A Beginner’s Guide to Vitamin E and What It Does for Your Skin
August 2, 2022
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that can be effective at reducing UV damage in the skin. It is applied topically to help nourish and protect your skin from damage caused by free radicals. Below, read the break down of the importance and benefits of the common skin-care ingredient, including who should (and shouldn’t) use it.
Scour the ingredient list on your most moisturizing skin care, and you’ll probably note the presence of vitamin E. It’s found in nourishing serums and silky eye creams, and it even occurs naturally in our bodies and in certain foods. But how do you spot the version most likely to appear on an ingredient list, and what can it do for your skin?
We asked a team of experts for a quick refresher course on all things vitamin E, including who should (and shouldn’t) use it, and the best ways to incorporate it into your skin-care routine.
- Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist with expertise in skin care.
- Ginger King, a cosmetic chemist who has been developing color cosmetics, hair- and skin-care products.
- Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist.
- Ava Shamban, M.D., a Beverly Hills-based board-certified dermatologist.
- Audrey Kunin, M.D., a Kansas-based board-certified dermatologist.
- Anthony Rossi, M.D., a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
What is vitamin E?
Yes, it is actually a vitamin. But if you want to get technical, the term vitamin E actually refers to a group of compounds. According to cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson, there are about “eight different types” or forms of vitamin E. “Vitamin E is the name given to [a] family of oil-soluble antioxidants,” explains cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. Of the eight different types of vitamin E, “tocopheryl acetate and tocopherol are most commonly found in skin-care products.”
That means that although there are technically eight chemical forms in which vitamin E naturally occurs, it’s almost always tocopherol when you see the label “vitamin E” on your skin-care or supplement packaging. This is the only form of vitamin E that’s recognized to “meet human requirements,” as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) puts it. (Cosmetic chemist Ginger King explains that means it’s technically safe for humans to ingest.)
So if you see the term “tocopherol” on the ingredient list of your favorite serum or moisturizer or supplement, yep — that’s vitamin E.
How does vitamin E benefit skin?
“Topical vitamin E provides two benefits,” explains Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist. As an antioxidant, vitamin E combats free-radical damage, she says, “but unlike most other antioxidants, vitamin E is also a very hydrating molecule since it works as a both a humectant (to absorb water into the skin) and an emollient (to trap water in the skin).”
That means that “topically, it can be very helpful [for] a range of skin disorders, as well as skin repair,” elaborates Beverly Hills-based board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D. “It assists in various kinds of cellular restoration from sun damage to healing support for scars or burns.”
As mentioned, vitamin E is an antioxidant, says King. A quick refresher on why antioxidants are so important to our health, topically and internally: They prevent oxidative damage to cells by helping to remove free radicals. “Free radicals are on a destructive quest to become stable, so they are ready and willing to snatch an electron from anything that comes in its path, including DNA, skin proteins, connective tissues, and cell membranes,” Wilson explains. “The more you can quench the free radicals’ thirst for stability, the better your skin will be protected, which is where vitamin E comes into play.”
Additionally, vitamin E has “moisturizing and healing” benefits, and helps to “strengthen skin barrier function,” King says. Basically, it’s an all-around “workhorse of a vitamin,” as Dr. Shamban calls it. “Vitamin E is also a natural anti-inflammatory, so it can be soothing and help calm the skin,” she says. “It’s also good for hydrating skin, and serves as a moderately effective natural barrier to the sun.”
Who should use vitamin E on their skin, and who should avoid it?
Even if you don’t have a full understanding of your ideal skin-care routine, your skin type can help determine whether you should seek out a vitamin E oil, cream, or serum. The ingredient is beneficial to most skin types, and has also been shown to relieve eczema for some people.
That said, it won’t work for everyone. “Vitamin E is usually not advisable for super sensitive, very oily, or acne-prone skin,” Dr. Shamban says. She says that although it’s very uncommon, topical vitamin E itself can also act as an allergen to some, causing irritation, itching, or even a rash when it touches the skin. Scientists still aren’t sure what causes certain people to become allergic to it (King compares it to a peanut allergy), but according to Kansas-based board-certified dermatologist Audrey Kunin, M.D., less than 1 percent of people are topically sensitive to the ingredient. It’s important to note that other ingredients might be to blame for a poor reaction.
Which form of vitamin E is the best?
For the vast majority, vitamin E can posit serious skin benefits, Dr. Shamban says. Because vitamin E is oil soluble (meaning it can be delivered through or as an oil), incorporating it into your skin-care routine through oils and moisturizers are some of the best ways to use the ingredient.
New York City-based dermatologist Anthony Rossi M.D. says that vitamin E is paired with vitamin C, they are even more effective as partners. “After the vitamin E scavenges a free radical, vitamin C can help regenerate the vitamin E molecule,” he explains. Many serums contain both ingredients, like all-time favorites SkinCeuticals’s famous C E Ferulic serum, Maelove’s repeatedly sold-out The Glow Maker, and Sunday Riley C.E.O. Rapid Flash Brightening Serum. Dr. Ciraldo recommends Marie Veronique Vitamins C +E Ferulic Serum, which is ultra-nourishing, thanks to a base of olive and apricot kernel seed oil. (Bonus: It’s pretty affordable.)
If you’re new to using vitamin E, or your skin is on the sensitive side, try it out in a moisturizer first (serums are technically more potent concentrations). Some great options are the Youth to the People’s Superfood Air-Whip Moisture Cream and the Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Moisturizer.
What is the best way to use vitamin E oil?
When incorporating an oil into your skin-care routine, the most important aspect to keep in mind is the order of operations. When layering on various products, remember that an oil can penetrate a cream, but not vice versa. That means the oil should be second to last in your list of AM skin-care steps, followed only by SPF.
We are talking about oil here, so it’s no surprise that the best vitamin E oils can feel greasy when layered, or even on their own. “Since they are mainly oils I tend to use them at night because they can be greasy,” says Dr. Rossi.
For Dr. Ciraldo, vitamin E oils are best saved for non-visible parts of the body. “I recommend serums or creams with vitamin E for the face, but for the body, I love a Vitamin E oil,” she says. “It will glide on easily and the hydration will last all day on dry legs.” She also cites the added benefits of using vitamin E in the colder months, as is will combat dryness while it protects the skin. “Then, once the weather is warm, you’ll have the dual benefits of hydration and free radical defense if you spend time with your bare legs in the sun.”
After your shower or bath, Dr. Ciraldo recommends applying a vitamin E body oil to damp skin. Her favorites? Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Oil Mist — “great for dry extremities as it combines Vitamin E with skin soothing oatmeal mixed with jojoba and Vitamin C,” she says — and Honest Organic Body Oil, which includes vitamin E, olive oil, coconut oil, and chamomile.
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