Vitamin E for Skin: What Does It Do?

Learn what this essential nutrient can do for you and how to use it to tackle skin woes
Vitamin E and skincare

Vitamins, minerals and botanicals are touted as moisturizing powerhouses that make skin smooth, supple and radiant. Vitamin E is commonly listed among them, and some people also take it as a supplement. But is vitamin E for skin health really beneficial or just a marketing ploy?

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Dermatologist Amy Kassouf, MD, explains the role vitamin E plays in skin care and gives the lowdown on whether it really treats conditions like dryness, wrinkles and sun damage.

What is vitamin E and how does it help your skin?

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant, helping protect cells from damage throughout your body. It’s found in our sebum (skin oil), which creates a natural barrier to keep moisture in your skin. So oilier skin surfaces, like the face, contain greater amounts of vitamin E. And since people with oily skin have more sebum, they also have more vitamin E on their skin.

Sebum, along with vitamin E levels, naturally declines with age. Vitamin E is also depleted by ultraviolet light (UV) sources like:

  • Sunlight.
  • Tanning beds.
  • Some fluorescent, halogen and incandescent light bulbs.

How vitamin E benefits skin

The research on how vitamin E benefits skin is ongoing.

“It probably makes moisturizers work better, but it’s unclear in most studies if it has a direct medicinal role,” says Dr. Kassouf. “Its effects are fairly subtle. It doesn’t treat any particular skin condition other than helping a bit with general skin aging and lack of moisture.”

In moisturizers, vitamin E:

  • Stops skin from losing moisture.
  • Protects cells from damage.
  • Softens skin.

The evidence isn’t clear-cut yet, says Dr. Kassouf, but vitamin E may also reduce sun damage by absorbing UVB rays and reducing your skin’s inflammatory response, which includes:

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  • Swelling.
  • Reddening.
  • Thickening. 

But don’t replace your sunscreen with vitamin E oil. Two types of UV light damage the skin: ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB).

Vitamin E can absorb some UVB light, but not all of it. In addition, vitamin E doesn’t protect against UVA light, which can lead to sunburns and skin cancer. And multiple studies have proven that vitamin E doesn’t prevent or help treat skin cancers.

So, it’s important to keep up your daily routine of applying sunscreen to protect your skin.

How to use vitamin E for skin health

There are multiple ways you can use vitamin E to protect your skin.

Rub pure vitamin E oil on skin

“People with dry, flaky skin are more likely to see a benefit from using vitamin E because it enhances moisturization,” says Dr. Kassouf.

But if you have oily, acne-prone skin, you don’t need extra vitamin E. You’re getting enough in your sebum production.

Topical vitamin E oil penetrates the surface and protects the top and middle layers of the skin.

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“For people who need their skin to be less dry and itchy, vitamin E seems to do a good job of that,” she says.

Use a product that contains vitamin E

“Using a moisturizer that contains vitamin E may produce a nice synergy to help the product work better at keeping the skin cells intact,” says Dr. Kassouf. “And it also prevents other substances from penetrating the skin and causing irritation.”

To incorporate it into your skin care routine, look for products that contain vitamin E. Labels typically list it as tocopherol or tocotrienol. Moisturizers with as little as 0.1% can improve vitamin E levels in skin. Even better are products that include both vitamin C and E. These antioxidants work better together.

Consume it

“You need to get enough vitamin E in your diet, ideally through food, but supplements are also an option,” says Dr. Kassouf. “We’re starting to see in studies that internal antioxidants may help protect us from external threats like sun damage.”

Foods high in vitamin E include:

  • Sunflower seeds and oil.
  • Nuts.
  • Corn oil.
  • Spinach.
  • Broccoli.
  • Kiwi.
  • Mango.

For supplements, Dr. Kassouf says adults should stick to the recommended dietary allowance of 15 milligrams a day. Avoid overdoing it because excess vitamin E is stored in fat. It can build up to toxic levels, too. She recommends talking to your healthcare provider before starting any supplements.

Vitamin E can’t make your wrinkles disappear or prevent sunburn. But applying products with vitamin E can benefit dry skin. And when consumed in the right amount, vitamin E may also help your skin stand up to environmental stressors from the inside out.

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