Our bodies are engaged in a continual battle against oxygen. Oxygen breaks down anything complex. It makes fats go rancid. It cleaves and disorders proteins. It wrecks DNA. So basically our bodies are targets of oxygen molecules. We need to defend against them, and the workhorse of that defence is vitamin E. A third of the body’s vitamin E is located in the skin – which makes sense because that is where most of the oxygen is.
The name vitamin E covers a number of different chemicals, which chemists refer to as tocopherols. They vary a bit in structure, but all do the same job of mopping up the oxygen before it can do any harm.
Tocopherols occur naturally in lots of foodstuffs. They are used by plants and animals for the same reason we need them, so they are pretty widespread. Wheatgerm oil for example is a particularly rich source. Olive oil is another that is a reasonably good source. It is also possible to make them synthetically.
Tocopherols are useful as a way of protecting cosmetic products from oxidation, particularly from oils going rancid. They can either be added by including a vitamin E rich oil, or added neat. And you have the choice of naturally sourced or synthetic. Natural always sounds better on a pack, but there might well be good reason to select natural on performance grounds. Synthetic vitamin E tends to be one single form. It isn’t impossible that the antioxidant power of a mixture of tocopherols is better in some ways. They might be more bioavailable and distribute themselves through tissues more efficiently.
Cosmetic scientists can take advantage of vitamin E by using oils that have a high content of it. Olive oil is one option, but almond and sunflower oil are both good choices. Wheatgerm oil is the highest, but is expensive and also means you can’t claim that your product is safe for people with a wheat allergy or that it is gluten free.
It is easier to simply add tocopherol. You can also use it combined with an organic acid – this gives you a slow release effect which extends the protection. Tocopheryl acetate and tocopheryl palmitate are popular options. If you really want to take this approach to its logical conclusion, you should use a mixture of tocopherol itself and a couple of different derivatives to ensure that you have the longest lasting protection. That way you’ll always have some fresh tocopherol around to cope with the oxygen.
The benefits to the formulation itself can be seen in the results of stability tests. Including vitamin E does make things last longer. In fact it doesn’t work quite as well as completely synthetic antioxidants like BHT and BHA – but it certainly does work.
Do the benefits carry over into the skin and help the end user stave off the effects of time? It doesn’t seem too unreasonable. The antioxidant effect is real enough. Recent work has shown some tocopherols having an anti-cancer effect in the laboratory. But the skin is a complicated organ and oxidation is a subtle process. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to find that there was something that blocked vitamin E’s potential anti-ageing effect.
What is really needed is a good, well controlled clinical study of a cream containing vitamin E against the same cream without any vitamin E. This would settle the matter. Needless to say no such trial has ever been undertaken. If you want my opinion, I think that such a trial would have positive results. But an opinion is all I can offer. There is no proof.
The EFSA Journal (2008) 640, 1-34 © European Food Safety Authority, 2008 Opinion on mixed tocopherols, tocotrienol tocopherol and tocotrienols as sources for vitamin E added as a nutritional substance in food supplements