What the Heck is Tocopherol?

There’s a new (well, maybe not new, more like — newly *noticed*) preservative in town. It likes to masquerade as a healthy vitamin added to products to benefit the user. Is that the full story? 

I’m talking about tocopherol. Also known as synthetic vitamin E. Found in soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, lotions, lipstick, blush, eye shadows, eyeliners, foundations, and pretty much any other personal care and makeup item out there. 

Vitamins sound good. And when it’s labeled as “Vitamin E”, it doesn’t seem like there would be an issue. Here’s the thing — there is a bit of confusion about this ingredient because while it can be called one thing, it can actually be one of several different things. Is it tocopherol? Is it mixed tocopherols? Is it tocopheryl acetate? These are actually three different things, and it’s enough to make your head spin.

Here’s a quick overview, without getting too chemistry-laden with you. Both tocopherol and tocopheryl acetate are forms of vitamin E. Tocopherol can occur naturally, and tocopheryl acetate is synthetic. Both of these can be used as preservatives in products. Because there are multiple forms of tocopherol, the term “mixed tocopherols” is sometimes used on labels. Tocopheryl acetate is more stable than tocopherol, chemically-speaking, so it’s often preferred by manufacturers as a preservative since it gives products a longer shelf life.

Complicating matters is that tocopherol can be made synthetically as well, and there’s no way to tell on a label that just lists “tocopherol” whether it’s the natural version or the synthetic version. Adding to the list of issues here is that both tocopherol and tocopheryl acetate carry a contamination concern for hydroquinone. 

In addition, the oils that are used often to produce vitamin E are corn, soy, and canola. Unless these are listed as organic, most likely they are from genetically-modified crops. You can now find some products listing their vitamin E/tocopherol ingredient as “non-GMO” in order to show consumers this right on the label.

Lastly, some folks have experienced skin irritation in response to tocopherol AND tocopheryl acetate.

So here’s the thing — even with all of this information, it bears mentioning that some forms of vitamin E are safe. There are even studies showing that vitamin E can be beneficial in some situations. The big takeaway here is that it’s not easy to tell which form you are getting just by looking at the label. If you’re able to find an alternative without the ingredient altogether, that would be the easiest option. Otherwise, contact the manufacturer of the product that you are considering and ask them specifically what the ingredient is. 

Want to learn more about what ingredients to avoid? My course “What’s In Your Products” is now available online as a self-paced course. Click here for more information.

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