Unlocking the Power of Tocopherol

You’re probably well aware of the benefits of vitamin E for skin, and chances are that it’s an ingredient in some of your body care products. But did you know that tocopherol, a class of compounds under the umbrella term “vitamin E,” is what gives this nutrient so much power?

Tocopherol, which is found in a number of products and foods, has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. It’s been studied for a range of health conditions, from cancer to vision loss and Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s also known to reduce skin damage, promote healthy aging and boost immunity.

So is tocopherol safe for topical and internal use, or is it getting too much hype in the natural health world?

Tocopherol - Dr. Axe

What Is Tocopherol?

Tocopherol is a form of vitamin E that serves as a powerful antioxidant. It’s used as an ingredient in skin care products to promote healthy aging.

There are two classes of naturally occurring vitamin E — tocopherols and tocotrienols. Each one of these classes has four forms:

  • alpha
  • beta
  • gamma
  • delta

Thus the term “vitamin E” is actually a collective description of these eight compounds.

The tocopherol class of vitamin E includes:

  • alpha-tocopherol
  • beta-tocopherol
  • gamma-tocopherol
  • delta-tocopherol

The only type of tocopherol that is recognized to meet human requirements is alpha-tocopherol. When you are using vitamin E oil or serum, it is made with the alpha form.

Esters of tocopherol are often used in skin care products because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. The esters that may be used include tocopheryl acetate and tocopheryl linoleate.

Using vitamin E esters topically is known to soothe skin damage and boost healthy aging. This form of vitamin E also acts as a preservative, so when it’s used in combination with skin-healing ingredients, like coconut oil, it keeps them from going rancid.

You’ll find tocopherol compounds in:

Tocopherol is also found in several foods and vitamin E supplements. Supplementing with vitamin E may benefit brain, cardiovascular, vision and skin health, but excessive doses can be dangerous.

Where It’s Found

Tocopherol is found in vegetable oils. The oils with the highest amounts of tocopherol are:

Alpha-tocopherol can also be found in nuts, seeds and leafy greens. Food sources include:

  • Sunflower seeds
  • Almonds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Peanuts
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Kiwifruit
  • Mango
  • Tomato

The safest way to ingest vitamin E is by eating foods rich in the nutrient. Adding these foods into your diet allows you to take advantage of the many tocopherol benefits.


1. Works as a Powerful Antioxidant

Tocopherol works as a powerful antioxidant, preventing damage caused by oxidative stress. Research shows that it has protective effects on cell membranes that are vulnerable to free radical attack.

This makes vitamin E an immune-boosting vitamin.

Alpha-tocopherol appears to inhibit the production of new free radicals, and gamma-tocopherol is able to trap and neutralize existing free radicals. This gives it the power to potentially prevent or delay chronic diseases that are associated with free radicals, like atherosclerosis, asthma, degenerative eye disease, diabetes and cancer.

2. Acts as Anti-inflammatory Agent

Tocopherol exhibits anti-inflammatory activity both within the body and on your skin. It’s used in topical products and taken internally to combat inflammation, which we know is the root of many serious health conditions.

A study published in Molecular Aspects of Medicine found that mixed tocopherols may be more potent in reducing inflammation than a-tocopherol alone. For this reason, supplementing with mixed tocopherols may help reduce inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis and neurodegenerative diseases.

3. Hydrates the Skin

Vitamin E for skin is extremely popular because the compounds improve skin moisture and elasticity. This is why you often find tocopherol in youth serums, eye creams and body lotions.

Research published in the Journal of Molecular Medicine highlights that vitamin E preparations reduce the frequency and severity of skin issues. It has protective and healing effects, hydrating the skin and reducing the effects of environmental damage.

4. Prevents and Soothes Skin Damage

Using tocopheryl acetate topically works to prevent skin damage caused by sun exposure. Preliminary evidence suggests that it may also help reduce signs of aging and prevent scarring.

When it’s used as an ingredient in skin care products, tocopherol has protective, nourishing effects. It strengthens the capillary walls and improves skin moisture and elasticity.

Many studies document vitamin E’s ability to improve skin issues and the overall health and appearance of skin.

5. Thickens Hair

Because this vitamin E isomer works as a powerful antioxidant, it helps prevent or improve environmental damage to your hair. It also promotes circulation and helps retain moisture, so it can help reduce dandruff and itchy scalp.

A review published in Dermatology and Therapy notes that vitamin E deficiency is often seen in people experiencing hair loss. This is likely linked to the antioxidant properties in vitamin E compounds.

6. Supports Eye Health

Studies show that vitamin E may help reduce the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness. For vitamin E supplements to be effective for boosting eye health, the nutrient needs to be combined with vitamin C, beta-carotene and zinc.

7. May Boost Brain Health

Due to tocopherol’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, it works to support brain health and fight neurodegenerative diseases. A 2014 study published in JAMA found that 2,000 international units of alpha-tocopherol per day slowed functional decline in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

Risks and Side Effects

Are mixed tocopherols safe? Vitamin E supplements typically provide only alpha-tocopherol, but “mixed” tocopherols and tocotrienols are also available.

The latter is typically less active because these supplements are made with synthetic forms of vitamin E.

Studies suggest that when vitamin E is obtained from food sources, it is considered safe, and there’s no documented evidence of side effects. However, very high doses of vitamin E, exceeding 1,000 milligrams per day (for adults), may have pro-oxidant effects and aren’t recommended.

Taking high doses of vitamin E supplements may lead to side effects such as fatigue, headaches, dizziness, stomach cramps and nausea. If you take doses around or above 1,000 milligrams per day, especially if you also eat vitamin E foods, speak to your doctor about possible health implications.

Applying vitamin E isomers topically may be irritating for some people. Try a small amount of any products containing vitamin E oil on a small area of skin first to be sure that you don’t have an adverse reaction.

If you research tocopherol’s Environmental Working Group score, it received a 1. The main concern is a 1985 study on mice that linked multiple vitamin E injections to cancer growth at the site on injections.

Again, when used in the appropriate amounts, especially when simply applied topically, tocopherol is considered safe.

There’s the possibility of a tocopherol allergy when it’s used topically. If you experience irritation, rash or itchiness after using a product containing vitamin E, discontinue use.

Also, keep in mind that vitamin E supplements may interact with several types of medications, including anticoagulants, antiplatelets, chemotherapy drugs and radiotherapy.


  • Tocopherols are a class of vitamin E compounds, with the most researched and used compound being alpha-tocopherol.
  • There are several tocopherol benefits, including the compound’s ability to improve skin health and appearance, boost brain function, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and improve vision.
  • Tocopherol esters are often used in cosmetic and body products for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and healing effects.
  • Eating foods rich in tocopherol and using the compound topically are considered safe, but taking very high doses may be dangerous.

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