Vitamin A (retinol), an essential human nutrient, plays an important role in cellular differentiation, regulation of epidermal cell growth and normal cell maintenance. In addition to these physiological roles, vitamin A has a rich photochemistry. Photoisomerization of vitamin A, involved in signal transduction for vision, has been extensively investigated. The biological effects of light-induced degradation of vitamin A and formation of reactive species are less understood and may be important for light-exposed tissues, such as the skin. Photochemical studies have demonstrated that excitation of retinol or its esters with UV light generates a number of reactive species including singlet oxygen and superoxide radical anion. These reactive oxygen species have been shown to damage a number of cellular targets, including lipids and DNA. Consistent with the potential for damaging DNA, retinyl palmitate has been shown to be photomutagenic in an in vitro test system. The results of mechanistic studies were consistent with mutagenesis through oxidative damage. Vitamin A in the skin resides in a complex environment that in many ways is very different from the chemical environment in solution and in in vitro test systems. Relevant clinical studies or studies in animal models are therefore needed to establish whether the pro-oxidant activity of photoexcited vitamin A is observed in vivo, and to assess the related risks.