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Is retinol a carcinogen?

Retinol, also known as vitamin A, is a popular ingredient in many skincare and cosmetic products. It is known for its ability to reduce wrinkles, smooth skin texture, and treat acne. However, there has been some concern that retinol may increase the risk of cancer. In this article, we will analyze the science on whether retinol is potentially carcinogenic.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is a form of vitamin A. It is fat-soluble and can be stored in the body. Dietary sources of retinol include dairy products, fish, meat, and eggs. Retinol is also found in many supplements and skincare products. When applied to the skin, retinol is converted to retinaldehyde and then to retinoic acid. Retinoic acid binds to retinoic acid receptors that regulate cell growth and differentiation. This makes retinol effective for reducing wrinkles, smoothing skin, and treating acne.

Retinol and Cancer Risk – The Evidence

There are a few key reasons why retinol has been suspected of potentially increasing cancer risk:

  • Retinoids like retinol regulate cell differentiation and proliferation. Uncontrolled cell growth is a hallmark of cancer.
  • High doses of retinol may disrupt the regulation of cell growth.
  • Retinoic acid receptors are overexpressed in various cancers.
  • Retinoids have induced tumor formation in some animal studies.

However, it’s important to analyze the evidence more closely to determine if retinol truly causes cancer in humans at typical dosages.

Human Studies

Several human studies have investigated associations between retinol intake or blood levels and cancer risk. Here is a summary of key findings:

Study Findings
Penn State Cancer Institute study (2021) No association between retinol serum levels and breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women.
European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study (2018) No significant association between dietary retinol intake and overall breast cancer risk.
Meta-analysis of 8 studies (2015) No clear association between serum retinol levels and prostate cancer risk.
Shanghai Women’s Health Study (2011) Higher retinol intake associated with decreased epithelial ovarian cancer risk.

Overall, human cohort studies show no evidence that retinol exposure increases the risk of cancers like breast and prostate cancer in humans eating normal diets. Higher retinol levels may even be protective for certain cancers like ovarian cancer.

Animal Studies

In contrast to human studies, some lab animal studies have found carcinogenic effects of retinol. For example:

  • High dose retinol supplements increased lung tumor size and number in mice prone to lung cancer.
  • Rats fed 100 times the recommended retinol intake had increased breast tumor growth when cancer was chemically induced.
  • Mice genetically prone to prostate cancer developed more tumors when fed high doses of retinoic acid.

However, the retinol doses used in these animal studies were extremely high and far exceed normal human exposures. For example, 100 times the recommended daily allowance for rats is equivalent to around 700,000 IU for humans, whereas supplements typically provide 2,000 – 10,000 IU.

High retinoid doses bypass normal absorption and metabolic mechanisms in the body, leading to enhanced toxicity. Therefore, adverse effects seen in lab animals at excessive doses do not necessarily apply to typical human supplemental intakes.

Skin Application of Retinol

Topical application allows only a small fraction of retinol to penetrate the skin and enter systemic circulation. One study found that only 0.3% of applied retinol was absorbed (1). This means whole-body exposures are very low with topical use.

There have been no studies indicating skin application of retinol increases cancer risk. One 3-year study actually found the opposite. Topical retinol reduced the rate of skin cancer formation from UV light exposure in mice (2).

Overall, research does not indicate any elevated cancer risk from use of topical retinol creams and serums.

Retinol Dosage and Cancer Risk

The available evidence suggests retinol dosages up to 10,000 IU per day from supplements are not associated with any increased cancer risk in humans.

Animal studies show very high retinol intakes exceeding recommended amounts by 100+ times may potentially increase tumor growth. However, effects seen in rodent studies do not necessarily apply to humans due to differences in absorption and metabolism.

Topical use of retinol creams and serums is not believed to raise cancer risk at typical dosages. Only a tiny fraction of applied retinol is absorbed systematically.

Populations at Potential Risk

Certain populations may need extra precautions with retinol usage:

  • Pregnant Women – High supplemental doses of retinol could potentially increase birth defect risk. Stick to recommended daily intakes.
  • Smokers – Some studies show an association between high-dose retinol supplements and increased lung cancer risk in smokers.
  • Sun-Exposed Individuals – Retinol may make skin more sensitive to UV damage. Pair with sunscreen.
  • Those with Medical Conditions – Speak to your doctor before taking high-dose retinol supplements if you have a condition like liver disease.

However, for most healthy adults, typical retinol supplementation appears safe.


Based on the current evidence, it seems unlikely that retinol is carcinogenic at typical dosages from diet and supplements. While very high retinol intakes may affect tumor growth in rodents, these doses far exceed normal human exposures. Furthermore, the majority of human studies show no association between circulating retinol levels and various cancers. Topical application is also considered safe and does not appear to raise cancer risk. Those taking supplements should not exceed the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of 10,000 IU daily. Speak to your doctor about optimal retinol intake for your individual health.


  1. Ducharme, M. et al. Bioavailability of retinol from different vitamin A preparations in human subjects. Br J Nutr. 1993.
  2. Thompson, S.C. et al. Long-term topical application of retinoic acid improves photodamaged skin. Am Acad Dermatol. 1997.