It is not difficult to understand why this should be so. Vitamin E, or tocopherol as chemists know it, is the basic workhorse antioxidant. Oxidation is one of the basic processes operating in the world. The atmosphere is full of oxygen just waiting to react with any vulnerable molecule. You only have to look at how quickly iron rusts if left to itself to see how quickly this works. Oxidation is happening all the time, but is particularly rapid where light is involved. Think of how quickly colours are bleached in the sun. (The chemistry of what going on is a bit complicated but there is a good Wikipedia entry on oxidation.)
The skin, being exposed to both oxygen and light, is particularly vulnerable to oxidation. I sometimes think of the skin as a bit like the walls of a beseiged medieval castle. The attackers are continually bashing down the walls with catapults and battering rams, while the defenders heroically try to rebuild them as fast as they can.
The reality is that the skin has a set of defence mechanisms including vitamin E. Vitamin E works by reacting with free radicals – highly reactive species produced by the effect of light on the skin. There are other antioxidants that are more effective against other oxidative processes. There are also enzymes that break down and rebuild the collagen and elastin that hold the skin together.
One point that may not be obvious but is nonetheless is quite important, is that most of the body’s defences are more effective in well moisturised skin. Simply keeping the skin hydrated is a powerful way to help your skin looking younger. This was shown very clearly by the recent study on the Boots Protect and Perfect Serum. The placebo, the cream without the actives, showed a pretty good effect. I am pretty sure that the benefits being picked up are the result of regular use of the cream during the trial, and that most creams would have pretty much the same effect.
So my beauty tip is keep your skin well moisturised and where practical avoid direct light.
My thanks to Kevin Dooley on Flickr for the great close up of a piece of skin.