Article by: Perry Romanowski

On a number of occasions we’ve mentioned the use of vitamins in cosmetic products.  The typical spin is that vitamins are put in cosmetics to make label claims because they don’t really have much effect but they do sell products.  This is true in the vast majority of cases.

But perhaps this is a bit unfair.

In this post, I’m going to take a different spin and explain the vitamins that are used in cosmetics and whether they have any (even if it’s small) effect.

Vitamins in cosmetics

Since vitamins are such an appealing ingredient to cosmetic consumers and marketers, you’re going to find many different kinds in products ranging from skin lotions, hair products, make-up and even toothpaste. The primary vitamins used by cosmetic formulators includes vitamin A, B, C, D, E, F, and K. We’ll go over each of them roughly in order of prevalence in cosmetics.

Vitamin A

What it is– This popular vitamin in cosmetics belongs to a large class of compounds called retinoids.  It’s precursor is called beta-carotene and is found in cosmetics as retinol, retinyl esters, retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, acitretin and adapalene.

Why use it– It has a variety of effects in the body such as decreasing inflammation, helping the immune system and regulating growth of epidermal cells.  It has been shown to reverse photoaging and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.  It also works as a treatment for acne and may have skin lightening effects.

Does it work– Of all the vitamins found in cosmetics, use of Vitamin A is most supported by the evidence.  In fact, it is so effective for anti-aging that in the US it is considered a drug that requires a doctor’s prescription.  But this ingredient is difficult to formulate with because it is inherently unstable when exposed to light.  More stable forms are less effective.  And there is no evidence that Vitamin A will have any effect on your hair.

Vitamin E

What it is- Vitamin E is a naturally occurring antioxidant which is why it is frequently added to cosmetics and skin care products.

Why use it– It is considered to be a protector ingredient since it is a major free-radical scavenger.  Free radicals are very damaging to the skin tissue.   Topical application of vitamin E is said to result in skin smoothening, moisturizing, prevention of pre-mature skin-aging, and suppression of UV-induced erythema.

Does it work
–  Those all seem like good things benefits however, for skin smoothening or moisturization Vitamin E is not going to compare to traditional skin ingredients like petrolatum or mineral oil.  And for other unseen benefits?  This study which examined whether UV induced damage could be helped by topical Vitamin E treatment concluded that it could not.  And this study looked at the effect of topically applied vitamin E on scar tissue resulted in no observable benefit.  But other researchers have reported effects so a benefit is possible if not yet proven.  There is no evidence that using Vitamin E in hair will have any significant beneficial effect.

Vitamin C

What it is– This is a biologically active form of ascorbic acid.  In the body, Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant which neutralizes damaging free radicals.  Commonly used versions of this compound are ascorbyl palmitate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate and trisodium ascorbyl phosphate.

Why use it– This ingredient is claimed to work to reverse UV damage, skin aging, treat acne and have skin lightening effects.

Does it work– It is extremely difficult to formulate Vitamin C into a product and have it remain active.  It is just not very stable.  However, a 5% solution of sodium ascorbyl phosphate was demonstrated to be effective against acne.  This study of topical application of Vitamin C and its derivatives showed that while vitamin C had an effect, it’s derivatives did not.  So, there might be some effect if you use high levels of vitamin C and can keep it stable (those are big ‘ifs’).  In hair care, Vitamin C will have no effect.

Vitamin B

What it is–  There are a number of Vitamin B derivatives that make their way into cosmetics.  These include Panthenol (vitamin B5), Niacin and Biotin.  Vitamin B is a coenzyme of vitamin A and helps in cell metabolism.

Why use it– Panthenol functions as a humectant so it can provide some moisturizing effect in skin products.  It also works as a humectant for hair and there is some evidence that it can have a thickening/strengthening effect on hair.  Niacin is used because it is believed to have anti-aging effects like wrinkle reduction and skin elasticity improvements on skin.   Biotin is used to treat brittle nails.

Does it work– Panthenol is such a ubiquitous ingredient in hair care products that it is almost a requirement for a hair care formulation.  The scientists at P&G are convinced that it works and it is a featured ingredient in their Pantene hair care line.  I personally didn’t notice much difference in formulas with and without Panthenol but perhaps I was biased.  Niacin has some slight effect in skin care as evidenced by this review paper.  But it’s not hugely effective.

Vitamin D

What it is– This is a steroid-derived hormone that impacts the calcium levels in the body.  It also is produced in the skin upon exposure to UV light.

Why use it– Vitamin D may be a useful addition to a sunscreen product and it is useful in the treatment of psoriasis.

Does it work– There is some evidence that Vitamin D is effective as a treatment for psoriasis.  But Vitamin D doesn’t have any notable antiaging effects and in hair care it is not effective to do much of anything.

Vitamin F

What it is– These are essential fatty acids which include ingredients like linoleic, linolenic and arachidonic acids.  Not vitamins per se but since they are fatty acids that your body doesn’t create, they have gotten the moniker Vitamin F.

Why use it– These ingredients are essential for the maintenance of the skin barrier function.

Does it work– Application of pure linoleic acid to skin is an irritant so you don’t want to add it directly.  In truth, the standard moisturizing ingredient have a more significant impact on skin than Vitamin F so they will not provide much additional benefit.

Vitamin K

What it is– This is a fat soluble vitamin that is synthesized by the bacteria in the gut.  It is important for blood clotting.

Why use it–  Some people believe that Vitamin K can be beneficial reducing the appearance of under eye circles and spider veins.

Does it work– There is no evidence that it works.

As long as consumers believe that vitamins are healthy, they are going to continue to be put into cosmetic products whether they have any effect or not.  As a cosmetic formulator, it will help you to at least know the theoretical reasons that these ingredients might be useful in your formulas.  Who knows, perhaps some future research will show that the effects are significant.

15 comments

  1. Mirda Ulfah Hardimura

    I need some formulation of acne gel , have you ?

  2. Shanni

    Every since I started using Vitamin A in my products, I noticed a difference and so did my co-workers. Vitamin A has unplugged my pores and evened out my skin discoloration. I used to use a brand that I bought at Walmart, but it did not work well. I now use the Made from Earth Vitamin Enhanced Firming Serum because it also reduces the oilyness of my face. Highly recommended!

  3. Em Lo

    I would very much like to know how to compare the vitamin E content in a creams from % to IU, ie what is the conversion factor between IU and % w/w (g/100g or the like) vitamin E in a cream?

    I would also like to know what the claimed optimum amount of vitamin E would be in a face cream for efficient functioning as Liliana mentioned, if such info is available anywhere.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      1 IU of vitamin E is equal to 0.67 mg or 0.00067 g per 100g of cream. The optimum level depends on what claim you want to make. It’s unlikely that a consumer would notice any difference in a formula that has vitamin E versus one that doesn’t so your best option is to put in the lowest amount you can.

      1. Ingrida

        Hello Perry,
        I would like to find out what you think about vitamin E in textiles? I mean in garments which touches your skin. Would it be effective for skin?

        1. Perry Romanowski

          Probably not. Vitamin E has a minimal effect when delivered topically. If it were delivered from clothing the effect would be even less.

  4. Maja

    Hi Perry,
    I was wondering whether you would mind me using this text (translated in Serbian and Macedonian), as a good reference read on vitamins. I would add some extra info, but yes, I’d also use it as a core? Of course, a proper credit would go to you and I’d post the link to you to check!
    Thanks

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Sure you can use it as long as you give a link back. Thanks
      Perry, 44

  5. NewsView

    Not that I agree with every conclusion she makes but the “cosmetic cop” (Paula’s Choice) has cited some studies indicating that vitamin K may be useful. To say there is “no evidence” suggests you have read everything on the topic, and that’ just not humanly possible.

    I am tiring of seeing this kind of language employed even on authoritative medical sources (e.g. fibromyalgia). A few years ago this common pain disorder was thought to be non-inflammatory in nature but more recent research has called that assumption into question. The presence of more current (or conflicting) research doesn’t stop outdated information from populating “respectable” sources such as the natural medicines database, among others, unfortunately.

    A search of PubMed can reveal at least preliminary evidence for just about any topic said to have “no evidence” elsewhere. The question in evaluating these studies, aside from how well they are designed, is who paid for the research and how many other studies have managed to replicate the findings? Regardless, the use of declarative language risks making a post such as this fall horribly out of date the moment news of the contrary comes out.

    From a writing/editing standpoint, I would err on the side of stating there is “little” or “limited” information. The use of an emphatic term makes it sound as if the jury is in, when at best it’s still out.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      The studies that Paula cites were not compelling to me but I try to have a higher standard of what is considered proof. A study looking at three different vitamins blended into a topical gel and providing subjective benefit to less than half the people who used it hardly seems like proof to me.

      Preliminary evidence is not evidence. It is an indication of a path you should follow in research but it is in no way a suggestion that you should recommend using a specific treatment.

      I stand by my statement, there is no evidence that you should use topically applied vitamin K to get rid of under eye circles and spider veins. When there is evidence, I’ll update my comments or write another post.

  6. Pingback:18 Again: Vaginal tightening quackery? | Thirty-Seven

  7. Jay

    I can’t help but laugh nowadays when I see panthenol as a listed ingredient. Might as well have added a half percent more of glycerin or a glycol, and get a stronger effect.

    While I agree with your other assessments, I think the evidence for niacin (in niacinamide/nicotinamide form) is pretty convincing. It’s also very easy to formulate with – heat stable and very water soluble.

  8. Liliana

    Hi Perry,

    May I just add that the ingredients and nature of the formulation influence greatly the delivery of actives into the skin, therefore it’s very tricky to proove efficacy in vivo – something I learned from a book by Prof. J. Wiechers called “Formulating for efficacy”.

    1. Perry

      Great point Liliana! It is quite likely that when people have done studies on the efficacy of vitamins in cosmetic formulas they didn’t optimize the formulations to maximize the potential vitamin effect.

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