Vitamin E – The Antioxidant

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant crucially important for our skin’s health. Is also has a proven anti-inflmmatory effect, independent of its antioxidant action.

Vitamin E is a generic name for eight chemical compounds – four tocopherols (alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-) and four tocotrienols (alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-). Of these, the form most often found on cosmetic labels is alpha-tocopherol. It is also the most common form of Vitamin E naturally found in the human body.

Vitamin E’s Antioxidant Function

Antioxidants can inhibit the oxidative damage in our bodies neutralising free radicals or preventing their formation. Free radicals are unstable atoms or molecules – they need an electron to become stable, and they will “steal” it from the nearest available molecule. When the “attacked” molecule loses its electron, it can become a free radical itself. This can be the beginning of a free radical chain reaction. When out of control, free radical chain reactions cause cell damage or death.

The body has the ability to keep free radicals in check. To that end, it need antioxidants. Antioxidant molecules are able to donate an electron and yet remain stable, so they don’t become free radicals themselves. Since antioxidants are stable with or without the extra electron, they can act as free radical scavengers. Vitamin E is the primary defender against lipid peroxidation i.e. it prevents the oxidation of fats and oils in our bodies. (Research Info)

Vitamin E’s Anti-Inflammatory Function

This is partly a consequence of its antioxidant function – by preventing free radical damage, Vitamin E  prevents skin damage and inflammation. It has also been proven that Vitamin E has anti-inflammatory properties in itself, independent of its antioxidant function – even applied after UV exposure, it can reduce the inflammatory reaction in the skin. One study has showed that vitamin E applied as late as eight hours after UV exposure had a significant effect. (Research Info)

Due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory functions, vitamin E is a must-have sun protection ingredient. Applying it onto the skin has photoprotective and anti-tumor beenfits (Research Info). Multiple studies have proven that vitamin E is most effective in the presence of vitamin C. (Research 1 & Research 2)

Vitamin E Delivery Mechanism

Our skin needs a constant supply of Vitamin E in order to keep its structural fats free from oxidative damage. Exposure to UV and ozone deplete the Vitamin E in the epidermis (the topmost layer of our skin). (Research 1 & Research 2)

The epidermis – even though it contains no blood vessels – contains in fact higher levels of Vitamin E than the dermis (the middle skin layer). The skin has developed a mechanism for delivering vitamin E directly to its topmost layer, where it is most needed. Vitamin E accumulates in sebaceous glands deep within the dermis. From there it is secreted through sebum to the skin’s surface and then reabsorbed into the skin. Oily skin types get a better natural supply of vitamin E than dry types. The levels of vitamin E in the epidermis also decrease with age.

Conjugated Forms of Vitamin E

In its tocopherol and tocotrienol forms, vitamin E is fairly unstable and quickly depleted. More stable forms have been considered as potential skin care ingredients, and they can indeed be found on cosmetic labels, listed  as “tocopherol acetate“. However, this substance does not have antioxidant properties. It has to be first converted by cellular enzymes into a usable form of vitamin E. As the cells on the skin’s surface are not metabolically active, they cannot make the conversion. One study established that tocopherol acetate was not effective in preventing UV carcenogenesis and – under certain conditions - it even incresed the risk. (Research Info)

Supplementing the Skin’s Supply of Vitamin E

The most reliable method of increasing vitamin E supply to the skin is by frequent topical applications and by ensuring a good dietary intake. Moisturisers containing tocopehrols and tocotrienols are a good way of increasing the immediate and longer term supply of this substance. Being fat-soluble, vitamin E can penetrate through all skin layers. As it sinks through the epidermis and into dermis, it will accumulate in sebaceous glands and be secreted back on the skin’s surface.

Foods rich in vitamin E are nuts and seeds (almonds, peanuts, sunflower), and also vegetal oils (sunflower, corn, olive oil etc).

If you are considering whether to take a vitamin E supplement, here are a few useful facts to remember:

  •  Any vitamin E your body does not need immediately is stored for future use.
  • It takes up to seven days before ingested vitamin E reaches the skin.
  • When it comes to UV protection, oral supplementation of vitamin E is most effective in combination with vitamin C.

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