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A Beginner’s Guide to Vitamin E and What It Does for Your Skin

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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.

Meet the experts:
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.)

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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.

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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.