Vitamin E and skin health explained

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Is vitamin E the secret to flawless skin?

By Dr Louise Wiseman MBBS, BSc (Hons), DRCOG, MRCGP

Vitamin E is vital for healthy skin and eyes and strengthens the body’s immune system against illness and infection. Hailed as a beauty elixir by skincare professionals, Vitamin E has also been used by dermatologist for decades, but is it really the answer to your skincare woes?

Dr Louise Wiseman examines the facts about this essential vitamin as a supplement and a skincare ingredient:

What is vitamin E?

Vitamin E is a natural component of any healthy diet and is found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, avocados, fortified cereals and vegetable oils including sunflower oil and olive oil.

Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin, which means that unlike water soluble vitamins, if too much Vitamin E is consumed it cannot be washed out in the urine – so it stays within the bodily tissues and can potentially become toxic. Other fat soluble vitamins include A, D and K.

There are actually eight compounds that are all vitamin E, but it is the alpha version called Alpha tocopherol that meets your dietary needs. All of the different forms of vitamin E are absorbed from food, but the liver metabolises the alpha version only and your body excretes the remainder. This Alpha tocopherol accounts for 90 per cent of the vitamin E found in human tissues.

What does vitamin E do?

Vitamin E acts in a number of ways including the following:

  • Vitamin E is an antioxidant, so it protects cell membranes from the everyday damage of free radicals – this is oxidative stress that can cause illness and ageing – hence the interest in vitamin E in skincare. This oxidative stress can arise from smoking, pollution and radiation.
  • Vitamin E mediates pathways in the immune systemto help white blood cells function.
  • Vitamin E reduces how much platelets in the circulation ‘stick together’ and helps the formation of smooth muscle in blood vessels.
  • It is thought that vitamin E has a protective effect on the cardiovascular system potentially reducing the chance of atherosclerosis and ischaemic heart disease.
  • Vitamin E potentiates the effects of other fat soluble vitamins such as A and K, so it helps them to work in the body.

What is vitamin E deficiency?

Vitamin E deficiency is extremely rare in humans. It is almost impossible to have a diet low in vitamin E in the developed world and deficiency is more likely caused by problems with fat absorption from the bowel or the way fat is metabolised. This can occur in inherited genetic disorders and conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, fat metabolism disorders, liver diseases. In severe cases of genuine deficiency neurological changes will occur. Sensation, sight and movement may be affected and also the heart.

Vitamin E deficiency is extremely rare in humans. It is almost impossible to have a diet low in vitamin E in the developed world.

Truly vitamin E deficient patients will require further investigations to treat the underlying cause and have other deficiencies corrected at the same time. A registered dietician will be involved, and diet and supplementation carefully guided.

Vitamin E supplementation

You should be able to get all the vitamin E you need from your diet – this is 4mg a day for men and 3mg a day for women. Because vitamin E is fat soluble it can be stored in the body for future use, so you do not need vitamin E in your diet every single day and it is not recommended as a supplement.

Vitamin E is fat soluble so you do not need it in your diet every single day and it is not recommended as a supplement.

Vitamin E supplementation has been used for treatment of certain skin conditions under careful specialist dermatologist guidance, but supplementing Vitamin E orally comes with a number of risks. An excessive intake of vitamin E (hypervitaminosis E) could cause increased bleeding (due to the effects on platelets and vitamin K) and interaction with medicines. The increased bleeding would put the individual at higher risk for stroke and other unwanted effects.

A large study analysis in 2004 warned of possible harmful effects at excessive doses of Vitamin E and the risk of bleeding. And another study showed supplementation might increase the risk of prostate cancer. Supplementation should only be considered under medical guidance.

Vitamin E in skincare

While more research is needed about taking vitamin E as a supplement, there is a place for it as a topical agent in skincare. Vitamin E has been used for more than 50 years in dermatology and is found in the ingredient list of many skincare products. Most over the counter creams contain 0.5 to 1 per cent vitamin E and it is formulated into both oils and creams. Vitamin E comes with the following skincare benefits:

💊 Dry skin moisturiser

Vitamin E oil is thick and works as a good occlusive moisturiser on very dry skin, reducing water loss. However, it may be too thick for those with sensitive skins to use on its own so proceed with caution.

💊 Sun protection

Antioxidants can protect the skin against photodamage (damage from ultraviolet light). This will be helped by the protection from degradation of collagen and elastin that they provide and vitamin E is no exception. In modern skincare preparations, vitamin E is often combined with Vitamin C as they work synergistically together to get rid of free radicals. Vitamin C and E combined in a product has been shown to be stronger than the addition of their individual effects. Vitamin C reduces melanin production lightening pigmented areas and vitamin E reduces UV induced hyperpigmentation.

💊 Anti-ageing properties

Thanks to its antioxidant properties, vitamin E protects cell membranes from the everyday damage of free radicals – this is oxidative stress from smoking, pollution and radiation that can cause illness and ageing.

💊 Hair growth

One small study found vitamin E helped stimulate hair growth in alopecia sufferers. This was most likely due to antioxidant effects reducing oxidative stress within the scalp. More research is needed in this area.

💊 Dark eye circles

In a Japanese study in 2004, a gel containing vitamin E in combination with vitamin C, retinol and phytonadione was effective against dark eye circles. This may have been helped by the effects of vitamin E on the circulation in the blood vessels in the thin under-the-eye skin.

💊 Nail care

Vitamin E oil is a component of many moisturiser and nail and cuticle care formulas. It is difficult to find evidence for it improving nails, as few studies have been performed. Supplements only seem to work for any mineral or vitamin in nail growth if there was a proven severe deficiency to start with.

⚠️ Vitamin E can cause an allergic reaction and some people experience rashes or more rarely swelling, so always patch test first before trying a new product.

Summary

Vitamin E is an essential component of a healthy diet, but it is always better to get nutrients from your diet and supplementation with vitamin E is only safe or necessary when directed by your doctor.

There may be potential benefits to products containing vitamin E as a skincare ingredient thanks to its sun protecting, moisturising and anti-ageing powers, but more studies are needed on this potent vitamin and its direct effects upon the skin.

Net Doctor

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