If you could, you might hire an army to defend your skin against all the assaults it has to deal with day in and day out: pollution, stress, smoke and less-than-healthy foods, to name just a few. Luckily, you can think of antioxidants like vitamin E as your skin's own battalion. Each antioxidant plays a different and important role in protecting cells, but it's vitamin E that's truly on the front lines—in fact, your skin contains more E than any other nutrient.
Concentrated in the sebum, a substance produced by oil glands, and in the membranes of skin cells and the lipid-based “glue” that holds them together, vitamin E is uniquely positioned to maintain the integrity and beauty of your complexion. By both consuming foods loaded with the nutrient and using products that contain E you’re actively protecting and nourishing your skin.
Here’s what happens when you feed your body vitamin E:
It helps prevent signs of aging. When skin is exposed to UV light, smoke and air pollution, it produces free radicals and other rogue molecules that damage collagen (your skin’s support structure), DNA and skin cells, all of which ultimately contributes to wrinkles and brown spots. Vitamin E fights those effects by neutralizing the free radicals. The process of protecting your skin depletes your stores of the vitamin quickly, though. Research has shown that even after a small amount of UV exposure—what you might get just going into and out of the office, or while running errands—levels of vitamin E in the skin drop by 50 percent. That means the vitamin has done its job, but it also underscores how important is to replenish this nutrient by eating foods full of E (see below for options).
It complements your SPF. Aside from scavenging free radicals, vitamin E also absorbs UVB light—the nasty spectrum of sunlight that's responsible for burning and aging skin. Research shows that vitamin E together with vitamin C may increase the amount of time it takes SPF-free skin to burn, so it has a protective effect. (Which doesn't mean you can give up your sunscreen; instead, think of vitamin E-rich foods as extra insurance against the sun’s damaging rays.)
It keeps skin hydrated and calm. Because vitamin E lives in and protects cell membranes, which form a barrier around cells to keep them healthy and hydrated, it indirectly helps skin stay moisturized and supple. Plus, along with being an effective antioxidant, vitamin E also fights inflammation: One study of people with a condition called atopic dermatitis, which causes red, itchy, irritated skin, found that those who consumed vitamin E got significant relief.
How Much Should You Get?
Both men and women require 15 mg of vitamin E per day, a quota you can easily meet by cooking with vegetable oils (choose expeller pressed canola and sunflower oils), snacking on almonds, peanuts (or their butters), wheat germ, and sprinkling sunflower seeds on salads. Green veggies like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and broccoli also deliver healthy doses. Try eating vitamin E-rich foods with those high in vitamin C, such as red bell peppers and citrus fruits, since the two work well as a team to protect skin.
Here’s what happens when you use vitamin E topically:
It reduces sun damage. Products containing vitamin E help thwart UV-induced damage in the same ways E-rich foods do—by rendering free radicals harmless before they can damage cells. Numerous studies also show that topical vitamin E can decrease DNA damage and lessen the redness and swelling of a burn. But because it only has a natural SPF of about 3, you shouldn’t use it as your sole protection from the sun’s strong rays.
It can help reduce the appearance of scars. Free radicals also make it harder for scars to heal; try applying vitamin E oil to diminish more permanent marks.
It may help moisturize skin. While vitamin E’s main role in creams and lotions is as an antioxidant, it could help soften skin as well. Preliminary research suggests that the topical form of this vitamin helps skin hold on to water, a key factor not only in softness but in healthy, resilient skin.
Choosing Vitamin E Products
Because of its protective properties, vitamin E is especially beneficial in sunscreens, daily moisturizers, treatment serums and after-sun products. Check ingredient lists and choose a product with alpha-tocopherol, a potent form of the vitamin. While products that absorb into your skin will deliver the highest doses, even rinse-off products like cleansers that contain alpha-tocopherol may increase the level of vitamin E in the top layers of skin, enhancing its antioxidant protection. Visit the Environmental Working Group's website (ewg.org) for information on choosing your sunscreen and beauty products wisely.