The ABCs of Vitamins in Skin Care


We already know ensuring that an array of vitamins are present in our diet is essential to our well-being. But did you know they should also be present in your skin care? As the largest organ, the skin needs vitamins just as much as all the others. “Vitamins for the skin are akin to the vitamins we take daily for our body—they both aid in maintaining proper health and function for both skin and body,” says Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD. Clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants Krupa Koestline explains that different vitamins stimulate different skin functions, from collagen synthesis to preventing hyperpigmentation. We tapped experts to explain the skin benefits of each vitamin and its derivatives.

Vitamin A: retinoic acid, retinol, tretinoin

Vitamin A derivatives like retinol are widely renowned as do-it-all ingredients, but what is vitamin A really? “It’s actually a group of fat-soluble, organic compounds. It includes retinol, retinaldehyde, retinoic acid, and various provitamin A carotenoids like beta-carotene,” explains Koestline. Different retinoids vary in function slightly with different mechanisms of action. While some are “better for addressing wrinkles and fine lines by stimulating collagen production directly (retinol), others [help with] acne by reducing sebum (tretinoin).”

“Most retinols in skin care are synthetic. It is one of the most highly studied skin-care ingredients available,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “Retinol encourages cells to turn over faster, helping to minimize fine lines, improve dark spots and the look of large pores and prevent acne.” The accelerated cell turnover and regulated cell proliferation results in the shedding of the outermost layer of skin cells, explains cosmetic chemist and the director of research and development for SOS Beauty Nick Dindio, which leads to more youthful-looking skin.

Vitamin B: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), B6, biotin (B7), folate (B9), and B12

There is a wide variety of vitamin Bs, some boasting more skin benefits than others. “B vitamins are a group of water-soluble vitamins. They’re either a cofactor for an essential metabolic process or a precursor required to make a cofactor,” explains Koestline. “They actually are chemically distinct compounds.” She says that vitamin B3, also known as niacin, is “fantastic topically.” Niacin offers anti-inflammatory benefits, reduces transepidermal water loss, stimulates ceramide synthesis and helps with hyperpigmentation and acneic skin. West Palm Beach, FL dermatologist Kenneth Beer, MD  notes that B3 vitamins can also help prevent early skin cancers.

You’re probably more familiar with the name niacinamide. This is a modified form of niacin that doesn’t cause the same significant flushing niacin can, explains Dr. Beer. “Niacinamide is a very versatile ingredient that helps skin cells reproduce and repair damage while boosting skin’s natural production of ceramides. Niacinamide helps minimize the look of large pores, addresses pigmentation and minimizes wrinkles,” says Dr. Schlessinger.

Vitamin B5, also known as pantothenic acid, pro-vitamin B5 and panthenol, is excellent for boosting hydration. “This vitamin acts as a humectant, which means it pulls moisture from the air to the skin’s surface, providing hydration,” says Dr. Schlessinger. Koestline says it’s also an occlusive, which locks in moisture. As if that wasn’t enough of a reason to use the vitamin, Koestline adds that it also has anti-inflammation and wound-healing properties.

Studies show vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, can effectively treat eczema symptoms due to its anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties, says Koestline. Dr. Schlessinger adds that it’s “thought to help support cell energy, which can improve the look of fatigued skin.”

Folate (vitamin B9) is essential to ingest, especially for pregnant women. Additionally, Dr. Schlessinger says folate, or folic acid, “may play a role in helping strengthen the skin against sun damage by helping reduce oxidative stress.” However, Koestline says more studies are needed to understand its topical benefits.

Biotin, also known as vitamin B7, is best known for supporting hair and nail strength. While vitamins B1 and B2 are essential to maintain healthy body functions, experts say there are not enough studies to confirm their role in skin care.

Vitamin C: L-ascorbic acid, ascorbic acid, ascorbyl glucoside, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate

Dr. Schlessinger says vitamin C is “one of the most popular vitamins in skin care, primarily for its efficacy and versatility.” There’s recently been a deluge of vitamin C launches. According to Dr. Beer, “vitamin C is one of the most studied, most utilized and most effective means of reversing the signs of aging.” In addition to anti-aging, vitamin C boasts antioxidant properties (protecting skin cells from oxidative damage), helps improve hyperpigmentation and stimulates collagen production. “In skin care, L-ascorbic acid is very difficult to stabilize as it’s very reactive; it can also be irritating,” says Koestline. “When formulating, I like using various vitamin C derivatives, including Ethyl-o-ascorbic acid, ascorbyl palmitate, and Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate in a synergistic antioxidant system.”

Vitamin D

While there are a handful of products with topical vitamin D, it’s more popular in supplement form. “Vitamin D provides anti-inflammatory benefits to the skin, which can help conditions like acne or eczema. It also helps protect the skin while assisting in proper cell turnover,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “When combined with a topical steroid, vitamin D can be helpful in treating psoriasis.”

Vitamin E: alpha-tocopherol, tocopherol acetate, tocopherol

“Vitamin E occurs naturally in the skin, but as with most skin functions, decreases with age,” says Dr. Schlessinger. Dr. Beer notes that it’s an important antioxidant that helps repair skin. “It not only protects the skin from free radical damage, but it also protects other antioxidants from being oxidized,” says Koestline.  “It also creates a natural, moisturizing barrier for the skin. Studies show that it’s beneficial for multiple skin conditions, including eczema, psoriasis, melasma, wound healing, and even acne.”

Tocopherol is the antioxidant in its active form, explains Dindio. Tocopheryl acetate is not in its active form, “so it isn’t exhausted on protecting the oils in the formula. Once applied, your body’s enzymes will convert it back to tocopherol so it can do its job in the skin.”