Read the Label: All Your Vitamin E Questions Answered

From fighting free radical damage to keeping wrinkles at bay, topical vitamin E is a skincare staple for a reason. To understand why, The AEDITION asked the experts.
Written by Vivien Moon
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Read the Label: All Your Vitamin E Questions AnsweredRyan Christodoulou/Unsplash

Feel like you need a dictionary every time you look at the ingredient list of a beauty product? Still unsure of the difference between retinol and retinoids? What about the unique benefits of vitamins B, C, and E? Are alpha and beta hydroxy acids the same thing? The skincare aisle can be overwhelming, but you don’t need a PhD in cosmetic chemistry to navigate it. With expert help, The AEDITION is demystifying and simplifying the beauty industry — one label at a time.

Due to its potent composition and workhorse status, vitamin E is an ingredient that is likely already in both your skincare routine and diet whether you realize it or not. Applied topically or consumed via leafy greens, seeds, and nuts (to name a few), the antioxidant offers protection from free radicals and improves skin regeneration that wards off sun damage and improves skin tone and texture.

No matter how nutrient-dense your diet may be, just about everyone can benefit from a bit of vitamin E in their skincare routine. But what’s the best way to use it? The AEDITION spoke with board certified dermatologists to get the scoop.

What Is Vitamin E

“Vitamin E – or alpha-tocopherol – is a fat-soluble vitamin with antioxidant properties,” explains Beverly Hills-based board certified dermatologist Jeanette Black, MD. “It is found naturally in many foods, including green, leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, meats, eggs, and vegetable oils.”

Though the body receives a daily dose of vitamin E through diet, its molecular makeup allows it to provide skincare benefits as well when applied topically. “It is made up of eight different types of molecules that work as antioxidants,” says Morgan Rabach, MD, a board certified cosmetic dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical in New York. As she explains it, the molecules help reduce free-radical formation, which is what happens when your skin is under stress from UV light, pollution, toxins, blue light, and the like. In turn, the skin is able to spend more time repairing itself and less time fighting off the disruptive damage caused by free radicals.

Benefits of Vitamin E in Skincare

Vitamin E Skincare Benefits Infographic

In case you haven’t gotten the gist, vitamin E is an important part of any skin and sun care regimen. “The primary mechanism of action for topical antioxidants, such as vitamin E, is to neutralize free radicals caused by UV radiation from the sun,” Dr. Black explains. While it is commonly consumed through food and a deficiency is rare, the topical application of vitamin E still has an array of health benefits — specifically for the skin. As it absorbs, vitamin E helps strengthen the skin’s barrier to shield against external pollutants.

But that’s not all. Vitamin E pulls double-duty as a nourishing emollient akin to hyaluronic acid. “It helps maintain the seal on the outer layer of skin and also smooths out dry skin, allowing your skin to keep moisture inside,” Dr. Rabach says. Dehydrated skin can lead to a loss of volume, dullness, and an overall tired appearance that could otherwise be avoided through proper skincare and a healthy lifestyle.

Finding the Right Vitamin E Product

As a fat-soluble ingredient, vitamin E delivers the best results in an oily formulation. Like vitamin C, it also functions best when housed in specific packaging. “Antioxidant formulations are often packaged in dark, opaque bottles to help prevent exposure to light to keep the ingredients viable,” Dr. Black says. When reading the label, look for the term ‘tocopherol’ (i.e. its technical name) and know that you’ll likely find it in everything from serums to sunscreens.

“One of my favorite formulations is the SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic, which includes ingredients such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and ferulic acid,” Dr. Black shares. Those who prefer creams, meanwhile, can find it in products like the Alder New York Everyday Face Moisturizer, where it is also compounded with vitamin C and hyaluronic acid for an extra boost.

When to Use Vitamin E

The best thing about vitamin E? It doesn’t require much guesswork to add it into your routine. When layering products, start with the lightest consistency (think: serum) and work up to the thickest (i.e. oils and creams). If your vitamin E is in a serum form, apply it after cleanser and toner but before the moisturizer. If it is in your moisturizer, save it for last.

As for when to use it? “As the primary mechanism of action of topical antioxidants is to neutralize free radicals caused by UV radiation from the sun, it makes the most sense to use these products in the morning under sunscreen,” Dr. Black explains. But don’t just save it for a sunny day. “UVA rays from the sun can penetrate through windows and clouds, so wearing a topical antioxidant and sunscreen everyday can help protect the skin from the cumulative effects of regular sun exposure,” she adds, noting that the benefits of wearing topical antioxidants and sunscreen matter even when you’re “staying indoors and out of direct sunlight.”

While antioxidants like vitamin E offer protective power during the day, they are also reparative at night. “The antioxidants help repair damage from the day and the moisturizing effects help rehydrate the skin overnight,” Dr. Rabach says. So, don’t be afraid to add them to your beauty sleep arsenal.

Note: Be Smart About Vitamin E Supplements

Topical vitamin E may be a no brainer for many patients, but introducing an oral supplement containing the antioxidant requires a bit more consideration. “Because vitamin E is readily consumed in many foods, vitamin E deficiency is unusual unless there is intestinal malabsorption,” Dr. Black says. “Vitamin E is generally well-tolerated as an oral supplement, but it’s important to take the recommended doses as vitamin E toxicity is possible.”

To avoid any complications, be sure to speak to a board certified provider before trying to self-medicate with this (or any!) vitamins in hopes of amplifying the benefits. “Side effects from taking vitamin E supplements could include thinning of the blood, which can make bruising and bleeding more common during medical procedures,” she warns.

Best Candidates for Vitamin E

While patients with “dry, cracked, and damaged skin” can benefit from vitamin E, Dr. Rabach cautions that people with acne-prone and/or oily skin may want to avoid it in favor of an oil-free moisturizer. “Skin reactions from topical vitamin E are possible so consult a board certified dermatologist if a skin reaction occurs,” Dr. Black adds.

Another group of patients who can benefit? Anyone with UV-inflicted damage and pigmentation concerns. “Those with sun sensitivity and sun damage could potentially benefit from wearing a topical antioxidant,” Dr. Black says. “Patients with sun-related dyspigmentation, such as melasma, can especially benefit from using topicals with antioxidants like vitamin E.”

The Takeaway

Protecting the skin from free radicals and pollutants are a few of the ways to prevent visible signs of aging and sun damage, and vitamin E is here to help. When worn daily under sunscreen, the antioxidant helps improve the skin’s barrier function and lock in moisture. The most important thing to remember, however, is that it is meant to complement your SPF — not replace it. “It is important to remember that using cosmeceuticals with antioxidants does not replace daily sunscreen use,” Dr. Black says. “But it can be worn under sunscreen to complement its protective effects.”

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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VIVIEN MOONis a senior editor at AEDIT.

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