Vitamins and their many forms

"What exactly are vitamins? What are their “derivatives”? And why are they in skincare products? How can you tell if vitamins are doing anything worthwhile in products? Oh boy, lots of questions. But glad you asked.

Here’s a quick-n-dirty guide on how to skim an ingredient list for vitamins, and how to determine what, if any, role vitamins play in your skincare products. Are they superficial, or super-facial? (Ok, we promise the chemistry of vitamins is easier to stomach than these puns).

Spot the Vitamins
It’s easiest to start skimming for vitamins near the end of an ingredient list. Depending on their intended function, vitamins may be present at concentrations as high as 10%. Usually, however, they’re needed only at low levels, between 0.2-1.0%. Start reading near the 1% line, after which ingredients are listed in any order (as opposed to listed in descending order of percent contained, as is required for all ingredients present above 1%). This line usually separates the top two-thirds from the bottom third. For skincare products, except to see Tocopherol very low in the ingredient list, even last. That’s okay! Depending on the system, as little as 0.20% needed to be effective as a lipid-soluble antioxidant.

Ingredient lists sometimes come with helpful hints, with “vitamin” listed in parentheses after the chemical name. Otherwise, look for the most common topical vitamins: Retinol (Vitamin A), Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), and Tocopherol (Vitamin E).

You found one! Now what?
It’s more important to determine the exact form of the vitamin present, rather than attempt to approximate the level at which it’s present. Form and function, after all, go hand-in-hand. Once you know what vitamin you’re dealing with, look for any of its buddies.

1. What’s the exact vitamin name?
Vitamins come in many forms, or “derivatives.” A vitamin may differ from its parent molecule in either geometry, attachments (additional or alternate chemical groups), or both. The vitamins most commonly used in skincare are derivatives of Vitamins A, B3, C, and E.

Vitamin A: Meet the Retinoid family! Members include Retinyl Palmitate, Retinyl Acetate, and Retinol. Tretinoin, the in-vogue up-and-comer of anti-acne face washes and creams is also a Vitamin A derivative.

Vitamin B3: Commonly used in skincare as Niacinamide, alternatively known as Nicotinamide.

Vitamin C: There are several Vitamin C complexes used in personal care products. Most are named either Ascorbic or Ascorbate. 

Vitamin E: Tocopherol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Tocopherol Linoleate/Olivate, Tocopherol Succinate, Tocopherol Nicotinate are all common. In each of these complexes, Tocopherol may take one of four forms: alpha-, beta-, gamma-, or delta-. This is where it becomes a bit of a guessing game. It’s unclear from the general name “Tocopherol” what exact form Vitamin E takes in skincare products.

All told, the exact form doesn’t matter much: all Vitamin E derivatives will work as antioxidants. The form does matter, however, to how well the vitamin works as an antioxidant, as some forms are more bioavailable than others. For cost effectiveness, most products include a mix of vitamin forms, and list them all together as “Tocopherol.” The exact breakdown of what percent of the Tocopherol is what form is generally kept secret by ingredient suppliers, as a “trade secret.” Rest assured, all forms are safe for use.

(Stick with us as we go deeper into what each vitamin is doing in your regimen!)

2. Are there additional vitamins or topical actives listed?
If a product contains one vitamin, it’s not uncommon that it will also contain a second. It’s not that the formulators are trigger happy with the supplement cabinet; it’s because certain combinations of vitamins and similar topical actives have been shown to enhance the effectiveness of both. The use of salicylic acid, for example, boosts the desquamation activity of vitamin A retinoids; and using Tocopherol and Tocopheryl Acetate together can enhance the product’s overall antioxidant activity.

Note: this is opposite to the advice of most skincare companies and critics, who urge the separation of salicylic acid and retinol—usually to get you to buy more products. Truth is, the notion that these two skincare agents can inhibit each other is unfounded; the fact that they can only help each other is well-researched.

The Takeaway: Take your Vitamins, but with a grain of salt
Look for vitamins near the bottom of an ingredient list. Even at low levels, they’re still effective as antioxidants. Of course the exact effectiveness of each vitamin depends on its form and surrounding ingredients. For the most part, however, they’re valuable additions to cleansing and anti-aging products. Be wary of any brands that speak of vitamins for their use as natural preservatives: most antioxidant vitamins work to protect skin cells from oxidative stress, but do not work alone as antimicrobial or antifungal agents, even when listed along with preservatives."

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