When scientists discuss “vitamin E,” they're referring to a family of eight different molecules that can dissolve in fat. But when most other people talk about it, they mean alpha-tocopherol, the natural kind of vitamin E that we store in our bodies. Alpha-tocopherol is also a very common ingredient you'll see in skincare products, because vitamin E is so essential to healthy, soft skin.
We typically get our recommended daily allowance of the vitamin (15 mg a day) from our diet, because the foods highest in vitamin E are nuts, seeds, and most vegetable oils used for cooking. That's why vitamin E deficiency is rare. But because it’s got such a reputation as a helpful vitamin for preventing conditions such as heart disease and cancer—even as studies show that's not necessarily the case—many decide to take oral vitamin E supplements.
What we do know is that vitamin E is a great antioxidant that the body uses to protect the skin from damage. While we could take a vitamin E supplement for the skin, it might actually be more effective to apply it directly. Because it's fat-soluble, it can be absorbed through the skin's natural barrier quite easily.
Antioxidant Powers of Vitamin E on the Skin
What does vitamin E do for the skin? Above all else, we rely on vitamin E to protect it from something called oxidative stress. That's what happens when UV rays, pollution, and some of the natural processes of the body turn oxygen molecules into free radicals, which cause a chain reaction of damage to various skin cells. Oxidative stress slows production of collagen, causes hyperpigmentation (dark spots), triggers inflammation (both swelling and redness), and breaks down the lipids (fats) that hold together the skin's natural barrier, which in turn makes skin lose moisture.
Vitamin E is in sebum, an oily substance excreted through pores into the epidermis (the outer layer of skin) to protect it. Like other antioxidants, vitamin E binds to the free radical molecules, mostly caused by sun exposure, halting the chain reaction that would otherwise cause all those signs of aging and damage. Studies have shown it is particularly effective when it comes to preventing what's called lipid peroxidation—that breakdown of the fats in skin barrier. As an antioxidant, it also prevents free radicals from slowing down the synthesis of collagen and glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), which are sugars that fill the space between collagen and elastin in the skin's supportive structure, keeping it plump and supple. In short, it's preventing the sun from causing the skin to look old before its time.
Vitamin E Moisturizes, Too
You can feel that the oily, emollient nature of vitamin E is soothing to dry and irritated skin. Long after the oil has been absorbed into your skin, it does even more to moisturize by increasing how much water the skin's natural barrier can bind to. That means hydration can reach the skin and stay there for longer.
Vitamin E is Anti-Inflammatory
Topical application of vitamin E is also effective in reducing or preventing various symptoms of inflammation, including swelling, redness, and increased skin thickness. This may be why it's been thought to improve the appearance of scars, but unfortunately, that benefit has not been proven.
Unlike some other anti-inflammatory ingredients, it is not recommended to use vitamin E for acne or oily skin. Vitamin E oil can clog pores when added to oily skin, which likely already has high levels of the substance in its sebum.
Vitamin C and Vitamin E Work Best Together
While doing its antioxidant work, vitamin E gets depleted in the skin and needs to be replenished. One of vitamin C's many roles is to restore vitamin E to optimal levels. This is one of the reasons lotions and serums with both vitamin E and vitamin C have been shown to be much more effective than those with just one of those ingredients. According to studies, serums with this combination are very effective at protecting the skin when applied before UV exposure and immediately afterward.
While alone, vitamin E may have skin whitening effects on sun-induced dark spots (due to antioxidant activity), but vitamin C is the real powerhouse when it comes to hyperpigmentation.
That's why instead of applying vitamin E oil directly to your face, it’s a better idea to look for a serum with both vitamin C and E that will partner up to protect, moisturize, and maintain even-toned, supple skin.