Vitamin E ( tocopherol) is a lipid-soluble antioxidant that is found pretty much in all anti-aging products. If a product claims it works for scar, stretch marks or dark spot treatment, it’s uncommon not to find Vitamin E in the ingredient list as well. We hear that Vitamin E improves signs of aging. By that we mean skin darkening, elasticity, radiance, smoothness, and wrinkles.
Today, we will see if it actually works and who should use it.
So, before we dive in, I wanted you to see how thick vitamin E is. It’s more like a honey consistency than oil to be honest. Due to this thick consistency, it can be comedogenic, pore clogging and cause problems for acne prone individuals. So, if you tend to easily breakout, this vitamin might not be your BFF. Of course, the concentration in most of the products you use is probably very very very low but in my case, even that is enough. Just getting that understanding established early on. . .
As I mentioned, vitamin E is lipid-soluble which means it can go down to the deepest layers of the stratum corneum via sebaceous gland secretions. It’s affinity also helps it stay within cell membranes and mop those nasty free radicals.
Side note, there is a water soluble derivative (γ-tocopherol-N,N-dimethylglycinate hydrochloride) that is proprietary but that’s the exception so we will stick to the naturally occurring non-polar form of vitamin E that you’re more likely to find in your products.
Natural plant-derived vitamin E is composed of eight different derivatives (α-, β-, γ-gamma, and δ-sigma tocopherols and the related α-, β-, γ-gamma, and δ-sigma tocotrienols). Tocotrienols have unsaturated side chain and tocopherols have saturated fyi.
Gamma γ-tocopherol is the most abundant tocopherol in diet, and α-tocopherol is the most abundant vitamin E derivative found in human tissues.
As far as skin care products are concerned, α-tocopherol acetate and α-tocopherol are the most commonly found.
The free (OH) or hydroxyl group of Tocopherol can easily be oxidized by the air around us. But it can be protected from oxidation by esterification with a carboxyl group of an organic acid like acetic acid. In that case we find tocopherol acetate, the most widely form of vitamin E in skin care products we use. Tocopherol acetate is a prodrug-meaning: it will be converted to tocopherol after it’s applied to the skin.
Vitamin E is synthesized by plants and must be obtained from plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables as dietary sources.
Richest sources are
- Nuts (almonds, peanuts, peanut butter)
- Sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil
- Beet greens, collard greens, spinach
- Wheat germ oil
- Red bell pepper
Vitamin E was first described in 1922 by Herbert Evans and Katharine Bishop. While conducting studies, they noticed that the female rats at their lab kept having miscarriages when fed diet that didn’t contain, what we now know as Vitamin E.
They could see fetal development was restored by adding wheat germ oil. Then Vitamin E was isolated in 1936 and was given the Greek name tocopherol, which means “the childbirth-producing alcohol”.
In 1938, a man called Paul Karrer synthesized vitamin E and demonstrated its antioxidant uses. By the 1940s and 1950s, the antioxidant activity of vitamin E was well established, and it was recognized as an essential nutrient in 1968.
As you know the epidermis is the primary barrier that protects you from everything that’s out there. It is constantly exposed to UV light and other oxidative stressors. Free radicals are capable of oxidizing lipids to lipid hydroperoxides, proteins to protein carbonyls or DNA to 8-hydroxyguanosine. None of these we want!
The constant attack from oxidative species can eventually manifest as phototoxicity, immunosuppression, photoaging, and cutaneous neoplasia.
We just mentioned antioxidant uses but what other used does it have that’s supported by literatures? We will go through them now.
But first, let’s look at it’s free radical scavenging activity closely:
Ultraviolet radiation causes skin aging by producing free radicals, reactive oxygen species (ROS), which interfere in collagen synthesis, degrade collagen and elastin, and damages lipid component of membranes leading more water loss and more inflammation.
Studies show that antioxidants can slow down and even reverse these oxidative damages. As an antioxidant, vitamin E suppresses chain initiation and/or chain propagation steps by donating its 6-phenolic hydrogen to the oxygen radicals.
And plays a key role in protecting epidermal cell membranes and lipids from oxidative damage. So many studies have demonstrated the role of topical vitamin E in reducing both acute and chronic UV-mediated skin responses as well.
The other widely claimed use of Vitamin is in melasma/dark spots and hyperpigmentation in general. According to the extensive research I have done, Vitamin E alone has minimal efficacy in the treatment of melasma. It can help with pigmentation by interfering with lipid peroxidation of melanocyte membranes, increasing intracellular glutathione content, and tyrosinase inhibition. But it needs to be coupled with another ingredient such as Vitamin C because it’s activity is simply not that strong alone.
I mention this in my Vitamin C video, check it out here in case you haven’t, that vitamin C and E work wonderfully together not just effectively but synergistically. One study calls them “partners in defense” which I thought was a nice title.
We know that Vitamin C is a major water soluble antioxidant and it scavenges oxygen radicals in the aqueous phase. And vitamin E is a lipid soluble antioxidant that scavenges oxygen radicals with in the membranes. Which means, when working together, they leave nothing behind! Also, vitamin C can regenerate oxidized vitamin E to its active form, tocopherol.
One of the most popular applications of vitamin E is the treatment of burns, surgical scars, and wounds. But, studies looking at the efficacy of vitamin E in the treatment of burns and scars have been disappointing as well. When used together with silicone gel-it has shown to help but again, not very strong in that area alone.
To wrap it up: If you use vitamin E, it’s better you use it with vitamin C. Topical use of 15% L-ascorbic acid combined with 1% alpha-tocopherol has been shown to provide significantly more protection against sunburn cell formation compared with either L-ascorbic acid or 1% alpha-tocopherol alone. The gain is more with the two together even in the case of hyperpigmentation.
Vitamin E might not be for you if you easily breakout so remember that too.
As always, if you’re interested to learn more, you can find links to literatures.
Konger, Raymond L. "A new wrinkle on topical vitamin E and photo-inflammation: mechanistic studies of a hydrophilic γ-tocopherol derivative compared with α-tocopherol." Journal of Investigative Dermatology 126.7 (2006): 1447-1449.
Mereniuk, Alexandra, et al. "Topical Vitamin E Cream Does Not Prevent Visible Light-Induced Pigmentation." Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery 22.1 (2018): 100-101.
Myriam, Myriam, et al. "Skin bioavailability of dietary vitamin E, carotenoids, polyphenols, vitamin C, zinc and selenium." British Journal of Nutrition 96.2 (2006): 227-238.
Nada, Aly, et al. "In vitro and in vivo permeation of vitamin E and vitamin E acetate from cosmetic formulations." Medical Principles and Practice 20.6 (2011): 509-513.
Rattanawiwatpong, Pattarawan, et al. "Anti‐aging and brightening effects of a topical treatment containing vitamin C, vitamin E, and raspberry leaf cell culture extract: A split‐face, randomized controlled trial." Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 19.3 (2020): 671-676.