percent which exceeds the authors’ warning dose by a factor of 1000.

 Watch out for any vitamin with palmitate attached

The moral of the study is to stay away from any vitamin C or vitamin A formula that contains palmitate. It makes sense to avoid palmitate in any form unless you’re willing to gamble with your skin. Unfortunately, manufacturers are now using liposome forms of ascorbyl palmitate making it impossible to know that you’re putting this ingredient on your skin. You’ll often find this ingredient in   very expensive formulas and is often listed as tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate  or ascorbyl tretaisopalmitate. If you’re concerned about the vitamin C in your product, leave a comment and I’ll comment ASAP.

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