Vitamins C & E – Do they work in skin care?

Other than product and concept reviews on beauty and fitness, every now and again I look into a subject in a little more detail to bring you the science based facts, no promotional lies, and hopefully a little more understanding. I hope you find this interesting, please like, subscribe and share but more importantly grab a coffee and let’s begin!

The scientific evidence

Vitamins C and E are vital for our body to function normally. Vitamin C protects cells while keeping them working normally, leading to healthy skin, blood vessels, bones and cartilage. It is an essential part of collagen synthesis[1] and skin lipid synthesis[2] making it an effective anti-ageing and moisturising ingredient and it helps protect against, and reverse, the effects of UV light (this is clinically proven by many scientific studies!). If you are still not convinced, there is also evidence that it can decrease wrinkles after several months of usage.[3] Similarly, vitamin E helps maintain healthy skin and eyes but most importantly it strengthens our immune, natural defence system from illness and infections.

It is no wonder then why some skin care brands, in both the beauty and fitness industry, like to include these ingredients in their products.  However, while these molecules are packed with goodness, there is a huge difference in taking them orally in tablet form or topically by cream or gel application. While many ingredients can be good for you, their action and effectiveness is directly dependant on their chemical form, concentration and the way you take them. Some ingredients are better taken by skin absorption, as they would otherwise be digested and broken down in your stomach, while others are better taken orally because they might not be the right size, shape or chemical composition to pass through our skin. As a result, while many brands advertise fancy, super-good for you ingredients in their products, they are not always as effective as you might think.

So do vitamins C and E pass through our skin barrier and should we look out for skin care products that contain them? The quick answer to this is yes and yes please…but there is a catch!
Vitamin C

Sadly, even though vitamin C is our body’s most used, water soluble, antioxidant the human body does not have the capability to synthesise it on its own. While other animals are amazing chemical machines and not only synthesise vitamin C on their own, but also produce 10 times the amount when they are under stress (so jealous!),[4] we rely solely on taking it through our diet. Although this might seem like an evolutionary failure on our part, some scientists speculate that this is because we gain enough vitamin C through our diet and therefore, have no need in producing it. If you are now panicking about your diet, make sure to include foods like strawberries, peppers, blackcurrants, broccoli and other leafy green vegetables. As if we haven’t been told enough times to eat our vegetables!

Good news, however, as there is merit to using skin products that include vitamin C, other than feeling good about it, even if you have the perfect diet and take vitamin pill supplements. A lot of vitamin C is lost in our intestines and therefore excreted in our poo and pee, so even massive oral doses result in only small increases of vitamin C levels in our skin. And if that wasn’t enough, the little vitamin C that makes it to our skin is destroyed daily by urban and natural pollution[4], sunlight and ageing[5]. Bah…

As a result, enhancing the vitamin C skin levels by topical application is beneficial. However, while many creams, gels, serums and patches claim to contain vitamin C, they actually contain a variation of the vitamin C molecule instead. This is because the natural vitamin C molecule, L-ascorbic acid, is too reactive, which means that the shelf-life of the products containing it would be very small. Additionally, as it is an excellent anti-oxidant it would also turn brown when exposed to air, something that you definitely don’t want when you are smearing yourself with it!

Therefore, skin care products tend to often contain its stable esterified derivatives: ascorbyl-6-palmitate and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. These derivatives are not absorbed as well by your skin as the actual vitamin C molecule would, which means that even though many products contain a variation of this ingredient, they do not contain enough for it to be useful. Thankfully, there are, although not many, some products (Helena Rubinstein, L’oreal and more) that do contain enough of it, so look out for products that: (a) contain at least 10% (although anywhere between 3-10% can be beneficial) and (b) are at pH 3.5.[4] You probably won’t find many products that state their pH (which is a measure of how acidic or alkaline a substance is) but some products do mention the % of their ingredients either at the back or as part of their promotional marketing.
Vitamin E

Vitamin E, although so essential, is similarly only supplied by our diet. You can find it in fresh vegetables and oils, seeds, nuts and some cereals. Vitamin E is mostly located at the outer most layer of our skin and is therefore, our body’s first defence against oxidative stress form pollution and sun light[7]. Sadly, it is also depleted over time from exposure to the elements and ageing[8].

Like vitamin C, this vitamin is also found in cosmetic and fitness skin care (but also in vitamin tablets) in a different form, as its ester derivatives instead of the natural molecule. This is also due to its instability which would lower the shelf-life of products. These esters are expectantly, less reactive than their mother molecule, meaning that they have to be hydrolysed first (broken by reaction with water) and so they are absorbed much better by oral ingestion rather than topical application. Unfortunately, one of these forms of vitamin E has been reported to cause an allergic reaction to some.[9]

There are some studies that suggest vitamin E playing an essential role in wound healing, however the data is limited and more studies are needed. Nevertheless, vitamin E, even when topically applied, has been shown to reduce damage caused by UV light and hyperpigmentation (tanning), reduce wrinkles (clinically proven!) as well as protect against skin cancer.[4]
The combination of vitamins C and E

While both vitamins have benefits on their own, the combination of the two can be very beneficial (15% C with 1% E).[4] When vitamin E oxidises to pick up the nasty radicals that are produced or come in contact with our skin, vitamin C can regenerate its activity, needing less of it to be replaced![10] These partners in defence, as scientist Chan AC. called them, can give a four-fold protection against UV damage, when applied together, decreasing the amount of “sun burnt cells” compared to a two-fold activity when used on their own [10, 11, 4]. Interestingly, the presence of these two vitamins together also leads to higher product shelf-life as they stabilise each other, making them a very attractive skin care formulation.[11] To make things even better, when these two buddy vitamins are combined with ferulic acid, another good antioxidant, the UV-protection is doubled again from four-fold to eight-fold.[12]

Please note however, that this does not mean that vitamins C and E are alternatives to SPF products, they work in a different way, and so you should always use a product with an SPF factor as well. But while SPF sun creams can offer proper sun protection, the use of them alone is often not enough because the actual amount we use usually offers much less protection that the intended SPF factor (SPF post coming soon). So yes go crazy with your sun cream, the white ghost look at the beach is not criticised anymore! A sun cream with SPF ingredients and vitamins C and E would be highly beneficial but don’t sweat it, if you don’t find one just use your vitamin containing skin care prior to applying your sun cream.

Overall vitamins C and E are indeed absorbed through the skin but the products containing them will only have maximum effectiveness when these vitamins are present at a certain amount and above. Look for the products with as high vitamin C and E as possible and in preference with those two together in combination as close to the 10% C to 1% E ratio! I have actually come across products with vitamin C, E and the magical hyaluronic acid all together and at the right concentrations (I might make a list one day), so they do exist and I have noticed a difference fairly quickly after using them but especially when I used them consistently for a while.

Do you know any products with this combo? Let me know!

For a post on hyaluronic acid see “Hyaluronic acid – the fountain of youth?”.


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