What is Vitamin E?
On the surface, vitamin E seems like a simple ingredient. It’s a fat soluble compound, which means it dissolves in fat and oil and is stored in the cell membranes of our bodies. Plant oils, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds are great sources of vitamin E, and bears a great deal of research proving its antioxidant and UV photoprotective effects in skincare. But once you start digging a little deeper, you’ll find that vitamin E is quite complex. For starters, vitamin E consists of eight different molecules with similar structures, and is broken down into two classes: tocopherols (α, β, ɣ, and δ) which are saturated forms of vitamin E and tocotrienols (α, β, ɣ, and δ) which are unsaturated. Each one of these eight forms has unique functions, while all being potent antioxidants.
For example, alpha (α) tocopherol is the most predominant form of vitamin E in human skin, fights free radicals and offers the skin protection against harmful UV rays. Gamma (ɣ) tocopherol is also an antioxidant, but provides more anti-inflammatory properties than the alpha-tocopherol form as it has been shown to inhibit the formation of cytokines which are pro-inflammatory biochemicals.
Beta (β) tocopherol is an antioxidant as well, and research shows that it may increase the antioxidant effects of α-tocopherol. Delta (δ) tocopherol is the only bioavailable form of vitamin E as it enters the bloodstream, and along with gamma-tocopherol has cancer preventative activity that alpha-tocopherol alone does not.
Since tocopherols were discovered prior to tocotrienols, tocotrienols are not as well studied, but that is changing since they play an important role in skin health. Tocotrienols are more effective antioxidants than tocopherols while also possessing anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. As mentioned above, tocotrienols are not saturated which allows them to better distribute in the lipid layers of cell membranes, protect their integrity, and provide increased antioxidant potency.
Vitamin E in Skincare
After learning the basic differences of the types of vitamin E, it seemed like a good idea to talk to skincare formulators for their thoughts on what seems to be an incredibly efficacious ingredient in skincare. Toni Ann Barandon, the creator of Naturallogic, is a firm believer in the power of vitamin E and refers to it as a foundational antioxidant since it repairs, protects, and nourishes the skin. She only utilizes broad spectrum tocopherols in her line, so as to reap the benefits and synergy of the alpha, beta, gamma and delta forms. Sunflower derived vitamin E is her go to, as she prefers its sustainability and high quality as opposed to soy which is commonly genetically engineered.
Barandon also knows that many of her customers prefer to avoid ingredients derived from soy because of allergies and the desire to decrease possible phytoestrogen and/or GMO exposure. She also loves using whole sunflower oil in her products because it offers the full spectrum of tocopherols and has a long shelf life due to its high vitamin E content. Earthwise Beauty‘s creator, Ava Zhan, is also a proponent of sunflower derived vitamin E as she has found that her variety, which is unbleached, undeodorized, and non-GMO certified to be noncomedogenic, even in high percentages.
Other plant oils that are high in vitamin E include avocado, sweet almond, prickly pear seed, argan, pumpkin seed, sesame, jojoba, olive and coconut oils. Cranberry seed oil, another vitamin E rich oil, is the one that creator of Live Botanical, Carolyn McRory, considers her favorite of the lot. She loves utilizing cranberry seed oil because it’s so rich with vitamin E, contains all of its eight forms, and she is able to source it regionally. According to McRory, vitamin E is such a powerful antioxidant that when it’s added to oils, or when it’s already present in an oil in high amounts, it decreases the chance of rancidity and as a result, increases their shelf life.
To clarify, McRory states that vitamin E should not be confused with other preservatives that prevent microbes and fungus from growing in skincare products which are needed whenever water is present in a formula. Nevertheless, if vitamin E is added to an oil blend or a water-based cream, it provides protection and nourishment to the skin while also stabilizing the oils present in the product, a double benefit. It’s important to keep in mind that the stability of a product is multi-faceted, which includes a product’s ability to handle stressors like heat, fluctuations of temperature, exposure to light, and antimicrobial activity. Consequently, vitamin E’s ability to protect oils from going rancid is only one aspect of a product’s stability.
Natural v. Synthetic
It’s important to keep in mind that reading an ingredient list will not always inform you if the vitamin E in your skincare is natural or synthetic, or from what plant it is derived if it is natural (soy or sunflower for example). It’s also interesting to note that natural sources of vitamin E have provided the most consistent data concerning its superior topical efficacy while synthetic Vitamin E derivatives have limited cellular metabolism in the skin thereby reducing its skincare effects.
Therefore, if you want the full skincare benefits of vitamin E, trusting a brand’s claims of using only natural ingredients, or asking the brand if they use naturally sourced vitamin E may be valuable information. Some formulators and brands explicitly state the type of vitamin E used, such as Branadon whose labels read “Mixed Tocopherols (Full Spectrum Non-GMO Vitamin E)”. As customers become more savvy to these distinctions and request this information, hopefully more brands will provide such ingredient list details.
What’s Old is New Again
Vitamin E might not be the “new thing” in skincare right now, but it deserves as much attention as the current ingredient du jour. It has loads of research to back up its reputation for being a highly effective antioxidant, with other benefits like being anti-inflammatory, nurturing, and moisturizing. It’s not always necessary to go chasing after the not-yet-discovered holy grail ingredient, because as Branadon so eloquently said, “the magic is closer than you think it is.”
Products high in Vitamin E:
Live Botanical First Light Brightening Oil Serum and Balancing Whipped Oil
Laurel Skin Antioxidant Serum and Unburden Serum
Earthwise Beauty Resiliency Face Serum, Yasuni Balm, and Nap in the Meadow Face Serum
Naturallogic PHYTO NECTAR Radiance Boosting Facial Oil
Mun Aknari Brightening Youth Serum
Michels, Alexander J. “Vitamin E and Skin Health.” Linus Pauling Institute. January 2, 2019. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/vitamin-E
Ashan, Haseeb; Ahad, Amjid; Iqbal, Jahangir; Siddiqui, Wassem A. “Pharmacological potential of tocotrienols: a review.” Nutrition & Metabolism. November 12, 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4247006/
Chiarello-Ebner, Kaylynn. “Goal: Healthy, Hydrated, Youthful Skin.” Whole Foods Magazine. June 14, 2016. https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/haba/features-haba/goal-healthy-hydrated-youthful-skin/
“Stability testing of cosmetics.” Making Cosmetics Inc. https://www.makingcosmetics.com/Stability-Testing-of-Cosmetics_ep_59.html
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