Monday, September 29, 2008

Deciphering Topical Vitamin E



Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, and one of the most well known antioxidant.

Apart from being regularly recommended as an oral supplement for its numerous health benefits, topical vitamin E is also very popular in skin care, both on its own and in combination with other ingredients.

Vitamin E exists in eight different forms ("isomers"): alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherol; and alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocotrienol. Alpha-tocopherol is the most active form in humans, and most commonly seen in commercial products (both orally and topically).

Vitamin E is available in natural or synthetic forms. The natural forms (derived from natural sources such as vegetable oils or wheat germ) are usually labelled with the letter "d", eg. d-alpha-tocopherol; whereas synthetic forms (created from a synthetic base) are labelled "dl", eg. dl-alpha-tocopherol.

Research has shown that natural forms of vitamin E have more potency and a higher retention rate than the synthetic forms. It's also been suggested that the acetate form of vitamin E (eg. alpha-tocopherol acetate) does not penetrate the skin as well and provides less antioxidant benefits compared to the alcohol form of vitamin E (eg. alpha-tocopherol).

Common uses and benefits of topical vitamin E:

  • Treats or prevents dry, rough skin and minor skin irritations
  • Minimises visible signs of aging and wrinkles
  • Reduces the appearance of stretch marks
  • Increases the efficacy of active sunscreen ingredients
  • Protects against harmful effects of UV radiation, including photoaging
  • Reduces the formation of cell damaging free radicals upon skin exposure to harmful environmental elements
  • Strengthens and enhances skin's barrier function
  • Promotes healing of scars, burns and blemishes


Whilst possessing fascinating antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, the role of vitamin E in preventing or reducing scarring has remained controversial.

For decades, people have trusted vitamin E to speed wound healing or improve the outcome of scars. Or rather, manufacturers have it printed in bold letters on the box and promoters/beauticians/cosmeticians eagerly try to convince us that vitamin E is the wonder fix-it-all answer to get rid of those ugly scars we all can do without.

Contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that there is no clear benefit and in some cases, the application of topical vitamin E may actually be detrimental to the cosmetic appearance of a surgical scar. Additionally, almost a third of people developed contact dermatitis to vitamin E in one study.

At this stage, if you ask whether I would recommend vitamin E to accelerate wound healing and reduce scarring, the answer is yes and no.

I will tell you that I've had many patients/customers who swear by vitamin E products, but I will also tell you that I do not have the data from clinical studies to back it up.

Personally, I think further research in well-designed and larger scaled controlled trials is needed to clarify the role of topical vitamin E. However, many dermatologists will attest, and many patients still believe that vitamin E prevents and reduces the appearance of scars, thus its usage and anecdotal results will continue whether it's proven by scientific data or not.

As for me, it's an example of the constant battle that happens inside of me. A battle between the rigid healthcare bitch to whom everything has to be 'evident based", and the superficial airhead who is a sucker for cute packaging and extravagant commercial.

For that matter, MisSmall is my perfect alter ego to be the complete girly girl without being held accountable for anything. Hehe.


If you do decide to give it a try, here's a pointer I can give though - do not blindly look for the highest "International Units" on the box thinking the higher the number, the better quality it is. More often than not, manufacturers will play with the numbers.

Note: 1 IU of vitamin E is the biological equivalent of about 0.667 mg d-alpha-tocopherol (2/3 mg exactly), or of 1 mg of dl-alpha-tocopherol acetate.

When comparing concentrations of vitamin E, check the number of International Units (IU) per ounce. Most of the pure vitamin E oils on the market contain 28,000 IU per ounce, but some products might claim a higher IU concentration simply because they contain more than one ounce in content (eg. 35,000 IU for 25% more). Some products even completely leave out IU and market their vitamin E oil as "25 IU per drop", which is really misleading.

So my advice would be, pick the right product and have fun experimenting. Just remember not to use it on open wounds, and be persistent with applying it twice daily.

Let me know how you go. :)

10 left a petal:

Ling said...

Hey Thanks for dropping by my blog!
Ah yes, Sasa SAs are horrible! Finally someone who share the same thoughts as me! lol.

How's your scar healing?
Let us know if the Vitamin E helps! :D

emotionalistic said...

Are you a pharmacist?

the Constantly Dramatic One said...

I'm already using Vitamin E on my face. Mwahahahaah!

cbenc12 said...

ohh.. such a long article.. and a little dissapointed as u said i would :p

anyway, fingers off my face now :D

Doreen said...

I don't normally use Vitamin E for my scars, I just let it heal naturally. May be that's why I got scars all over. LOL

Josephine said...

I think it is not suitable for those with oily skin.

iamthewitch said...

I've got a scar on my knees, and the pharmacists recommended this cream called Hirudoid to me. I have used it for 1 month but still not much improvement. :( Do you think I should use Vitamin E oil instead? Sigh...

Lila said...

Wow that's a very informative article. Thanks!!

MisSmall said...

Ling: Hey, thanks for coming by too. The scar still looks pretty much the same, I'd say. I've only been applying vitamin E oil on it for about a week now, I doubt we're gonna see any dramatic difference over such short period of time. :)

Emotionalistic: At the moment, I'm just a bum lazing around at home. :D

The Constantly Dramatic One: Yeah? It's always good to start looking after your skin as early as possible. I, for one, wish I took skin care more seriously when I was your age. :/

Cbenc12: I guess I got a little carried away trying to include as much detail as possible. Haha.

And don't be disappointed just yet, gal. Despite the lack of supportive data, a lot of people have seen great results with vitamin E. So go ahead and give it a try. Just remember 2 things:

1. Do not expect result overnight because skin takes time to heal.

2. If you're gonna use it on a large area of the face, use a cream because the oil might break some people out.

Good luck! :)

MisSmall said...

Doreen: Oh trust me, gal, I'm the same! I just bought the vitamin E oil because I've got too much free time on my hand now, so I thought, why not? Can I tell you a secret though? I haven't been applying it twice daily as I should. :P

Josephine: I wouldn't recommend using the oil on large area of the face unless one has got REALLY dry skin. But there are water-based vitamin E creams too, those should be fine for oily/combination skin.

Iamthewitch: They work differently. Hirudoid cream is great for bruises, swelling, or inflammatory conditions of veins. So it very much depends on the nature of your scar. I'm sorry I can't be of much help without seeing the scar, I really don't want to make the wrong recommendation. :)

Lila: You're most welcome. :)