Spotlight On: Vitamin E

Ingredients, Skin Care


Vitamin E is amongst the most popular antioxidants featured in skin care formulations, and for good reason: it is not only a highly effective antioxidant, but also serves as a hydrating agent. For more about this great ingredient, read on.

Vitamin E is the skin’s greatest natural antioxidant

According to the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, vitamin E is one of the naturally produced antioxidant substances that protects against skin’s exposure to UV and environmental exposures to ozone. In fact, according to the article, vitamin E has been identified as the “predominant lipid-soluble antioxidant” in murine (mouse) and human skin.

According to a second research study, this by Packer and Valacchi, vitamin E is produced in the sebum of the skin, so it comes from the pores of the skin. As such, vitamin E shows a characteristic gradient in the stratum corneum (uppermost layer of skin), with lower levels being found towards the outer stratum corneum layers.

Vitamin E saves your skin from matrix metalloproteinases (and don’t use lycopene or beta-carotene without it!)

According to this 2002 study in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, irradiating the skin with UVA light not surprisingly lead to a 10-to-15-fold increase in the amount of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) mRNA. Matrix metalloproteinases, which are translated from MMP mRNA, degrades collagen. What the study found that was surprising was that application of lycopene or beta-carotene to the skin was found to actually increase matrix metalloproteinase formation by 1.5-to-2-fold, unless vitamin E was applied in conjunction with lycopene or beta-carotene, in which case damaging matrix metalloproteinase mRNA levels did not increase. It is also notable that the study found applying solely vitamin E protected against matrix metalloproteinase mRNA formation. This indicates that use of vitamin E is a strong protector against matrix metalloproteinase formation, and hence collagen protection.

In case the scientifically curious out there were wondering, MMPs degrade collagen in three steps, as mentioned in the textbook Cosmetic Dermatology:

  • 1- UV exposure increases the production of the transcription factor c-jun.
  • 2- The “extra” c-jun combines with another transcription factor already present in high concentration, c-fos, to produce activator protein, AP-1.
  • 3- AP-1 activates the MMP genes, which produce collagenase, gelatinase, and stromelysin-1. It may further be noted that there are twenty-three human MMPs, and MMP-1 has been found in studies to be the MMP responsible for collagen degradation.

Vitamin E may protect the skin barrier

It has been suggested further in a study by J.J. Thiele that depleted levels of vitamin E serve as a “very early and sensitive biomarker of environmentally-induced oxidation,” and “topical and/or systemic application of antioxidants could support physiologic mechanisms to maintain or restore a healthy skin barrier and to modulate desquamatory skin disorders.”

Vitamin E fares well in the raging antioxidant market

In fact, vitamin E has an environmental protection factor (EPF) of 80, which is relatively high compared to other commonly used antioxidants in skin care formulations. EPF was established for measuring the overall oxidative stress protection capacity of commonly used antioxidants in a 2006 study by McDaniel et. al. In this study, the researchers found that (on a scale from 1 to 100) idebenone had an EPF of 95; vitamin E (tocopherol), 80; kinetin, 68; ubiquinone, 55; vitamin C (ascorbic acid) 52; and lipoic acid, 41. However, coffee berry, which has been established to have more antioxidant activity than idebenone, was not included in the study.

Retinol/retinyl palmitate works great with Vitamin E

According to a 2001 study, also in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, vitamin A (usually found as retinol or retinyl palmitate) and vitamin E both benefit the skin, but in distinct, complimentary ways. According to the study, in the mouse skin model, “topical vitamin A has been shown to prevent the UV-induced epidermal hypovitaminosis A [low levels of vitamin A in the skin],” and “topical vitamin E prevents oxidative stress and cutaneous and systemic immunosuppression elicited by UV.”

Vitamins A and E also “absorb ultraviolet (UV) light in the region of solar spectrum that is responsible for most of the deleterious biological effects of the sun.” Exciting indeed!

Vitamins C and E

I feel like a broken record on this potent combination…please visit here for more information. 🙂

What are some formulations with a high concentration of vitamin E?

Some vitamin E formulations I would recommend include:
M.D. Forte Skin Rejuvenation Eye Cream, Alpha Hydroxy Acid with Vitamins A & E ($62.00, Contains a fairly high concentration of retinol and vitamin E as tocopheryl acetate. Just be sure to use sunscreen with it everyday, as retinol tends to make the skin more photosensitive (i.e., sensitive to the sun).

Olay Quench Body Lotion with Green Tea ($7.99, Contains niacinamide to even skin tone and hydrate, and vitamin E as an antioxidant to fight free radicals, plus softening ingredients. Great lotion – my favorite body lotion!

For more information…

I would consult the book, The Vitamin E Factor, by Andreas C. Papas for more information on how vitamin E is beneficial when taken orally as well as applied topically.

Overall, I feel that vitamin E is a great addition to a well-rounded skin care regime. For best results, use it in conjunction with other clinically proven ingredients like retinoids, niacinamide, alpha hydroxy acids, additional antioxidants, genistein (found in soy extract), and — of course — sunscreen! 🙂

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  • Pam

    Is it effective to use the dl-alpha (synthetic) form of vitamin E when applying it directly to the skin?

  • Joyce

    Thank you for the article! I’ve discovered that some of the skin care products I use also have Vitamin E in the ingredient list.

  • Eleanor –

    I’m so glad you liked the post and found it helpful! 🙂


  • eleanor

    i’ve had blemishes appearing more frequently lately, and after doing some more research (i found a lot of information from this site), i noticed i haven’t been eating enough vitamin E enriched foods! now i’ll have to buy some supplement pills, also. thanks for this enlightening post!

  • Ahhhh, way to go, sofi76! Thanks for the heads-up. I wrote a new post about retinoids and AHAs together:

    I still like the MD Forte product, although you’re right, it’s not as effective as it would be with retinol alone or alpha hydroxy acids alone. Good call!

  • sofi76

    quick question about the M.D. Forte product you recommend: I notice retinol AND AHA in this product. Doesn’t AHA cancel out the effects of retinols?

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