What Are Tocopherols?
Tocopherols are a class of naturally occurring compounds that exhibit vitamin E activity. They are used in skincare 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.
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 of tocopherols used in skincare 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.
the good: Tocopherols or vitamin E, helps to improve the visible signs of aging, support the skin’s natural barrier and provide the skin with a source of antioxidants.
the not so good: Vitamin E products are best used at night as pure vitamin E is too thick to use under makeup. When applied under makeup it can cause slipping or make the makeup products move or shine.
Who is it for? All skin types except those that have an identified allergy to it.
Synergetic ingredients: Works well with most ingredients
Keep an eye on: Keep an eye out for the different types of vitamin E in your skincare and cosmetic products.
What Are The Benefits of Vitamin E?
Vitamin E is used to help protect the skin’s natural barrier, help retain the skin’s moisture, heal and provide the skin with antioxidant properties.
Tocopherol is included in a wide variety of skincare 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 or vitamin E can actually become more powerful when combined with ascorbic acid or 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.’
According to a 2016 publication in Dermatology News by Dr. Leslie Baumann, MD, ‘significant evidence has been amassed to suggest that topically applied vitamin E confers photoprotective activity against erythema, edema, sunburn cell formation, and other indicators of acute UV-induced damage as well as responses to chronic UVA and UVB exposure, including skin wrinkling and skin cancer.’
Research has suggested that vitamin E may have protective abilities against the harmful effects of UV rays. The mechanism of action is similar to that of vitamin C, acting as an antioxidant to reduce the effects of free radicals produced by exposure to the sun.
Research suggests 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.
Additionally, alpha-tocopherol may protect the skin from responses to chronic UVA and UVB exposure, such as wrinkles and skin cancer.
This is why you will often find vitamin E in sunscreen formulations. It is important to note that vitamin E is not, by itself a sunscreen and shouldn’t be used as such.
Vitamin E helps to maintain the skin’s natural barrier. The barrier consists of the uppermost layers of the skin and the oils, amino acids, ceramides, and fatty acids. The barrier, as its name suggests protects the skin from allergens, bacteria and prevents transepidermal water loss or TEWL.
TEWL occurs when water from the skin is lost to the environment, it is particularly common in dry environments or in aging skin. The lipophilic or oil-loving nature of vitamin E helps to replenish the skin’s natural oils and aids in maintaining this natural barrier.
Another function of vitamin E is to help the skin retain moisture by strengthening the skin’s natural barrier function. When tocopherol is delivered to your skin through the oil glands, it may help to improve your skin’s water-binding capacity and hydrates the top layers of the skin. It is also considered an effective ingredient for providing skin protection and supporting the treatment of eczema.
Does Vitamin E Help With Scars?
Vitamin E 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.
If you have experienced an improvement in the appearance of your scars by using vitamin E, it may be that the extra hydration and protection have improved the appearance as the scar healed itself.
Does Vitamin E Darken Your Skin?
No, Vitamin E won’t darken the skin. It actually is a powerful antioxidant that can help reduce the effects of free radical damage from the sun.
Is Vitamin E Comedogenic?
However, this is not universal for all types of vitamin E. If you have these skin types you can still gain the benefits of vitamin E through synthetic tocopherols or non-oil-based vitamin E.
As a general rule for vitamin E, if it has a thick oily texture, then congested skin types may want to avoid it.
Is Vitamin E Good For Dry Skin?
Vitamin E, particularly oil-based formulations can help to minimize the appearance of dry skin. It may even help reduce flakiness and support healthy barrier function. However, the thicker, oil-based vitamin E products can be difficult to spread so take your time and be gentle.
Are Tocopherols Vegan?
Tocopherols both synthetic and naturally occurring are considered to be vegan. This is because they are sourced from vegetable or plant-based sources. Synthetic tocopherols can be derived from vegetable oils or petroleum products it is considered to be a vegan ingredient. While naturally-occurring tocopherols can be found in nuts, seeds, soybean oil, and wheat germ oil.
If you are looking for a vegan product make sure to check that the product is cruelty-free and the other ingredients are free from animal or animal byproduct ingredients.
What Is The Difference Between Synthetic and Naturally-Occurring Vitamin E?
Vitamin E can be found naturally in avocado, pumpkin, and wheat germ oil but is also synthetically derived. Some studies have suggested that, unlike other synthetic ingredients, natural sources of vitamin E may be more potent than the synthetic version. However, with this difference in efficacy comes a significant difference in cost.
The other thing to consider when deciding to use a synthetic or natural form of vitamin E is that as a naturally-sourced ingredient, natural vitamin E needs to undergo several steps to purify the ingredient and remove pesticides and other plant products. This is one of the reasons it is more expensive to use a naturally sourced vitamin E.
The oil-based nature of vitamin E makes it a great ingredient for providing the skin with moisture-protecting oil that allows for its benefits to be absorbed through the skin. However, in order for the body to absorb and use vitamin E from some synthetic sources, it must process the ingredient. This can result in some loss in potency, this is why synthetic vitamin E is often used in slightly higher concentrations in formulations compared to naturally-derived vitamin E.
Are Tocopherols Safe?
The safety of tocopherol and its derivatives has been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, a group responsible for evaluating the safety of skincare and cosmetic ingredients.
The Expert Panel evaluated the available scientific data and concluded that tocopherol and its derivatives were safe as used in cosmetics and personal care products.
What About Hydroquinone and Synthetic Tocopherols?
There is some controversy about the production of synthetic tocopherols because the process involves the use of an ingredient called trimethylhydroquinone.
Many believe that products made through this process will contain traces of hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is in a class of chemicals called aromatic organic compounds. It is one of the most common skin bleaching agents in the US. However, there are claims that hydroquinone may cause cancer.
This claim originated from a study that examined the effects of hydroquinone on mice. In misleading terms, this study reported that after being exposed to hydroquinone the mice developed hepatic and renal tumors.
The real results of this study, as explained in an article from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, were that hydroquinone was actually protective to the mice by increasing the number of benign liver tumors and reducing the number of malignant liver tumors. Additionally, according to Dr. David J. Goldberg, a clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, ‘Over 100 scientific articles confirm hydroquinone is a safe topical for humans; no independent studies prove the opposite.’
In conclusion, the trace amounts of hydroquinone that may be found in products that contain synthetic tocopherols should not be a safety concern. Overall, tocopherols are safe for use in cosmetics and skincare products.
Rizvi S, Raza ST, Ahmed F, Ahmad A, Abbas S, Mahdi F. The role of vitamin e in human health and some diseases. Sultan Qaboos Univ Med J. 2014;14(2):e157-e165.
Böhm V. Vitamin E. Antioxidants (Basel). 2018;7(3):44. Published 2018 Mar 20. doi:10.3390/antiox7030044