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Vitamin E: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Reviewed by Summar April 7, 2010 22 Comments

Still unclear on the benefits of vitamin E for skin? So were we. I began digging around on the premise that as an antioxidant and vital nutrient for the body, vitamin E must be good for your skin. Well, turns out, there are a variety of factors and limits that make this presumption far too simplistic, and there are even cases where vitamin E can be harmful to your body and skin.

According to non-profit research institute Frost & Sullivan, vitamin E in cosmetics accounted for only  2% of the total volume in 2005, but vitamin E is on its way to further growth in the cosmetic market due to its complex protective functions. Vitamin E has also been touted as an acne scar and wound healer for years, and yet, one study claims that it can do more detriment to the healing of a scar than when the body is left to its own devices. Shocked? So was I.

Here are a number of other things I learned:

Vitamin E: The Good

A 2005 Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology article gives the application of topical vitamin E credit for reducing erythema, sunburn cells and chronic UV-B-induced skin damage. Topical vitamin E for skin was more effective than the oral dosage. Combinations of vitamins C and E together make an even better case for photoprotective effects.

Tocopheryl Acetate is the most common form of vitamin E for skin and is FDA approved and recognized as generally safe. There are eight basic forms of the vitamin E molecule total. Others include tocotrienols, which also make for a good ingredient in sunscreens. Research from the Journal of Nutrition shows that tocotrienols may be more potent in antioxidant activity than other forms of vitamin E.

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Experimental evidence suggests that topical vitamin E has antitumorigenic, photoprotective, and skin barrier stabilizing properties. Vitamin E is supposed to reduce the formation of free radicals upon skin exposure to UVA rays and other sources of skin stress, while increasing the efficacy of active sunscreen ingredients. Several studies indicate that mixed tocopherols are more effective than alpha tocopherol in quenching free radicals.

Vitamin E: The Bad

Tocopheryl Acetate does show tendencies of being a skin toxicant; several in vitro tests on mammalian cells showed positive mutation results.

While most people say rubbing vitamin E on a scar helps it heal, research hardly proves that theory. In a Dermatologic Surgery article, the study shows that there is no benefit to the cosmetic outcome of scars by applying vitamin E after skin surgery. In fact, it is detrimental to the skin’s healing process; the levels of contact dermatitis were high. A 2006 study in Canada tested vitamin E on children’s scars and stated that there were some adverse affects with the use of vitamin E. The Division of Dermatology at McGill University states that even after 44 years of research, there is scant proof of vitamin E’s effectiveness in treating dermatologic conditions.

Vitamin E: The Ugly

On top of lack of proof for vitamin E's healing properties in regards to scars and acne, vitamin E doesn’t seem to have any benefit for eyelash growth either, as Copley explored. An increasing number of cases illustrate that vitamin E is a potential contact allergen, so considering the sensitivity of the eye area, applying vitamin E oil to the eyelash bed could make things go from bad to ugly, fast.

A research group from Tel Aviv University recently published a study on vitamin E use and heart disease, and warned that indiscriminate use of high doses of vitamin E do more harm than good. In fact, subjects who did not take a vitamin E supplement enjoyed more quality-adjusted-life years.

In November 2004, the American Heart Association warned that while the small amounts of vitamin E found in multivitamins and foods were not harmful, taking 400 International Units a day or more could increase the risk of death.

Vitamin E for Skin: Our Takeaways

Look for products that use vitamin E for sun protection as opposed to simply treating and healing inflictions already on the skin. Don’t take vitamin E as a supplement in anything but very small quantities; for the most part you can get what you need from a healthy diet. Plus, anything that touts vitamin E as a catalyst for hair growth may just be consigned to the department of daft.

Do you have sensitive skin? Read our article on sensitive skin solutions

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  • June 19, 2016

    by Marta

    Hi Lisa, essential oils can have antioxidants that are helpful for preventing free radical damage, but they don't do much to repair existing wrinkles. The best ingredients for this would be peptides and growth factors, which can signal cells to produce more collagen, and amino acids. Here's our selection of serums for wrinkles:

  • June 19, 2016

    by Lisa

    Does anyone have info on the effect of using oils such as vitamin e or other essential oils on wrinkles? I have been using oils for about a year and although e seems to benefit my acne ( still acne with wrinkles) the wrinkles have not improved. About 2 years ago I bought a tanning package- about 8 sessions in a uv b booth. They promote it as good because it does not burn your skin, but ever since then I have had accelerated skin aging. I had a chicken neck by the end of the 8 weeks, although at the time I did not recognize the correlation. I have recently read that the uvb rays are extremely damaging to the deeper collagen layers of the skin. I so regret what I did in ignorance!

  • March 24, 2016

    by Jennifer

    I have decided to go natural. My first experiment was cleansing my face with organic cold pressed virgin coconut oil. Although it works for some, I found it to be very drying to my skin. So I went out and bought some Vitamin E oil, thinking it would clear things up. So I applied it to my face. Today I woke up and my face and neck are super dry and stinging. Very scary. The vitamin e oil I used was Derma e. When I looked closer at the bottle, it said "not for internal use" . Although it didn't mention it, through research I found it was the acetate kind. I was afraid to even wash my face and put anything on it but I had to do something. So I put some fresh aloe gel from my plant on my face and neck and massaged it in, rinsed with luke warm water, patted dry, applied more aloe, let it dry, then finallly patted in some extremely expensive 100 % organic rosehip seed oil. It seems to have calmed down. I am going to leave my face alone and pray.

  • March 17, 2016

    by Elina Martin

    Vitamin E oil is used most commonly as a way to improve the appearance and texture of your skin. Some people look at it as a form of the “fountain of youth” and they swear by it. Now, I’ve heard similar from claims from people who use coconut oil, almond oil, and other oils, but in actuality, vitamin E is an ingredient in a number of such oils—except coconut oil—so it might play a major role.

    Why vitamin E oil might be so beneficial for skin has to do with the fact that it’s an antioxidant. Antioxidants fight against cellular damage and mutations to maintain the integrity of your cells, aid in immune function, and potentially improve damaged skin.

    A topical cream or oil, therefore, would absorb into an affected area—say a scar, stretch mark, or sunburn—and work to repair the damaged skin to relieve discoloration and strengthen the area. Is it a magic eraser? No. But it can potentially make a difference to improve the look of your skin.

  • March 10, 2016

    by danni

    So, my skin is sensitive to vitamin A and Retinol, but I have seen a HUGE difference in my complexion and wrinkles since I started using a product with Vitamin A. People are telling me I look younger! Retinoids bind to corresponding receptors in the skin. This peels off the top layer, which evens skin tone, and thickens the layers below, which smoothes out wrinkles. Retinoids also boost collagen, a protein that keeps the skin firm and springy, by blocking the genes that cause it to break down and increasing other gene activity responsible for its production.

    Yes, it does make me sensitive. But its worth it. I have tried all the Vitamin A creams, and the only ones that work for my sensitive skin are the Made from Earth Firming Serum and the Lady Soma Renewal Serum. I just switch between the two. The Lady Soma is probobly my favorite.

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