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What is topical vitamin E?

Vitamin E is an essential vitamin that should be consumed in the diet in adequate amounts to promote optimal health outcomes.  However, it is also used in some cosmetics and topical skin care products.  What is topical vitamin E, what is it used for, and are there any side effects?

What is topical vitamin E?

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that performs a variety of roles in the body.  As an antioxidant vitamin, it helps neutralize reactive oxygen species (ROS) that could potentially have damaging effects.1  Vitamin E also helps facilitate immune function, and research suggests that it could be involved in a variety of other biochemical reactions related to metabolism.1,2

Vitamin E is an essential vitamin, which means that it cannot be synthesized by the body and needs to be consumed in either food or supplements.  As a fat-soluble vitamin, however, vitamin E can be stored in the body; in humans, some of it is stored in the skin where it acts as an important antioxidant.3 

Some research suggests that ROS may play a role in photoaging and skin damage over time; one study found that they were associated with a decreased production of collagen, which is a protein that helps maintain the structural integrity of skin and connective tissue.4,5,6  The same study found that alpha-tocopherol, which is the primary form of vitamin E found in the skin, was one of the components that helped prevent the effect of ROS on collagen production.5

Given that vitamin E is found in the skin and may play a variety of potential roles, researchers continue to investigate whether topical vitamin E application could be beneficial for skin health and appearance.  This article will investigate some of the potential benefits and uses of topical vitamin E, and whether the current evidence surrounding these claims is promising.

Topical vitamin E for photoprotection

Much of the research surrounding topical vitamin E is about its potential photoprotective properties, as some research suggests that topical vitamin E could help reduce the impact of harmful UV rays on the skin.7  For example, one study found that topical application of alpha-tocopherol was associated with decreased rates of UV-induced photodamage and carcinogenesis in mice.8 

A variety of studies suggest that association is amplified when vitamin E is combined with vitamin C and ferulic acid.9,10,11  More research and larger studies are needed to investigate the photoprotective effects of vitamin E, and whether these have significant effects on the risk of UV-induced complications such as photoaging and skin cancer development. 

Topical vitamin E for wound healing

Topical vitamin E is sometimes prescribed after invasive procedures to prevent the development of scars, as some individuals believe that it may help in wound healing and their cosmetic appearance.

The current evidence for this benefit is inconclusive, and many studies found no association between topical vitamin E use and improved appearance of scars.12,13,14  More research is needed to determine whether oral vitamin E supplementation instead may be helpful in accelerating wound healing.14 

Other uses of vitamin E in dermatology

Oral vitamin E, rather than topical vitamin E, is sometimes prescribed for the treatment of a few conditions, such as yellow nail syndrome and a rare condition called subcorneal pustular dermatosis.6,15,16  More research is needed to validate the use of vitamin E in treating these conditions, and whether topical vitamin E could have similar effects.

There is also some evidence supporting the use of vitamin E for controlling the symptoms of atopic dermatitis.  One study of 96 atopic dermatitis patients found that taking 400 IU of vitamin E daily was associated with improvements in a variety of symptoms, such as decreased eczema lesions and lower serum IgE levels.17 More research is needed to determine whether vitamin E, either oral or topical, could help in managing atopic dermatitis.

What are the side effects of topical vitamin E?

Some reported side effects of vitamin E12 in studies include:

  • – contact dermatitis
  • – itching  
  • – skin rash

It is important to seek medical help if you experience any side effects that you are concerned about when using skincare products containing vitamin E. 

Seek medical help immediately if you experience signs of an allergic reaction after using topical vitamin E, such as chest tightness, hives, or swelling of the face, mouth, or throat.

As with any skincare routine, it is important to protect yourself from UV radiation. This can be done by limiting sun exposure, wearing sun-protective clothing, and regularly applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB radiation.

This article is not medical advice, and it is not intended to prescribe, diagnose, or promote specific treatments for any condition.  Consult your doctor, dermatologist, or other qualified healthcare provider for your unique skin needs.


  1. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (2021, March 26). Vitamin E: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. USA Government. Accessed 2021, July 7, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/
  2. Blaner, W.S. (2013). Vitamin E: the enigmatic one! J Lipid Res 54(9): 2293-2294. Doi: 10.1194/jlr.E042267
  3. Packer, L., Valacchi, G. (2002). Antioxidants and the response of skin to oxidative stress: vitamin E as a key indicator. Skin Pharmacol Appl Skin Physiol 15: 282-290. Doi: 10.1159/000064531
  4. Scharffetter-Kochanek, K., Brenneisen, P., Wenk, J., et al (2000, May). Photoaging of the skin from phenotype to mechanisms. Exp Gerontol 35(3): 307-316. Doi: 10.1016/s0531-5565(00)00098-x
  5. Tanaka, H., Okada, T., Konishi, H., et al (1993). The effect of reactive oxygen species on the biosynthesis of collagen and glycosaminoglycans in cultured human dermal fibroblasts. Arch Dermatol Res 285(6): 352-355. Doi: 10.1007/BF00371836.
  6. Keen, M.A., Hassan, I. (2016). Vitamin E in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J 7(4): 311-315. Doi: 10.4103/2229-5178.185494
  7. Krol, E.S., Kramer-Strickland, K.A., Liebler, D.C. (2000). Photoprotective actions of topically applied vitamin E. Drug Metab Rev 32(3-4): 413-420. Doi: 10.1081/dmr-100102343.
  8. McVean, M., Liebler, D.C. (1999). Prevention of DNA photodamage by vitamin E compounds and sunscreens: roles of ultraviolet absorbance and cellular uptake. Mol Carcinog 24(3): 169-176. Doi: 10.1002/(sici)1098-2744(199903)24:3<169::aid-mc3>3.0co;2-a
  9. Lin, J., Angelica Selim, M., Shea, C.R., et al (2003). UV photoprotection by combination topical antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E. J Am Acad Dermatol 48(6): 866-874. Doi: 10.1067/mjd.2003.435.
  10. Murray, J.C., Burch, J.A., Streilein, R.D., et al (2008). A topical antioxidant solution containing vitamins C and E stabilized by ferulic acid provides protection for human skin against damage caused by ultraviolet irradiation. J Am Acad Dermatol 59(3): 418-425. Doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2008.05.004.
  11. Wu, Y., Zheng, X., Xu, X.G., et al (2013). Protective effects of a topical antioxidant complex containing vitamins C and E and ferulic acid against ultraviolet irradiation-induced photodamage in chinese women.  J Drugs Dermatol 12(4): 464-468. Accessed 2021, July 11, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23652896/
  12. Tanaydin, V., Conings, J., Malyar, M., et al (2016). The role of topical vitamin E in scar management: a systematic review. Aesthet Surg J 36(8): 959-965. Doi: 10.1093/asj/sjw046
  13. Baumann, L.S., Spencer, J. (1999). The effects of topical vitamin E on the cosmetic appearance of scars. Dermatol Surg 25(4): 311-315. Doi: 10.1046/j.1524-4725.1999.08223.x
  14. Hobson, R. (2014). Vitamin E and wound healing: an evidence-based review. International Wound Journal 13(3): 331-335. Doi: 10.1111/iwj.12295.
  15. Al Hawasawi, K., POpe, E. (2010). Yellow nail syndrome. Pediatr Dermatol 27(6): 675-676. Doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1470.2010.01338.x
  16. Ayres, S., Mihan, R. (1974). Subcorneal pustular dermatosis controlled by vitamin E. Arch Dermatol 109(6): 914. Doi: 10.1001/archderm.1974.01630060082036.
  17. Tsoureli-Nikita, E., Hercogova, J., Lotti, T., et al (2002). Evaluation of dietary intake of vitamin E in the treatment of atopic dermatitis: a study of the clinical course and evaluation of the immunoglobulin E serum levels. International Journal of Dermatology 41(3): 146-150. Doi: 10.1046/j.1365-4362.2002.01423.x
  18. Image by Seksak Kerdkanno from Pixabay 


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