Nourishing Your Skin

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Anyone looking for everyday beauty products will find a dizzying array of vitamin-enriched lotions, creams, and makeup stocked on the store shelves. Huge pump bottles tout vitamins B-3 and B-5; a full spectrum of foundation include vitamins A, C, and E; even lipsticks add vitamins A and E.

So we know vitamins can improve our health, but do they improve our skin products?

"I felt like I needed a skin nutritionist," says Rebecca Zysk. "I had no clue what -- if anything -- most of these letters would do for my skin."

Vitamins in skin care are one of the biggest trends in beauty products. They're so popular, in fact, that the number of skin care products containing vitamins has increased several fold since 1990, according to experts reporting at an annual conference of the American Academy of Dermatology held in March 2000.

So does slathering on vitamin-laden lotions actually work? It's hard to know for sure. Much of the research on vitamins and skin has been conducted on animals or in test tubes -- not on human skin -- and with concentrations of vitamins that are much stronger than what's available on beauty store shelves. And while some studies substantiate the claims that vitamins aren't a complete waste of money, Deborah Sarnoff, MD, a dermatologist in New York City and associate clinical professor at New York University Medical Center, says that "many of the studies are sponsored by and paid for by companies invested in selling their product," making any claims of dubious accuracy.

But wait a minute. Won't a proper diet or perhaps a multivitamin make your skin look better? Actually, no, says Bruce Katz, MD, a dermatologist and director of the Juva Skin and Laser Center in New York City. The body only allocates a certain percentage of oral vitamins and minerals to your skin, no matter how much you ingest. So as much as you'd like to, you can't stick an address label on the food you eat or the vitamins you swallow and send them straight to your laugh lines or age spots.

In the end, experts concur that consumers shouldn't expect a fountain of youth in a jar. While topical vitamins may have some benefits, says Katz, most of these are slight. (And the products aren't always easy on the wallet. The price for one ounce of premium eye cream can range from $10 to $90.) You'd be wiser to aim for a healthy lifestyle overall: a balanced diet, adequate sleep and hydration, regular exercise, and plenty of sunscreen.

Still, if you are going to jump into the alphabet soup -- and with the proliferation of these products these days it's hard not to -- here's a roundup of the most popular topical vitamins and how they work.

Vitamin A

Topical vitamin A works as an antioxidant on the skin, which means it disarms molecules called free radicals. These are unleashed by blood cells any time the skin is irritated (by sun, smoke, or pollution). Free radicals are a byproduct of the fight against the irritant, and if left unchecked, they damage DNA and healthy skin collagen (the springy stuff that gives you a firm face). The compromised collagen can cause wrinkling and slackened skin, and damaged DNA can potentially lead to skin cancer.

Retinoic acid, a derivative of vitamin A , is the active ingredient in the prescription treatments Retin-A and Renova, which can reduce wrinkles, fade brown spots, and smooth surface roughness -- all signs of aging that can be brought on by excessive sun exposure.

Cosmetic companies are also producing nonprescription lotions made with another form of vitamin A called retinol. Research in the March 2000 Journal of Investigative Dermatology shows that a 1% preparation of retinol is partially converted by the skin into retinoic acid, which results in collagen growth and reversal of some aging signs. However, cosmetics usually contain preparations of retinol at lower strengths than those studied by researchers.

Retinol and the prescription vitamin A derivatives work by exfoliating the surface layer of skin, says Sarnoff in her 1998 book Beauty and the Beam. As we age, it takes much longer for cells to flake off and be replaced by young ones (new skin cells appear every 28 days in young skin and can take as long as eight weeks in older skin). Speeding up cell turnover, Sarnoff says, makes the skin look fresher, smoother, and younger.

If you're shopping for a skin product with vitamin A in it, look for the words retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, or retinyl palmitate. Vitamin A increases the skin's sensitivity to the sun, so always wear sunscreen, whether you are in or out of doors.

Vitamin B

The American Academy of Dermatology cites vitamins B-3 (niacin) and B-5 (pantothenic acid) as popular additions to skin products, mostly because they help hold moisture in. Well-hydrated skin is less likely to become irritated, says Nicholas Perricone, MD, dermatologist and author of the book The Wrinkle Cure. Irritation may unleash a chain of events that injures tissue and hastens skin aging, says Perricone.

One industry study tested a product containing pantothenic acid, niacin, and vitamin E on skin with rosacea, a condition of dry, ruddy, rough skin that irritates easily. Skin treated with this product experienced a 36% increase in hydration, although it's not clear if this improvement was from vitamin E or the B vitamins.

In another study (funded by Procter & Gamble), B vitamins were shown to be effective exfoliators; that is, they removed dead surface skin cells that clump up and make skin texture appear dull.

Vitamin C

A study in the October 1999 issue of the Journal of Applied Cosmetology suggested that topical vitamin C, also an antioxidant, works to neutralize damaging free radical molecules in the skin, thus helping to protect skin from the harmful effects caused by sunlight's UVA and UVB rays that can lead to skin damage.

In one animal study, vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) was shown to be effective as an additive in sunscreen for protection against UVA and UVB damage. Its antioxidant powers are the reason, according to researcher Sheldon Pinnell, MD, in the July 1996 issue of Acta Dermato-Venereologica. Though it's not a substitute for sunscreen, it may aid in skin protection.

Another form of C called vitamin C ester, or ascorbyl palmitate, may actually reverse existing sun damage. An article in the Feb. 21, 1997, issue of the Journal of Geriatric Dermatology found that ascorbyl palmitate reduced inflammation and redness in sunburned human skin in half the time of a placebo cream. The sooner irritation is stopped, the less damage free radicals can do to skin. Vitamin C ester can be found in a few nonprescription moisturizers.

Vitamin E

Like vitamins A and C, vitamin E is an antioxidant, and, when added to sunscreen, it seems to provide further protection from the sun by shielding against UVB rays, according to the same 1996 report from Pinnell in Acta Dermato-Venereologica.

You'll find vitamin E in lots of commercial hand creams and lip balms because of its moisturizing qualities. Look for the ingredient alpha tocopherol or tocotrenol, a newer form that is more potent than the other two alpha tocopherol acetates. There's one major downside to vitamin E, says Katz: many people develop an allergy to it called contact dermatitis. If you notice irritation or redness, stop using the product immediately. And while many people still think that rubbing vitamin E on a scar can help make it vanish, the evidence suggests the opposite.

Originally published Nov. 14, 2001.

Medically updated May 8, 2003.

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