Vitamin A and its derivatives in experimental photocarcinogenesis: preventive effects and relevance to humans

J Drugs Dermatol. 2013 Apr;12(4):458-63.


The 1925 classical observation that vitamin A deficiency leads to squamous metaplasia and epithelial keratinization, coupled with the later finding that excess vitamin A inhibits keratinization of chick embryo skin, set the foundation for the potential therapeutic use of retinoids in cutaneous conditions of keratinization. Significant progress has since been made understanding the molecular biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and toxicology of vitamin A and its derivatives, collectively named retinoids. Natural and synthetic retinoids are now routinely used to treat acne, psoriasis, skin keratinization disorders, and photodamage. Retinoids also inhibit tumor formation and skin cancer development in experimental systems and in humans. Retinol and retinyl palmitate (RP) are found in cosmetic products and in foods and dietary supplements, which are all considered safe, by inclusion in the Generally Recognized as Safe Substances Database. However, the safety of topical retinoids was questioned in one publication and in a recent National Toxicology Program report of RP-containing topical preparations, suggesting the possible earlier onset of ultraviolet-induced squamous cell carcinomas in the hairless mouse photocarcinogenesis model. This suggestion contradicts a large body of data indicating that topical retinoids are chemoprotective in humans, and it was immediately challenged by new reviews on the safety of RP in general and within sunscreens. This paper will review the preclinical and clinical data supporting the safety and chemopreventive activity of retinoids, with an emphasis on RP, and will examine the experimental systems used to evaluate the safety of topical vitamin A preparations in order to provide perspective relative to human skin.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Animals
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / administration & dosage
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / adverse effects
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Diterpenes
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Hairless
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced / pathology
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced / prevention & control*
  • Retinoids / administration & dosage
  • Retinoids / adverse effects
  • Retinoids / therapeutic use*
  • Retinyl Esters
  • Skin Neoplasms / etiology
  • Skin Neoplasms / pathology
  • Skin Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Species Specificity
  • Ultraviolet Rays / adverse effects
  • Vitamin A / adverse effects
  • Vitamin A / analogs & derivatives*
  • Vitamin A / therapeutic use


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Diterpenes
  • Retinoids
  • Retinyl Esters
  • Vitamin A
  • retinol palmitate