Vitamin E in cosmetics

Oct 17, 2022 | The basics

There is a lot of mis-information around the internet, so I thought this could be one of those posts that address them. You have probably seen some formulations that include vitamin E and says it is added to preserve the formula. However, does it really preserve it?



The very first thing you should know about vitamin E that it is not a preservative. It can’t and won’t act as a preservative in a formula. In all formulations that has vitamin E, this ingredient will act as an antioxidant. That means it protects other molecules from free radicals and react with them.


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Vitamin E naturally comes in 8 different forms such:

– alpha-, beta-, gamma-, delta- tocopherols and

– alpha-, beta-, gamma-, delta- tocotrienols.

The most abundant forms in a diet are alpha-tocopherol and gamma-tocopherol as they are found largely in food products (nuts and oils). Tocopherols are mainly found in almond and other nut oils, olive oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, soybean oil and tocotrienols are found in palm, rice wheat germ, barley, oats, maize oils.

All forms of vitamin E are very similar in structure and have the same antioxidant activity. However, alpha-tocopherol is the most metabolically active and the most stable form.

All tocopherols are heat sensitive and should be stored in a fridge. Due to the natural activity, they will react with the air and after some time it will be no longer active.


You can buy tocopherols in several forms and concentrations:

The very first choice is alpha-tocopherol and it contains only alpha-tocopherol. It is usually used at 2% as an oil antioxidant. It is usually a synthesized form (not from plant origin).

Mixed tocopherols come in a blend of 4 different (alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta- forms. They are usually isolated from soybean, rapeseed, corn or sunflower oils and concentrated for easier usage.

They can be found in 95%, 70% and 50% concentrations meaning that the rest of the product is the oil the tocopherols were extracted from. In this case, mixed tocopherols are of plant origin.

All of them have different usage rates because they have different concentrations of active tocopherols. This is why you should always check the additional information of the supplier, so you would know how much to use it in your formulations.


Vitamin E acetate is also antioxidant, however it is used differently that other forms of vitamin E and won’t protect the oils in your formula from oxidation. However, it is useful to add this ingredient to your formulations as it will work in a cellular level. It will protect the skin cells from free radicals and peroxidation of body fats.

Also, there is evidence that using too much of vitamin E can lead to pro-oxidation. Meaning that the oils you wanted to protect form oxidation can oxidize even faster. So please, always check the information about the ingredients and use them according to the supplier.

Here are some other posts that could be interesting to read more:



Tocopherols are used in cosmetics to prevent oil rancidity (oxidation). As most oils contain unsaturated fatty acids, these are the primary targets for reactive radicals. Unsaturated fatty acids have double bonds which naturally are the areas of chemical instability.

If there is no antioxidant present, then these areas will be susceptible to oxidation with a lot of chemical reactions leading to other radicals. And after some time the oil will get oxidized and should be discarded. Please don’t use rancid oil as it will not add any benefits to the skin.

When we add vitamin E to our oil based formulations, vitamin E protects the unsaturated fatty acids by reacting to the free radicals first. In this way the oils can stay in their true form for longer periods of time.

Adding vitamin E will not protect the oils forever from oxidation. It will only make the shelf life of the oils longer, so the oils can be used for longer periods of time. But they eventually will go rancid as vitamin E itself will degrade over time.


So what actually starts the oil oxidation? There are several factors that initiate the oxidation process. This includes:

  • UV light
  • Heat
  • Oxygen
  • Metal catalysts

This is why packaging of the oil should be in appropriate containers and oils should be kept somewhere cool and dark. However, there is nothing we can really do when it comes to oxygen.

There always be oxygen where we will work with oils. And the more we open and close bottles, the more new oxygen molecules come to the bottles and oxidize the oils.

Oxidation is an ongoing process that has three phases – initiation, propagation and termination. After the initiation started, there is no going back as after the propagation phase there will always be one more radical molecule that repeats the initiation phase.


  1. Okebukola PO, Kansra S, Barrett J: Vitamin E supplementation in people with cystic fibrosis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Mar 6;3:CD009422. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009422.pub3.
  2. Herrera E, Barbas C: Vitamin E: action, metabolism and perspectives. J Physiol Biochem. 2001 Mar;57(2):43-56. 
  3. Bjorneboe A, Bjorneboe GE, Drevon CA: Absorption, transport and distribution of vitamin E. J Nutr. 1990 Mar;120(3):233-42. doi: 10.1093/jn/120.3.233.


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