Tocopheryl acetate is a form of vitamin E used in skin care products due to its powerful antioxidant properties and natural skin-conditioning effects.
Did you know that the term vitamin E actually refers to a group of eight nutrients that all have similar structures yet slightly different functions? The group consists of four tocopherols and four tocotrienols. Out of these eight nutrients, alpha-tocopherol is the most abundant and biologically active form in the human body. Thus, for the remainder of this post the term “tocopherol” will refer to alpha-tocopherol.
Tocopheryl acetate is the synthetically produced ester of tocopherol and acetic acid. In chemistry, an ester is a chemical compound derived from an acid (in this case, acetic acid) in which at least one hydroxyl group (-OH) is replaced by an alkoxy group. Tocopheryl acetate is often used as an alternative to pure tocopherol because the phenolic hydroxyl group is blocked, providing a less acidic product with a longer shelf life.
The lipophilic nature of tocopherol makes it suitable for topical application and percutaneous absorption through the skin. However, in order for the body to absorb and use the tocopherol from tocopheryl acetate, it must remove the acetate group. It is estimated that when tocopheryl acetate is applied to the skin, about 5% is converted to free tocopherol.
Vitamin E, whether as tocopherol or tocopheryl acetate, is included in a wide variety of skin care products 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, and it is known to protect cutaneous cell membranes from peroxidation. Researchers have determined that vitamin E is the major lipid soluble antioxidant in skin. This means that vitamin E has the ability to stop harmful free radicals right in their tracks, which is important because free radicals contribute to signs of aging, damaged cells, and mutated DNA.
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.”
In addition to functioning as an antioxidant, tocopheryl acetate can help the skin retain moisture by strengthening the skin’s barrier function. When tocopheryl acetate is delivered to your skin through the sebaceous (oil) glands, it hydrates the stratum corneum (the uppermost layer of skin) and improves water-binding capacity. It is also considered an effective ingredient for imparting skin protection and treating atopic dermatitis (eczema).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) includes tocopherol on its list of nutrients considered Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).
The safety of tocopheryl acetate has been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel. The CIR Expert Panel evaluated the scientific data and concluded that tocopheryl acetate is safe as used in cosmetics and personal care products.
There is some controversy about the production of tocopheryl acetate (as well as synthetic tocopherol) because the process involves the use of 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 can 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 amount 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 tocopheryl acetate should not be a safety concern. Overall, tocopheryl acetate is safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products.
References: Nutrients. 2010 Aug; 2(8): 903–928, Wikipedia, “Tocopherol”, Wikipedia, “Vitamin E”, Wikipedia, “Ester”, Wikipedia, “Tocopheryl Acetate”, Dermatol Surg. 1999 Apr;25(4):311-5., Truth In Aging, “Tocopheryl Acetate”, Cosmetics Info, “Tocopheryl Acetate”, Chemical of the Day, “Tocopherol Vs. Tocopheryl Acetate”, 2011, J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007 Nov; 57(5) 854-872.