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Does contaminated Vitamin E cause cancer?

Posted Mar 28 2013 2:01am

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Elana44 asks…There is a lot of buzz going on around tocopheryl acetate and it being cancerogenic because it can be contaminated with hydroquinone. My question is, is there any recent study showing it? Is there any way to check if tocopheryl acetate in my cream is contaminated.

The Beauty Brains respond:

Before we answer this question let’s do a quick mini-lesson on tocopheryl acetate chemistry.

Tocopheryl acetate (an ester version of Vitamin E, let’s call it TA for short) is available in two forms. One is called the “d” form and the other the “l” form. When TA is isolated from naturally occurring sources like vegetable oils you get the pure “d” form; when it is created synthetically (using isophytol and methylquinone) you get a mixture of the “d” and “l” forms. So, natural TA is designated d-alpha-tocopheryl acetate and synthetic TA is dl-alpha tocopheryl acetate. Because the dl version is made using methylquinone , it can contain trace amounts of hydroquinone.

As we’ve said many times in the past, natural ingredients are not always better than synthetic.  But in the case of TA, natural is better! That’s because our bodies use the natural form more efficiently (the natural form is about twice as biologically active, which makes sense since the synthetic version is a 50/50 blend of the d and dl types.) The Wikipedia entry gives several good references if you want to track this down further.

Also, the natural version is free of hydroquinone which should alleviate your cancer concerns.  This doesn’t mean there’s evidence that the synthetic form is BAD. According to a study published in 2002 in the International Journal of Toxicology , “Because methylhydroquinone is used in the chemical synthesis of Tocopherol, there was concern that hydroquinone may be present as an impurity. In such cases, residual levels of hydroquinone would be expected to be limited to those achieved by good manufacturing practices.”  As we know, the dose makes the poison. If hydroquinone is present as a trace contaminant it’s probably at the part per million level. By comparison, skin lightening creams use 5% or more of hydroquinone. AND you only have a small amount of tocopheryl acetate in most finished products. That means the actual amount of hydroquinone you’re exposed to is extremely low. We’re not  toxicologists, but we find it hard to believe that such low levels would present an elevated risk. (Certainly exposure to such small amounts of this ingredient presents a much lower cancer risk than smoking or drinking!)

That doesn’t mean TA is without issues. Truth in Aging provides a nice review citing studies that show TA can be a skin sensitizer and that it can cause some other problems when ingested at high doses. Still, it seems the antioxidant and skin conditioning benefits outweigh these potential issues.

According to the toxicologist experts, this vitamin E derivative is safe for use in skin care. If you’re really worried about cancer risk from contaminated TA, you could check to ensure the manufacturer is using d-alpha tocopheryl acetate.

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