Tocopherols are a class of naturally occurring chemical compounds that exhibit vitamin E activity and are used in skin care products due to their ability to protect the skin from free radical damage and strengthen the skin barrier.
Tocopherols are a class of organic chemical compounds, many of which have vitamin E activity. The vitamin activity of tocopherols was discovered in 1936. The related compounds known as tocotrienols also exhibit vitamin E activity. There are four tocopherols and four tocotrienols; all eight compounds may be correctly referred to as “vitamin E”. Out of these eight compounds, alpha-tocopherol is the most abundant and biologically active form in the human body.
The most common forms used in skin care products are d-alpha-tocopherol, d-alpha-tocopheryl acetate, dl-alpha tocopherol, and dl-alpha tocopheryl acetate. The “d” prefix in front of the “alpha” indicates that the ingredient was derived from natural sources, such as vegetable oils, nuts, or seeds. The “dl” prefix indicates that the ingredient was created from a synthetic base. Research has determined that natural forms of tocopherol are more effective than the synthetic versions, but both exhibit antioxidant activity.
Tocopherol is included in a wide variety of skin care products, primarily as alpha-tocopherol, due to its powerful antioxidant activity. In the 1940s, vitamin E was labeled a “chain-breaking” antioxidant for its role in hindering the chain reaction induced by free radicals. Specifically, tocopherols work by delivering a hydrogen atom to free radicals, which minimizes their damaging effects. Since tocopherols are fat-soluble, they are incorporated into cell membranes in order to protect from oxidative damage. This is important because free radicals contribute to signs of aging, such as fine lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, and age spots.
The antioxidant activity of tocopherol (vitamin E) can actually become more powerful when combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C). For this reason, vitamins C and E are referred to as “network antioxidants”. A publication in the journal Dermatologic Therapy explains, “because vitamin C regenerates oxidized vitamin E, the combination in a cosmeceutical formulation is synergistic – particularly in UV protection.” In addition, research studies have reported that vitamin C enhances UVA protection, whereas vitamin E is more effective against UVB radiation. Therefore, when these antioxidants are combined there is strengthened UVA/UVB protection when worn under sunscreen.
There is also evidence that topically applied alpha-tocopherol provides photoprotective activity against acute UV-induced skin damage, such as erythema and edema. Additionally, alpha-tocopherol can protect the skin from responses to chronic UVA and UVB exposure, such as wrinkles and skin cancer.
Another function of tocopherol is to help the skin retain moisture by strengthening the skin’s barrier function. When tocopherol is delivered to your skin through the sebaceous (oil) glands, it improves water-binding capacity and hydrates the stratum corneum (the uppermost layer of skin). It is also considered an effective ingredient for providing skin protection and treating atopic dermatitis (eczema).
Lastly, tocopherol is often thought of as a natural remedy to improve the appearance of scars. However, several research studies have proven that tocopherol not only fails to help with scars but can actually worsen their appearance. This is because tocopherol can cause a type of allergic reaction called contact dermatitis in some people, which can exacerbate scarring.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) includes tocopherol on its list of nutrients considered Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). The safety of tocopherol and its derivatives has been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel. The Panel evaluated the scientific data and concluded that tocopherol and its derivatives were safe as used in cosmetics and personal care products.
References: Wikipedia, “Tocopherol”, Paula’s Choice, “Vitamin E”, Dermatol Ther. 2007 Sep-Oct;20(5):314-21, Cosmetics Info, “Tocopherol”.