Which Topical Vitamins Work?
The thirteen vitamins required by humans are – vitamin A (retinols and carotenoids), vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B7 (biotin), vitamin B9 (folic acid or folate), vitamin B12 (cobalamins), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin D (calciferols), vitamin E (tocopherols and tocotrienols), and vitamin K (quinones). Eleven essential vitamins have been indicated as necessary for a healthy skin. I am adding a 12th vitamin – vitamin F, to this list.
Vitamins are essential nutrients ie they cannot be synthesized in the body, either at all, or not in sufficient quantities, and must therefore be obtained through diet. They have many functions. Some forms of vitamin A function as regulators of cell and tissue growth and differentiation. The B complex vitamins function as enzyme cofactors (coenzymes) or the precursors for them. Vitamin D has a hormone-like function as a regulator of mineral metabolism for bones and other organs. Vitamins C and E function mostly as antioxidants. Too much or too little can cause problems, although excess of water-soluble vitamins is less likely to be.
Vitamins are classified as either water-soluble (hydrophilic) or fat-soluble (lipophilic). In humans, there are 4 fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and 9 water-soluble vitamins (8 B vitamins and vitamin C). Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body and are readily excreted in your urine. Fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed through the intestinal tract with the help of lipids (fats). Vitamins A and D can accumulate in the body and this can be dangerous in some cases.
Raw vs Cooked?
The best way to get your vitamins is via diet, in their natural form. For most healthy people this is sufficient. But most vitamins are not stable in air, or light, or when heated, so the way foods are stored and cooked affects their vitamin content drastically. Water soluble vitamins in vegetables are lost in the water that is discarded after boiling. On the other hand, cooking can make certain vitamins more bio-available. Average vitamin losses from cooking, range from about 10 to 25%. Research suggests that microwaved food actually contains more vitamins – a consequence of reduced cooking time.
microwaved foods may contain MORE vitamins than conventionally cooked foods
Beta-carotene absorption can be as low as 1-2% from raw vegetables such as carrots. Folate in raw broccoli is only slightly more bioavailable than folate in cooked broccoli. Mild heating, such as steaming, appears to improve the extractability of beta-carotene from vegetables, and also its bioavailability. However, additional heating can transform the naturally occurring trans double bonds into cis configurations, which reduces the biological value of beta-carotenes. For example, canning of sweet potatoes and carrots results in the conversion of 75% of all trans B-carotene to 13- or 9-cis isomers. (Canning involves long periods at high heat, much more than ordinary steaming.) This means that 75% of the naturally occurring molecules of beta-carotene are transformed into molecules having the same chemical formula, but a different shape, and which are not usable by the body.
steamed vegetables are more beneficial than raw vegetables
And then, once digested, vitamins are deployed around the body. How much gets to the skin layers that need them the most? And which ones are best applied topically? This is controversial. The ideal route to skin care and maintenance, works optimally when skin is cared for inside out. However, scientific evidence suggests that several vitamins are effective when applied topically but the delivery system is key.
A big issue in efficacy is the active ingredient and whether it is present in the formula or can it be activated once it is absorbed into the skin. If the active ingredient is in the formula, then the formula must be stable, otherwise the ingredient may not make it out its container alive. Problems that could compromise stability include the active ingredient’s interactions with other ingredients in the formulation, or physical factors, such as exposure to light, heat or oxygen. Potentially, these factors can cause the active ingredient to disassociate itself from the formulation or become inactive and disabled.
So, with all of the potential hurdles in topical applications, wouldn’t it just be better to take your skin vitamins orally? Not necessarily. Often, the doses that would be needed to achieve therapeutic levels in the skin would be toxic. With vitamin A, for instance, oral doses that would be high enough for skin benefits could cause hepatoxicity. Only about 1% of oral vitamin intake is actually deposited in the skin, and factors such as the vitamin’s water solubility can create problems. With vitamin C, for instance, by the time enough is taken to reach therapeutic levels, the body has excreted much of it into your urine. The transport mechanism can also be troublesome, with factors in the blood and gastrointestinal system limiting transport of the vitamin in some cases. Vitamin E, however, does well in this regard, which makes oral vitamin E a good option for increasing skin levels.
For the rest, there is merit in applying some vitamins topically. But which ones?
Let’s cut through the marketing hype and try to make sense of these.
Retinol (vitamin A) vitamin helps with many skin issues and is probably the single most successful topical vitamin. A previous blog covered retinoids in some detail.
Retinoids help to get rid of the dehydration of the upper layers of the epidermis, by assisting in the differentiation of keratinocytes, production of enzymes and filaggrin – the key to good skin hydration. An increase in cellular turnover helps exfoliate the skin and eliminate pigmentation. Retinoids have great antiseptic properties and regulate the sebaceous glands. By binding to the retinoic receptor on fibroblasts, it stimulates the production of collagen, elastin, fibronectin and hyaluronic acid, thereby eliminating wrinkles.
A gold standard in skincare and one of my top 4 topical vitamins, alongside vitamins B3, C and F.
Vitamin B complex
The vitamin B-complex refers to all of the known essential water-soluble vitamins except for vitamin C. ‘Vitamin B’ was once thought to be a single nutrient but researchers later discovered these extracts contained several vitamins, which were given distinguishing numbers, leading many people to the erroneous conclusion that these vitamins have a special relationship to each other. Further adding to confusion has been the unofficial designation of other, non-essential vitamins, as members of the B-complex, such as choline, inositol, and para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA).
The B-vitamins are generally stable and cross the stratum corneum quite easily. But do you need all of them? Probably not.
Vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine), plays a big part in energy production, which occurs after you have consumed carbohydrates and fats in a meal.
Vitamin B1 is important for the correct functioning of many different body functions such as the digestive tract and nervous system. In fact, without vitamin B1 in your diet you could become constipated or anxious. According to researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Centre, the B-group vitamins, including vitamin B1, work together to support healthy skin, hair, liver and eye function.
Along with vitamin C and other B vitamins, thiamine (vitamin B1) plays an important part in your liver’s ability to detoxify chemicals. Without vitamin B1, and other supporting nutrients, chemicals can build up in your bloodstream and cause sensitivity reactions. Poor detoxification of chemical will also worsen conditions such as eczema and topical steroid withdrawal as your skin and digestive tract will have an increased chemical load to deal with when your liver is under functioning. So, while vitamin B1 does not directly prevent eczema, supplementing with a combination of vitamin B1 and other liver detoxification nutrients, gradually reduces and prevents food chemical intolerances – and this helps to prevent eczema and other skin rashes.
There is no significant research on the topical use of vitamin B1.
A lack of Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) can lead to a deficiency known as Ariboflavinosis. This normally occurs if your Vitamin B2 intake becomes lesser than 0.5mg per day. The main symptoms of Vitamin B2 deficiency are soreness in your throat, weakness, cracking of the skin, anemia and dermatitis. Lesser known symptoms include fatigue, bloodshot eyes, itching, blurred vision and watering of the eyes. It is also said that alcoholics, elderly and the chronically ill are more susceptible to Vitamin B2 deficiency than others.
Healthy Hair – Deficiency of Vitamin B2 along with deficiencies in Vitamin B1, B3 and B5 can lead to improperly nourished hair follicles that can ultimately cause stunted hair growth or brittle hair.
Healthy Nails – The nails require an extremely balanced diet in order to remain healthy. Vitamin B2 helps the human body to absorb mineral iron, a compound that is necessary for strong and healthy nails. Without access to this iron, the nails can become thin, brittle and white. Improper nail growth is also known to be a common side effect of Vitamin B2 deficiency.
Riboflavin is thought to speed the healing of wounds and burns, and is used to treat rosacea-related skin blemishes. It may help in the clearing of skin pustules associated with rosacea.
Because riboflavin is destroyed by exposure to light, foods and products with riboflavin should not be exposed to light. There is not much research to support its use as a topical acrive.
Vitamin B3 (aka vitamin PP)
Vitamin B3 is also known as niacin, and it can be found in many foods, both animal, and plant. This vitamin is essential for healthy skin, but also for your brain, nervous system, and blood cells. A derivative of this vitamin, called niacinamide, is now found in many beauty products, and this is because research shows that this vitamin can significantly reduce the appearance of aged skin, it helps address skin pigmentation, alleviates acne, mattifies the skin, reduces inflammation, naturally exfoliates and much more. In OptoDerm we use niacinamide at the 5% level in many of our products – Balance, Revive, Rejuvenate, Neck Creams, as well as Micellar Sensitive. It confers MANY clinically proven skin benefits, especially when used with N-acetyl-glucosamine.
5% niacinamide helps with many skin issues
In products, care must be taken to formulate as close to pH6 as possible, otherwise niacinamide converts to niacin and this causes skin flushing.
Niacinamide is one of my top 4 vitamins for topical skincare products. The others are vitamin A, C & F.
Pantothenic acid (aka panthenol) helps to get rid of wrinkles and is a great moisturiser. The anti-inflammatory function of vitamin B5 helps in maintaining skin health. Skincare formulations containing this vitamin provide good skin hydration (although in clinical research 2% niacinamide was found to be as good as Vaseline for skin moisturisation) . Studies on this vitamin show that it prevents skin water loss and improves skin barrier functioning. You can also get plenty of this vitamin from whole grains, avocado, and chicken.
Pyridoxine is antiseptic that helps to treat many skin issues. It stimulates skin circulation and helps in providing nourishment to the skin. Although it is linked to helping to fight acne, it appears that it is most effective against PMS-induced acne. The tell-tale signs? Though the chin and jawline are extremely common places for hormonal acne, it might arise up along the side of your face or down your neck as well, or instead.
a deficiency of vitamin B6 is implicated in PMS-acne
The surge in estrogen and decline in progesterone during the luteal phase of the cycle leads to an oilier skin due to increased DHT (a super-charged testosterone) production, and a disrupted insulin and glucose metabolism, also resulting in oily skin. According to a 1999 review on nine different studies, vitamin B6 megadoses of up to 100mg are extremely potent at treating premenstrual syndrome. Symptoms alleviated included premenstrual depression, with no evidence of side effects whatsoever. The average dose was 50mg but up to 100mg of B6 performed substantially better than a placebo.
The cycle goes like this – estrogen gets too high, progesterone is pushed to insufficient levels. Progesterone regulates the androgen DHT, meaning that your DHT and sebum production gets completely out of control. High doses of vitamin B6 increase progesterone during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, preventing this cycle. The surge in estrogen is also retarded. Many women are aware of vitamin B6’s potential for PMS generally, but few have made the final connection between B6 and acne yet. If you’re stuck in the constant cycle of having healthy skin for two weeks and then dreading an inevitable surge in pimples each month, fixing your vitamin B6 levels might be the solution. And, not just for females. A research study showed that 50-250mg of vitamin B6 (a megadose) reduced skin sebum production significantly and reduced acne by 75% in teenagers. Why is this not out there?
As an aside, green tea catechins and caffeine are also able to modulate DHT. We add caffeine to our Balance cream and Micellar Cleanser Sensitive, for this reason.
Vitamin B7 (aka Vitamin H)
Like all B vitamins, it is a water soluble, meaning the body does not store it. However, bacteria in the intestine can make biotin. It is also available in small amounts in a number of foods. Biotin is also important for normal embryonic growth, making it a critical nutrient during pregnancy.
It’s rare to be deficient in biotin. Symptoms include hair loss, dry scaly skin, cracking in the corners of the mouth (called cheilitis), swollen and painful tongue that is magenta in color (glossitis), dry eyes, loss of appetite, fatigue, insomnia, and depression.
There are not many good quality studies evaluating biotin. Many of its proposed uses are based on weak evidence or case reports.
Folic acid helps fight acne. A deficiency of this vitamin leaves the skin dry and cracked – it is therefore essential for maintaining skin hydration. You may be familiar with the importance of taking enough folic acid during pregnancy for baby’s development. This is because folic acid is vital for the creation of new cells. But folic acid also plays an important role in skin health and appearance. A study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that topical application of a mixture containing folic acid and an amino acid, called creatine, improved the firmness of skin, by boosting collagen synthesis.
Also known as cobalamin, is a molecule that contains cobalt and can only be synthesised by micro-organisms living in the intestinal tract of animals or on the surface of soiled food. Hence, it can only be assimilated with animal food where it occurs in concentrated form in liver and kidneys; an exception though is the algae spirulina maxima. Deficiencies can occur in vegetarians or vegans however also pathological conditions of the intestinal micro flora inhibit the resorption of the vitamin. The vitamin as such is inactive and can only be activated by its conversion into coenzyme B12. Coenzyme B12
catalyzes specific rearrangement reactions in the body. Its use in skin care products is controversial.
Choline is a B-vitamin found in foods like eggs, peanuts, and milk but the body can make this vitamin on its own. It is most important for the synthesis of neurotransmitters and normal brain functioning in general. But a study published in the FASEB Journal also found that this vitamin plays a crucial role in skin cell membranes. Although your body will make most of the choline it needs, getting a boost of this vitamin from food sources can only be good.
In OptoDerm we use phosphatidylcholine as a part of our penetration enhancing technology. It has a choline head and an essential fatty acid tail. This allows it to bind to and incorporate itself into the skins natural barrier. We call this a ‘skin identical’ ingredient.
You get plenty of vitamin C when you eat citrus fruit, broccoli, strawberries, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, and other greens. The reason why vitamin C is important for your skin is that it helps create collagen. It does this by converting the amino acid proline, into hydroxyproline, the structural backbone of collagen. Vitamin C is also a well-known antioxidant, protecting the skin from free radical damage and it can reverse the signs of photoaging, like hyperpigmentation. It does this by binding to the copper atom on the pigmentation inducing enzyme, tyrosinase, thereby blocking its action. Vitamin C is the primary replenisher of vitamin E and works synergistically with vitamin E in the protection against oxidative damage.
vitamin C should not be mixed with certain actives eg niacinamide, minerals and copper peptides
Vitamin C serums tend to be low pH (<3.5) and cannot be mixed with certain actives, like niacinamide and copper peptide, or layered with higher pH products. Pure vitamin C (as L-ascorbic acid) is unstable and oxidises quickly. At OptoDerm we favour using a stable and more pH neutral form of vitamin C, called sodium ascorbyl phosphate.
One of my top 4 vitamins for topical skincare, along with vitamins A, B3 and F.
There are two principle types of vitamin D – vitamins D2 and D3, and other active analogs. Ergocalciferol (D2) is derived from sources such as fortified milk, herring, mackerel, tuna, salmon, sardines, eggs, fortified cereals and baked goods. Vitamin D3, otherwise known as cholecalciferol, is a pro-hormone and essential nutrient produced in the skin with exposure to UV rays, animal products and fortified foods. Vitamin D3 can be produced photochemically by the action of sunlight or ultraviolet light from the precursor sterol 7-dehydrocholesterol, which is present in the epidermis of the skin. It can also be consumed in the form of fish oil, or eaten in foods such as eggs or fish. A deficiency of vitamin D occurs due to inadequate exposure to the sun, or due to its low content in your diet. Vegans who wear high SPF sun screens are especially at risk.
the use of vitamin D2 and D3 in skin care products is banned in certain places
The European Cosmetics Directive explicitly bans the use of vitamin D2 and D3 (cholecalciferol) for use in skin care products. However, a whole series of interesting effects in the skin are described in the context of vitamin D:
Calcitriol prolongs the self-protection of the skin during the exposure to UVB radiation. It stimulates the heat shock proteins
Several studies even describe a re- pigmentation in vitiligo cases after the application of calcitriol or vitamin D analogous products
Calcitriol influences the differentiation and the growth process of keratinocytes. This function plays an important role in the psoriasis treatment
Calcitriol participates in the proper maintenance of the calcium gradients in the skin
Calcitriol stimulates the formation of anti-microbially effective peptides such as defensins and cathelicidins. The effect of these peptides is particularly interesting in the context of inflammatory processes in neurodermatitis cases.
Vitamin E is the most abundant fat-soluble (lipophilic) antioxidant found in human skin. In humans, levels of vitamin E in the epidermis are higher than the dermis. Naturally occurring vitamin E is not a single compound – is a it is a group of molecules with related structures, some of which may have unique properties in skin. Vitamin E is also found as vitamin E conjugates that increase stability but require cellular metabolism for activation. It is normally provided to the skin through the sebum but topical application can also supply the skin with vitamin E and may provide specific vitamin E forms that are not available from your diet. As an antioxidant, vitamin E primarily reacts with damaging reactive oxygen species. In addition, vitamin E can also absorb the energy from ultraviolet (UV) light and it therefore plays an important role in photoprotection ie preventing UV-induced free radical damage to skin. Vitamin E may also have related anti-inflammatory roles in the skin.
Tocopherols are the most abundant form of vitamin E in the body, consisting of four different forms (α-, β-, γ-, and δ-tocopherol). Although the predominant form of vitamin E in skin of unsupplemented individuals is α-tocopherol, skin may also contain measurable amounts of γ-tocopherol and other diet-derived tocopherols and tocotrienols.
Because vitamin E can absorb UV light to produce free radicals, there is the possibility that heavy sunlight exposure after topical application can cause skin reactions. However, concentrations of vitamin E between 0.1%-1.0% are generally considered safe and effective to increase vitamin E levels in the skin, but higher levels of α-tocopherol have been used with no apparent side effects.
Vitamin F – The forgotten vitamin
It actually does not fit the standard definition of a traditional vitamin. In fact, it is better classified as a fat – one that is absolutely essential to our biological process, but which our bodies cannot make. Perhaps better known as linoleic acid, an omega-6 essential fatty acid (EFA), it plays a crucial role – in tandem with omega-3 EFAs – in brain function, normal growth, skin and hair regeneration, bone health, and metabolic function. In the world of aesthetics, vitamin F is typically found in skin-nourishing formulations as linoleic acid. There are two types of essential fatty acids – alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 EFA, and linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 EFA. These are considered essential, because they cannot be synthesised by the human body. All essential fatty acids are straight-chain hydrocarbons, and linoleic comprises 18 carbons and two double bonds. It is a polyunsaturated fatty acid used in biosynthesis, and it forms the lipid component of the cell membranes in the body.
This powerhouse ingredient comes with a laundry list of benefits. A multitude of skin conditions have been linked to a deficiency in linoleic acid. Almost all acneic skins are deficient in linoleic acid and topical treatment works well in tandem with food and supplemental sources.
Technically known as phytonadione, vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin.
Topically applied, the vitamin stabilizes the superficial capillary system and firms the skin. That is why vitamin K can also be used to treat rosacea and couperosis. Despite the 2009 ban of vitamin K, the epoxide of the vitamin, a pre-stage, is still licensed, although its sensitisation potential is incomparably higher due to its reaction with protein components on the skin surface. The vitamin K content in vegetable sources such as wheat germ, Brussels sprouts, spinach and tomatoes is too insignificant to use it for skin care purposes.
Inside Out Approach
My top vitamins for topical application are: vitamins A, B3 (as niacinamide), C, F and E, in that order. The others are all essential for healthy skin, hair and nails but best obtained via your diet, or supplementation. Deficiencies in some could help solve specific issues and indications. But also watch how and when you take these.
the top vitamins for topical application are – vitamins A, B3 (as niacinamide), C, F and E, in that order
A rule of thumb is to always take vitamins with meals. Fat-soluble vitamins are best taken with fatty foods. In the case of vitamin D, taking it with a meal increases absorption by 32% to 57%, compared to taking it with just water. Unless you eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, your fat-soluble vitamins might best be taken with your lunch or dinner. You might also take it together with (say) three 500mg Omega-3/6 Fish Oil gels, so that you get the added benefit of linoleic acid (vitamin F) too.
And, be wary of conflicts with medication. Vitamin K helps the body form blood clots. Most common blood-thinning medications act to block Vitamin K, inhibiting the formation of blood clots. While very low levels of vitamin K in the body can result in poor clot formation and increased bleeding, very high doses of ingested or administered vitamin K may act to counteract large doses of anticoagulants, placing you at risk for clot formation. Similarly, high levels of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) may interfere with anticoagulant inhibition of the clotting pathway and lead to increased risk for clot formation.
Many types of medications used in the treatment of high blood pressure, interact with high levels of supplemented vitamins. Antihypertensive medications which help lower blood pressure by dilating blood vessels may be affected by increased levels of Vitamin B3 (niacin). In high doses (larger than 75 mg), niacin may dilate blood vessels and heighten the medication effects, resulting in dangerously low blood pressure. Digitalis-based drugs may be affected by Vitamin D, via alteration in blood calcium level and may induce irregular heart beats known as arrhythmias.
So, consult your physician before embarking on any serious vitamin supplementation.