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Vitamin E is by no means a beauty cabinet novelty. Once upon a time, it seemed like every teen magazine evangelized the oil for treating acne and even healing the leftover scarring. It's been lauded for promises of hydrating, antioxidant, and protective benefits—even claims that it could revive brittle hair. And while we're all for trying the latest and greatest, there's something to be said about sticking with an old favorite.
But what does vitamin E really do? We asked the board-certified dermatologists Jennifer L. MacGregor, MD, Raymond Schep, MD, Lamees Hamdan, MD, and celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau just that.
Type of ingredient: Barrier booster
Main benefits: Seals in moisture, smooths skin, antioxidant
Who should use it: In general, anyone with dry skin. Vitamin E is not recommended for sensitive skin.
How often can you use it?: You should only use vitamin E once a day maximum, preferably at night, as it is usually too thick to put under makeup.
Works well with: Vitamin C and ferulic acid
Don't use with: Retinol/vitamin A
What Is Vitamin E?
"Vitamin E is an antioxidant vitamin and oil," says MacGregor. "It's often found in antioxidant blend topicals or moisturizers." In skincare, vitamin E is typically found in oil or cream form.
Alpha-tocopherol (the form of vitamin E humans can metabolize) is typically produced synthetically but can be found in natural products as well. Avocado, pumpkin, and wheat germ oil are all great sources of the vitamin both for topical and internal uses.
And the form of vitamin E you're getting does make a difference: "The synthetic vitamin E consists of eight different forms, only one of which is identical to the natural molecule. As a result, it is found that the natural vitamin E has at least twice the potency of the synthetic vitamin E," explains Schep. "It is also used in cosmetics as tocopheryl acetate. [Because] natural D-alpha-tocopherol is about eight times more expensive than synthetic vitamin E, the synthetic form is generally used in cosmetics, especially in high-potency products. Also, natural vitamin E has to be subjected to several processing steps to remove pesticides and weed killers, all of which may not be completely removed. Synthetic vitamin E does not have this drawback."
Benefits of Vitamin E for Dry Skin
- Protects lipid barrier: "Vitamin E keeps lipids fresh in your skin," explains Rouleau. "This helps to keep your skin's protective barrier intact. [Keeping it intact] can help seal up little cracks created in the skin's barrier that can cause moisture to escape and leave the skin feeling tight and dry."
- Keeps skin moist: Building on the above, vitamin E allows for long-lasting moisture retention between your skin cells, much longer than products without it. According to Rouleau, it doles out up to 16 hours of hydration.
- Heals skin: Schep explains why vitamin E is so beloved: "The prime benefit of vitamin E is the capability to accelerate healing of skin damage such as burns and wounds by as much as 50 percent of the rate. It is an antioxidant and will heal the skin from sunburn and any form of irritation and injury. It also [can] increase the moisture content of the skin. As such, it has skin anti-aging capability."
- It's an antioxidant: Vitamin E offers antioxidant (fat-soluble) benefits as well—it helps neutralize harmful free radicals and, due to its antioxidant benefit, can discourage sebum (oil) oxidation, which prevents blackheads. "The words 'anti' and 'oxidant' refer to antioxidation," notes Rouleau. "Since the tip of the hardened and blocked oil in the pores turns dark from oxidation, vitamin E may help slow that process down."
- Soothes skin: Formulas containing vitamin E provide conditioning to environmentally exposed skin. The ingredient works to smooth your skin and make it feel comfortable after irritation from pollution and sun damage.
- Protects from the sun: Vitamin E has photo-protective purposes as well. "When vitamin E is combined with vitamin C and used under sunscreen, it can provide four times the protection of sunscreen alone," says Rouleau.
Meet the Expert
- Jennifer L. MacGregor, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City.
- Raymond Schep, MD, is the Chief Chemist of Colonial Dames Co and a member of the CA Association of Toxicologists.
- Renée Rouleau is a celebrity esthetician and the founder of Renée Rouleau Skincare.
- Lamees Hamdan, MD, is the CEO and founder of Shiffa.
Potential Side Effects of Vitamin E
Vitamin E is also considered comedogenic, meaning it can clog pores and ultimately lead to breakouts. Those who are prone to acne and breakouts should avoid using vitamin E altogether.
"When used in its pure form, in a capsule, and applied directly to the skin, vitamin E may cause dermatitis-type reactions, especially for the thinner and more sensitive skin around your eyes," warns Rouleau. If you've ever had dermatitis—the technical, blanket term name for inflammation of the skin—that was caused by skincare, you understand that using it in this area without a patch test is a bad idea.
Oral Supplement vs. Topical Vitamin E
Vitamin E is naturally found in a wide variety of foods, and though we may need more of it as we age, most people don't require a dietary supplement. Topical vitamin E, found in many skincare products, is not only a safer alternative but also lends itself to spot-treating specific areas of the skin. Some prefer to extract vitamin E from a supplement capsule and apply it directly to the skin for a high concentration, but this may be sensitizing and cause unwanted irritation. If you're considering supplementing orally, consult your physician first, as vitamin E may interfere with medications.
How to Use It
"If you have a specific scar or area you want to treat, then puncture a vitamin E capsule and apply the oil to that area for a few weeks," advises Hamdan. "It is a wonderful antioxidant and has been studied extensively in its ability to help with premature aging. It's part of why I like getting my vitamin E as part of an oil instead of pure vitamin E, which is usually an alpha-tocopherol version of vitamin E. If you have sensitive skin, you can still use it—just use very little and pat gently. If you're breaking out or have any redness, it might be a sign that your skin isn't tolerating it."
As for concerns about how comedogenic it can be, "it's important to note when used in skincare formulations, vitamin E is only offered in a small concentration," says Rouleau. "Using it that way is far from piercing a capsule and applying the ingredient in its pure form." So if you want to try out the hottest new vitamin E serum, go for it; it's likely been diluted enough that it won't be an issue.
That being said, when looking at a product's ingredient list, it's challenging to know the percentage of purity used—or how your skin will respond to it. But this goes for any ingredient used in any product. According to Rouleau, it's always best to get into the practice of performing a patch test whenever you purchase a new product.
Is it safe to use vitamin E capsules on skin?
Vitamin E is typically safe, but in its pure form, it could potentially cause irritation, clogged pores, and breakouts. If you want to use it, it's best to use on a specific area of the skin, like dark spots or a scar.
What does vitamin E do for the skin?
Vitamin E has many benefits. It can help soften skin, helps protect your skin's moisture barrier, it's a powerful antioxidant, and also helps protect your skin from the sun when combined with vitamin C and sunscreen.
Is vitamin E good for acne-prone skin?
Vitamin E has been the topic of many studies of its effects on acne, however, no single study has proven concretely that vitamin E treats acne. Studies were completed with a combination of vitamin A and E, a combination of zinc and lactoferrin, and zinc, vitamin A and E.
Should I use vitamin E if I have sensitive skin?
Vitamin E is typically not recommended for those with sensitive skin, as it can potentially clog pores and cause skin irritation.
Keen MA, Hassan I. Vitamin E in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2016;7(4):311-315. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.185494
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin E fact sheet for health professionals. Updated July 31, 2020.
Pérez-Sánchez A, Barrajón-Catalán E, Herranz-López M, Micol V. Nutraceuticals for Skin Care: A Comprehensive Review of Human Clinical Studies. Nutrients. 2018;10(4):403. doi:10.3390/nu10040403