In the world of cosmetics, a time-proven ingredient is rarely positioned as being exciting or worthwhile. Instead, the majority of the industry focuses on new technology and exotic ingredients that, while impressive on paper, may not have significant (or any) scientific proof to back up their claims. That is not the case with vitamin E (chemical name tocopherol). It is one of the most well-known and researched antioxidants, both when taken orally and when used in skin-care products. If there were an antioxidant hall of fame, vitamin E would likely be its inaugural member (though do not take that to mean it is the "best" antioxidant—there isn't a best, just lots of great, extremely helpful options). It is fat-soluble and available in various forms, with the most biologically active being alpha-Tocopherol. A sampling of its substantiated capabilities when applied topically includes:
(Sources for the above information: Nutrition and Cancer, Volume 16, Issues 3-4, 1991, pages 219-225; International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, July-September 2005, pages 497-502; Experimental Dermatology, September 2005, pages 684-691; International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, July 2005, pages 116-119; Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, January-February 2005, pages 20-26; The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, February 2005, pages 304-307; Photochemistry and Photobiology, April 1993, pages 613-615; and Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, January 2005, page 4.)
- Protects the epidermis from early stages of ultraviolet light damage
- Increases the efficacy of active sunscreen ingredients
- Reduces the formation of free radicals upon skin exposure to UVA rays and other sources of skin stress
- Prevents the peroxidation of fats, a leading source of cell membrane damage in the body
- Reduces transepidermal water loss from skin and strengthens the skin's barrier function
- Protects the skin barrier's oil (lipid) balance during the cleansing process
- Reduces the severity of sunburn
- Skin absorbs and maintains levels of topical vitamin E, prolonging its benefits between applications
There are eight basic forms of the whole vitamin E molecule, which are either synthetically or naturally derived. The most typical forms are d-alpha-tocopherol, d-alpha-tocopherol acetate, dl-alpha tocopherol, and dl-alpha tocopherol acetate. The "d" designation in front of the "alpha" indicates that the products are derived from natural sources such as vegetable oils or wheat germ. The "dl" prefix shows that the vitamin has been created from a synthetic base. Research has shown that natural forms of vitamin E have more potency and a higher retention rate than their synthetic counterparts but both definitely have antioxidant significance (Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 2003, pages 899-906; and Federation of European Biochemical Societies, October 16, 1998, Pages 145-148.)
Clearly, various forms of vitamin E are major players as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. What much of the research cited above mentioned was that skin obtains more benefit from topical versus oral dosages of vitamin E. However, vitamin E has multiple benefits for the body, and is definitely a supplement to consider (with your physician's approval) if your regular diet is deficient in this nutrient. When it comes to antioxidants, there are internal benefits from dietary or supplement consumption and external benefits from topical application. As important as vitamin E is for skin, it is best used in combination with other antioxidants, including vitamin C, green tea, coenzyme Q10, and many, many others. In other words, it is not the only antioxidant with such an impressive pedigree.
Vitamin E itself is a fascinating antioxidant, but select companies have begun using tocotrienols, a segment of vitamin E's eight distinct components (alpha-tocopherol, beta-tocopherol, gamma-tocopherol, delta-tocopherol, alpha-tocotrienol, beta-tocotrienol, gamma tocotrienol, and delta-tocotrienol). There is research showing tocotrienols are more potent than other forms of vitamin E for antioxidant activity (Source: Journal of Nutrition, February 2001, pages 369S–373S; Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Issue 1,031, 2004, pages 124-142), but the research centered on large doses of oral tocotrienols, animal studies, or in vitro (test tube) studies. Tocotrienols in general appear to further enhance barrier function and modulate growth (Source: Free Radical Biology and Medicine, February 2003, pages 330-336). It has been shown that, at least in animal studies, the body has systems in place for regulating where the various forms of vitamin E go, and it is believed that each segment has its role in protecting various cells, be they brain, lung, or skin (Source: Journal of Lipid Research, Volume 37, Issue 4, April 1996, pages 893-901). Food sources of tocotrienols include palm, barley, and rice bran oils.
Vitamin E for Scars?
The simple answer is, "Probably not." Research published in Dermatologic Surgery, April 1999, pages 311–315, concluded that the "…study shows that there is no benefit to the cosmetic outcome of scars by applying vitamin E after skin surgery and that the application of topical vitamin E may actually be detrimental to the cosmetic appearance of a scar. In 90% of the cases in this study, topical vitamin E either had no effect on, or actually worsened the cosmetic appearance of scars. Of the patients studied, 33% developed a contact dermatitis to the vitamin E." The study was done double-blind "with patients given two ointments each labeled "A" or "B". "A" was Aquaphor, a regular emollient, and the "B" was Aquaphor mixed with vitamin E. Patients were asked to put the A ointment on part A and the B ointment on part B twice daily for 4 weeks." The conclusion was that vitamin E applied on the skin doesn't appear to reduce the appearance or formation of scars. However, as many dermatologists will attest, many patients believe vitamin E prevents or reduces the appearance of scars, thus its usage and anecdotal results continue.