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Does Retin-A Cause Skin Cancer?

Posted on: May 1, 2015

Radiation Oncologist Christine Chung


By Christine Chung, MD

I recently met a vibrant, athletic, well-dressed woman who had just turned 60 years old. Six months earlier, she had developed a red bump on her left forehead, just above her eyebrow, which was squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a type of skin cancer. She was treated with Mohs surgery, a procedure in which a dermatologist shaves off layers of skin to remove the cancer. Unfortunately, my patient’s skin cancer kept recurring in that same area. After her third Mohs surgery, we treated her with radiation therapy to decrease the risk of cancer recurrence. After her last treatment, she wanted to know if she had done anything that had led to her skin cancer: “Dr. Chung, did I get my skin cancer because of all the Retin-A that I’ve used for my wrinkles?”

SCC of the skin is one of the most common malignancies diagnosed in the US, with over 700,000 new cases each year. It occurs most frequently on sun-exposed skin in fair-skinned individuals, though may also develop in people with darker skin. SCC of the skin is associated with exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun, and occurs more often in older people. Patients who have undergone organ transplantation and require chronic immunosuppression are also at greater risk of developing skin cancer. This type of cancer can take many forms, including flat red spots, painless bumps, or scaly patches on the skin. A doctor needs to biopsy the skin to confirm the diagnosis of cancer.

Over 90% of skin SCC are cured with local therapy alone, usually surgical excision like Mohs. An advantage of Mohs microsurgery is that the surgeon can look at the cells as they are being removed, to ensure that all of the cancer has been fully excised. Low-risk SCC may also be treated with freezing (cryotherapy), radiation therapy, or a topical cream. Some patients may need radiation after surgical excision, if the cancer cells have aggressive features, such as invasion into the local nerves, or if the cancer continues to return even after being surgically removed. Also, the surgeon may refer the patient for radiation if the tumor could not be fully excised.

To answer my patient’s question: her skin cancer was most likely caused by her history of sun exposure, rather than the use of Retin-A cream.   Retin-A contains retinoids, which are derivatives of Vitamin A often used in anti-aging creams to help promote skin renewal. In fact, retinoids that are taken orally can decrease the risk of SCC of the skin in certain high-risk populations. However, retinoids in topical form have not been shown to reduce skin cancer risk.

But remember that when you use Retin-A and other topical retinoids, your skin is more susceptible to ultraviolet light. If you use these products, take special care to avoid sun exposure and use sunscreen.

Join Dr. Chung at the Many Faces of Skin Cancer on May 20th, 6:30-8:30pm at the Walnut Creek Library. This event will feature a panel of skin cancer medical experts who will discuss early detection, prevention, risk factors and latest treatment options. Dr. Chung is a Radiation Oncologist with Diablo Valley Oncology & Hematology Medical Group. She has expertise in treating all types of cancer with a special interest in treating skin and breast cancer. She sees patients in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley. For more information call: 925-677-5041.