For more than 50 years, vitamin E has been a go-to ingredient in the skin care and supplement industry. And when you consider vitamin E's all-star reputation as a luscious moisturizer and superstar antioxidant, it makes perfect sense. This is especially true when you utilize vitamin E both topically and internally. Here, learn what vitamin E can do for your skin, along with tips for using it.
What is vitamin E?
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble, or lipid-soluble, nutrient. This "means it's best absorbed when consumed with fat," says Amy Gonzalez, R.D., FNTP, CLT, of The Holistic Dietitian. It also means it's "stored within the body, primarily in the fatty tissues and liver," she adds. The term "vitamin E" doesn't refer to a single nutrient, though. Instead, it includes a group of eight molecularly similar compounds, according to dual board-certified dermatologist Brendan Camp, M.D.
The vitamin is mainly involved in metabolic processes like cell signaling, hormone balance, and gene expression, says Gonzalez. It's also the most prevalent fat-soluble vitamin in the skin—making it essential for maintaining skin health.
Naturally, your body cannot produce vitamin E, so you need to ingest it through your diet or supplementation. Most people get enough vitamin E through the diet, so true deficiency is quite rare. (It's found in sources like almonds, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, spinach, and broccoli.) However, you may not be getting enough to optimize the skin benefits, meaning you may want to consider finding a supplement with vitamin E—as well as using it topically.
Vitamin E supports collagen from the inside out.*
Consuming enough vitamin E offers an internal approach to healthy skin. For starters, vitamin E intake protects against collagen cross-linking, a process that plays a role in skin aging.* When collagen cross-links, it becomes hard and stiff, and that leads to damage. It also helps manage the skin barrier, which functions to protect the body from irritants, allergens, and excess water loss.*
It also has antioxidative abilities.* "As an antioxidant, vitamin E fights against oxidative damage by [stabilizing] free radicals," says Gonzalez.* It does so by donating an electron to free radicals, which neutralizes the molecular troublemakers. And according to Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., LDN, this reduces the body's level of oxidative stress, the process behind inflammation and skin aging.
It manages the effects of photodamage.*
UV radiation is a significant source of free radical formation in the skin, notes Camp. This can lead to a type of skin damage called photodamage, which causes hyperpigmentation, reddening, and altered skin texture. It also contributes to collagen degradation and photoaging, or premature skin aging due to UV radiation. Basically, continuous sunlight exposure is not your skin's friend.
Vitamin E's antioxidative properties can provide a generous dose of photoprotection.* This is very important, as your skin has a front-row seat to a sunlit show. And while vitamin E isn't a replacement for your regular sunscreen, it can certainly enhance your level of protection.*
3. It helps manage skin inflammation.*
Since vitamin E is an antioxidant, it also eases inflammation both topically and internally. As an explainer: Oxidative stress and inflammation have a symbiotic relationship, meaning they literally fuel each other. Specifically, oxidative stress activates certain molecular pathways, which jump-starts inflammation. This recruits immune cells to the scene of inflammation, further causing oxidative stress.
However, with vitamin E in the picture, you can help quell inflammation.* "Use of vitamin E may help manage signs of inflammation, like redness and swelling, by decreasing production of inflammatory mediators such as prostaglandins and interleukins," says Camp.* Its anti-inflammatory effect on the skin can also help inhibit skin damage after sunlight exposure.*
It could hydrate your skin.
In the dermatology community, topical vitamin E is revered for its potent hydrating properties. In fact, you'll likely find it in a majority of your skin care products, from night creams to leave-on masks. Many people even add vitamin E oil to their homemade beauty recipes, thanks to the anecdotal benefits that have endured over the years.
Yet, the mechanisms behind vitamin E's moisturizing effect are unclear, says Camp. It may be related to the way it builds up in the lipid matrix in the outer layer of the epidermis, called the stratum corneum. It's also likely that the vitamin accumulates in the sebaceous glands when it's applied to the skin. Regardless, folks have reported great success using vitamin E as a moisturizer. It may be the pick-me-up your skin needs if it's feeling dry and tight.
It may support wound healing when used topically.
According to anecdotal reports, applying vitamin E topically can speed up wound healing. People also use it to ease itchiness and reduce the appearance of scars, including those due to acne or surgery. And while there isn't solid scientific evidence to prove these effects, it's speculated that it may be related to vitamin E's anti-inflammatory abilities. The nutrient might also benefit scar formation during healing by interacting with lipids in cell membranes.
Why you should pair it with vitamin C
There's no doubt that vitamin E is an impressive compound. But if you'd like to reap the full benefits (and then some), it's best to use it with vitamin C, its water-soluble partner-in-crime. "When paired, vitamins C and E provide a powerful antioxidant combination," explains Camp. "Together, they are able to address UV-induced sun damage more effectively than [when they're used alone]."
Here's the deal behind this power couple: Vitamin C regenerates vitamin E after the latter scavenges free radicals. This further reduces oxidative damage to cell membranes. Meanwhile, "vitamin E helps stabilize vitamin C and keeps it from degrading quickly," says Camp. So, if you'd like to use vitamin E, don't forget to invite vitamin C to the party too.
What else do you need to know?
Like any other dietary supplement or topical product, vitamin E comes with its own precautions: You should not consume extremely high doses of vitamin E, any amount north of 400 international units (IU) a day. "Since vitamin E is fat-soluble and can build up in fatty tissues, there is a higher risk of toxicity," says Moreno. This can cause side effects like nausea, intestinal cramps, weakness, and diarrhea.
And though it's uncommon, topical vitamin E can also cause reactions like contact dermatitis or hives. If you have sensitive skin, always spot-test new products or oils on your forearm before using it on your face.
The bottom line:
Vitamin E is beloved for many reasons, both topically and internally. Not only does the antioxidant help fight oxidative stress, soothe inflammation, moisturize topically, and aid in healthy aging, but it pairs well with other nutrients, like vitamin C. This is especially important when it comes to collagen production in the body, as vitamin C and E will help manage your body's ability to stabilize and produce collagen. Consider using it topically, or be sure to look for it as an ingredient in your supplements.
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.