The Health Benefits of Vitamin A Palmitate

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Vitamin A palmitate—also called retinyl palmitate—is a pre-formed version of vitamin A that's easily absorbed by the body. In animals and humans, it serves as a natural storage form of vitamin A. Supplement and skincare manufacturers also produce a synthetic version for use in different products.

Found naturally in animal foods and synthetically in supplements, vitamin A palmitate supports your vision and immunity. The pre-formed versions of vitamin A—including vitamin A palmitate—have higher bioavailability compared to carotenoids. In other words, your body finds it easier to convert them to a biologically active form. Carotenoids are found in fruits and and vegetables and can be converted to vitamin A. However, there are concerns surrounding excessive use.

Health Benefits of Vitamin A Palmitate

There are some beneficial effects of vitamin A palmitate, namely that it can help your body maintain adequate vitamin A stores and reduce the risk of certain diseases.

Help Prevent Vitamin A Deficiency

Vitamin A palmitate supplementation—whether oral or injectable—may be used to treat a vitamin A deficiency. Though it’s uncommon in the United States, certain groups are more likely to experience vitamin A deficiency:  

  • Children and pregnant people in developing countries: The higher risk of deficiency for this population can be attributed to a lack of vitamin A-rich food sources in the diet, as well as more frequent diarrhea infections that exacerbate vitamin A losses.
  • People with cystic fibrosis: Those with cystic fibrosis have a more difficult time absorbing fat-soluble vitamins (which includes vitamin A).
  • Premature infants: When babies are born early, they typically have lower liver stores of vitamin A, increasing their risk of deficiency in early life.

Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of night blindness and can also lead to an increased risk of infections and mortality.

May Reduce Risk of Severe Measles

Vitamin A deficiency is associated with an increased risk of severe measles. In areas where deficiency is prominent, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that children diagnosed with measles are given a high-dose oral vitamin A supplement for two days. This may reduce the risk of death from measles.

May Reduce Risk of Tuberculosis

Vitamin A deficiency has been linked to increased tuberculosis risk, mainly among people living with a family member with tuberculosis or those with HIV. In fact, one study found a striking ten-fold increase in tuberculosis risk among vitamin A deficient household contacts.

Another case-control study found that people with the highest dietary vitamin A and beta-carotene intake had the lowest risk of contracting tuberculosis.

Possible Side Effects

Unless you have a vitamin A deficiency or struggle with some of the issues mentioned earlier, stick to getting your vitamin A from food rather than supplements. While you don't have to worry about a low-dose supplement (like vitamin A in a daily multivitamin), it's probably best to nix any high-dose vitamin A palmitate supplements.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), long-term excessive vitamin A intake above the tolerable upper intake level (UL) can cause side effects like:

  • Bone loss
  • Coma
  • Dizziness
  • GI upset, including nausea and diarrhea
  • Increased intracranial pressure
  • Joint pain
  • Liver damage
  • Skin irritation

Taking too much vitamin A palmitate in pregnancy has also been linked to birth defects, including malformations of the heart, skull, or lungs. Be sure to ask your doctor about the right dose for you if you are considering taking a vitamin A supplement.

Dosage and Preparation

Carotene is the precursor to fully-formed vitamin A palmitate. Because vitamin A palmitate serves as a storage form of vitamin A in animals, you'll find it in foods such as eggs, beef, chicken, and especially in liver and fish. Dairy manufacturers also fortify milk with this form, as it is more stable in milk compared to the retinol form.

You'll also spot vitamin A palmitate in a number of products, including:

  • Eye drops: Researchers have used vitamin A palmitate in eye drops to treat dry eye with moderate levels of success; however, a bulk of the current research is on animals.
  • Skincare products: Products like moisturizers and anti-aging treatments may contain this form of vitamin A, as some research suggests it helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Supplements: You may see vitamin A palmitate in both over-the-counter vitamins, as well as injectable vitamin shots administered by a physician.

Meeting the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A is essential for your overall health. But like most concepts in nutrition, you can have too much of a good thing.

The current tolerable upper intake level (UL) for vitamin A is 3,000 micrograms retinol activity equivalents (RAE) for adults. You may also see this upper limit expressed as 10,000 international units (IU).

Keep in mind that this UL applies to pre-formed vitamin A, like that which you get from animal foods and supplements with vitamin A palmitate, retinol, or other retinyl esters. It does not include the beta-carotene you get through fruits and vegetables.

If you are currently taking a vitamin A supplement or are considering one, consult with your physician first to determine if the extra vitamin A is right for you. If you experience any adverse reactions from taking a vitamin A supplement, discontinue use and seek medical care.

What to Look For

Vitamin A supplements can be found in pill, capsule, liquid, and powder forms. When purchasing a vitamin A supplement, keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they hit the market. It's important to do your research before choosing a product.

There are many trusted independent third-party labels that can be displayed on supplement products, such as those by ConsumerLab, NSF International, and U.S. Pharmacopeia. Opt for a product that contains one of these labels. While the labels don't ensure product safety and effectiveness, they do assure that the product has the ingredients listed on the label and does not have harmful amounts of contaminants.

Additionally, pay attention if the label has claims that the supplement can treat or cure a disease, as this is illegal. Avoid purchasing any products that make these claims or claims that seem too good to be true, such as that they are completely safe, have no side effects, or work better than prescription drugs.

Other Questions

There have been some controversial uses of vitamin A palmitate in sunscreen and for preventing cancer.

Do Vitamin A Sunscreens Cause Cancer?

There have been mixed concerns about vitamin A-containing sunscreens and their possible contribution to skin cancer.

Some animal and in vitro studies found that topical applications of vitamin A have led to the development of cancerous lesions, while others have reported no cancer development whatsoever. Some of these studies are unpublished and have limitations, like using mice highly susceptible to developing skin cancer after UV exposure.

As with all animal studies, there are always differences between the way something may react in an animal model versus a human model. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) maintains that based on available data, vitamin A palmitate is safe in sunscreen.

If you’re worried about the safety risk, simply choose a sunscreen that does not contain vitamin A as an ingredient. Only 10% to 15% of current sunscreens and moisturizers on the market feature vitamin A palmitate in the ingredients, so you shouldn't have too much trouble locating an option without it.

Can Vitamin A Palmitate Prevent Cancer?

Early research suggested that retinoic acid—the form vitamin A palmitate is eventually converted to—was theoretically involved in cancer prevention at the cellular level. Observational studies also suggested that diets high in beta-carotene were associated with reduced lung cancer risk.

However, these theories have not proven true when it comes to vitamin A retinoid and carotenoid supplementation:

  • Breast cancer: A 2013 review did not find any consistent benefits associated with vitamin A supplements as far as cancer prevention.
  • Lung cancer: When studies administered beta-carotene and vitamin A palmitate supplements, some actually found an increased lung cancer risk among smokers.
  • Overall cancer risk: A 2017 meta-analysis found vitamin A supplements exceeding 25,000 IU/day (combined with others) resulted in a 16% increase in the risk of cancer mortality.
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