In beauty, there's a new novelty ingredient pushed to the forefront of the industry practically every single day, with each new formula lauded better and more innovative than the last. While we're all for trying something new, there's something to be said about sticking with an old favorite. Enter vitamin E, which is popular in both oil and capsulated forms.
The beneficial ingredient has long been incorporated into skincare products, promising hydrating, antioxidant, and protective benefits, but what does it really do? We posed that very question to a few experts to see what concrete, science-backed results we can expect when using vitamin E for our skin.
Keep reading to see experts explain the many benefits of Vitamin E (and a few drawbacks).
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?
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. Most often in skincare, Vitamin E can be found in oil or cream form. "Vitamin E is an antioxidant vitamin and an oil, says Jennifer L. MacGregor, MD, a board-certified dermatologist of Union Square Laser Dermatology. "It’s often found in antioxidant blend topicals or moisturizers."
However, which of the two forms 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 Raymond Schep, MD, who is the Chief Chemist of Colonial Dames Co and Member of the CA Association of Toxicologists. "It is also used in cosmetics as tocopheryl acetate. Due to the fact that 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 Skin
- Protects lipid barrier: "Vitamin E keeps lipids fresh in your skin," explains celebrity esthetician Renée 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: As such, 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 explained to us 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 has the capability to 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: The vitamin 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.
Side Effects of Vitamin E
"When used in its pure form, in a capsule, and applied directly to the skin, vitamin E may cause dermatitis-type reactions," warns Rouleau, "especially for the thinner and more sensitive skin around your eyes." 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.
It could also potentially clog pores and, for those who are prone to acne and breakouts, add to the problem. According to Rouleau, using products with vitamin E is best suited for "normal" (a cringe-worthy description of skin that has few to no blemishes, no sensitivity, minimally visible pores, and balanced hydration levels) and dry skin types. That's not all—MacGregor makes a point to note that "some develop an allergy to it when it is used topically."
How to Use It
"As for the common concern about it having a pore-clogging effect," continues Rouleau, "it's important to note when used in skincare formulations, vitamin E is only offered in a small concentration. 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 that is used—or how your skin will respond to it. Though, 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.
"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 Lamees Hamdan, MD, the CEO and founder of Shiffa. "It is a wonderful antioxidant and has been studied extensively in its ability to help with premature aging. It’s part of the reason 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."
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?
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
Ozuguz P, Dogruk Kacar S, Ekiz O, Takci Z, Balta I, Kalkan G. Evaluation of serum vitamins A and E and zinc levels according to the severity of acne vulgaris. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. 2014;33(2):99-102. doi:10.3109/15569527.2013.808656