Are vitamins effective in cosmetics?

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.

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