On the whole, we’re all pretty knowledgeable when it comes to the health benefits of eating well. From preventing disease to protecting your skin, heart, and all your other organs, the vitamins and nutrients found in fruit and vegetables work their magic from the inside out. Educating people on the basics of good health through eating right is one of the ways that the UN World Health Organization strives for “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health” at an international level.
There are also popular health conscious campaigns on the national level like the “five a day keeps the doctor away” mantra. There are even ways to cheat your way to five-a-day! Classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “a combination product, consisting of a medical device combined with a drug or biological product”, a transdermal patch is a great method for dispatching slow-release nutrients directly into your system through the skin for immediate use and maximum absorption by the body, stepping around the usual method of the good ol’ digestive system. Strange, but true, I guess.
According to Patch MD, which claims to be “the nutrient delivery system of the future”, studies have shown that on average “less than 10% of the original vitamin and supplement that you’ve taken [orally] actually survives the digestive process”. Meaning, that “transdermal patches have been estimated to be 7 to 8 times more effective than pills and powders” in allowing the body to absorb vitamins and nutrients. That’s 7 to 8 times more effective than pills and powders and the way it works is by passing goodness to you through your skin!
If vitamin patches work, then the five-a-day way to good health, and of course beautiful skin, can also be achieved without using a patch. We know that you can deliver vitamins and nutrients without the middleman by simply applying topically to your skin. Well that’s interesting for several reasons especially because many skincare and beauty brands market their products around this fact. Unlike many of the ludicrous claims made by the PR savvy beauty and skincare manufacturers, the scientific basis behind claims of vitamins and nutrients in your skin care products actually holds water.
Nicki Zevola founder of leading beauty blog FutureDerm.com states that when a serum, lotion, or cream is applied topically it encounters “the uppermost layer of skin, which is called the stratum corneum”. If the ingredients in a product are small and “permeable” as she defines vitamins, they will be “uptaken by skin cells and processed. After a period of time, the ingredients will be secreted out of the skin cells and will enter the circulation”.
A 2001 study published in the American Society’s Dermatologic Surgery Journal showed that L-ascorbic Acid (a naturally occurring antioxidant more commonly known as Vitamin C) in particular “must be formulated at pH levels less than 3.5 to enter the skin”, with maximum concentration for optimal absorption being 20%. Great! How do we use this information to have better skin?
Here are three of the best vitamins and antioxidants scientifically proven to nourish skin when applied topically:
Widely known for the numerous benefits it has for skin, Retinol, (the name for an entire Vitamin A molecule), has many uses including restoring discolored skin, improving acne and eczema, boosting collagen production and reducing the appearance of pores, cellulite, wrinkles and sun damage.
According to Paula Begoun, founder of Paula’s Choice skin care, Retinol is an “effective cell-communicating ingredient”, which she defines as something which “theoretically, (has) the ability to tell a skin cell to look, act, and behave better, more like a normal healthy skin cell, or to stop other substances from telling the cell to behave badly or abnormally”.
Thanks to its ability to repair unstable and highly reactive unpaired atoms that are known to be the cause of “free-radical damage” which causes skin to age, Retinol is a common ingredient in anti-aging products the world over.
- Vitamin C
With the naturally occurring compound Ascorbic Acid being the most common form of Vitamin C used in skincare products, the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 2012 cites it as “a powerhouse when mixed with other antioxidants, or when used alone in higher concentrations, such as 15% or 20% or greater”.
Also helping to shield the skin from free-radical damage, according to certified dermatologist Dr Patricia K. Farris who was quoted in the Dermatologic Surgery Journal, 2005: “Vitamin C can reduce the appearance of brown spots and other types of sun damage, inflammation, redness and irritation while boosting healthy collagen production”. Dr Farris concluded that “because of the diverse biologic effects of this compound, topical Vitamin C has become a useful part of the dermatologist’s armamentarium”. I just want to mention that this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone use the word “armamentarium” but that does not mean I am any less excited about all of this confirming that vitamins on your skin are great for you.
Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting notes that “studies show we can’t increase the amount of Vitamin C in our skin simply through diet. Sunlight and pollution deplete the skin’s Vitamin C supply, so it makes sense to deliver it topically”.
- Vitamin E
Described by The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) as “an antioxidant that helps neutralize free radicals, which damage cells and might contribute to cardiovascular disease and cancer, reactive oxygen species (ROS) formed in the body when it converts food to energy, and environmental exposures such as pollution and ultraviolet radiation”, Vitamin E (Tocopherol Acetate) is believed to help prevent aging and DNA damage.
Well known for its skin conditioning properties, Vitamin E is a powerful anti-inflammatory which, according to Paula Begoun, works to “protect cell membranes from oxidative damage and to prevent collagen from being destroyed”.
Can you ever really have too much of a good thing? It would seem that it’s not so much about the quantity of vitamins that determine how effective they are, but how the product is stored and what other ingredients are with it.
Paula Begoun says: “using a product with a range of anti-aging ingredients plus Retinol is far more valuable for skin than using a product with only a supposedly high percentage of Retinol”. It’s believed that how the product is packaged also plays a big role in the effectiveness of its ingredients – vitamins in particular. Packaging is still a key issue, so any container that lets in air (like jar packaging) or sunlight (clear containers) just won’t cut it. This applies to most state-of-the-art skincare ingredients.
Many products containing Retinol come in unacceptable packaging. These should be avoided because the Retinol will most likely be (or quickly become) ineffective. Oxidation caused by prolonged exposure to the air and exposure to light both affect the potency of products that can have a big price tag. That means that to get the most value for your money, thinking about the packaging can make a big difference.
The quantities of these key ingredients in the products you buy naturally is very important as well. Dr Sam Bunting warns that “not all Vitamin C creams are equal” and recommends a serum that “contains at least 10 percent Vitamin C” while urging consumers to ensure that their product “hasn’t discolored — a sign that it has become oxidized and is no longer effective”.
When used to treat scars, low concentrations of Vitamin E can be effective when mixed with other skin-healing ingredients, however large concentrations can cause problems. According to a 1999 study examining “The effects of topical Vitamin E on the cosmetic appearance of scars” it was concluded that “topically applied Vitamin E does not help in improving the cosmetic appearance of scars and leads to a high incidence of contact dermatitis”.
With 90% of the cases demonstrating that “topical Vitamin E either had no effect on, or actually worsened the cosmetic appearance of scars”, one could say there’s a case for stricter product instructions and guidelines where the use of Vitamin E is concerned.
While there’s no doubt that vitamins can be great for skin, it’s what they’re mixed with that can have negative effects. In order to keep vitamins stable and to stop them from oxidizing too quickly manufacturers often include silicones and other inactive ingredients as regulators.
Interestingly, research conducted by the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University found that while the “stratum corneum is the primary obstacle to efficient vitamin C absorption from external sources” if one were to remove the stratum corneum by “laser, chemical, or mechanical methods” absorption would be enhanced. This goes some way to explaining why dermabrasion and chemical peels are popular treatments for skin rejuvenation, and also why skin creams containing vitamins may also contain harsher chemicals that work to weaken the skin’s outermost layers.
Unfortunatley this is also a big problem for those of us that have sensitive skin or existing skin conditions like acne. Vitamin based skincare products that also include citric acid, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, like glycol and lactic acids, can make your skin worse. In those sensitive cases that result in a reaction after using a product, you won’t be going through an adjustment phase of bad skin followed by great results. The product causing the reaction simply won’t work for you and you need to stop and try something else.
What we know is that vitamin skincare products can’t be taken at face value. To avoid any redness and irritation from the beginning, experts recommend starting out with small concentrations of Vitamins A, C or E in order to assess tolerance. The same process for any product you use is smart, especially if you have sensitive skin. When it comes to the topical application of vitamins, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is good science behind it but not all skin care products are equal and not all skin care products will suit you.