If you have read up on your vitamin E, you may recognize the word “tocopheryl” in this ingredient. Wouldn't that be something good for you?
Take anything and mix it with something else, and you can come up with something potentially harmful. That can be the case with tocopheryl acetate. The tocopheryl part is vitamin E, but the acetate comes about when the vitamin E is mixed with acetic acid.
The resulting ingredient can actually irritate your skin more than help.
What is Tocopheryl Acetate?
This ingredient is basically a form of vitamin E created in the laboratory. Manufacturers take natural vitamin E and add acetic acid to it.
Acetic acid is the main component of vinegar. The word “acid” means just what you'd think—it's corrosive, and attacks the skin. A simple carboxylic acid, it's used in the production of chemicals for photographic film, wood glue, and synthetic fibers and fabrics. Why would manufacturers mix perfectly good vitamin E with this irritating ingredient.
Two words: cheaper, and longer lasting. Adding the acid to vitamin E makes it last longer on the shelves. That makes it easier for manufacturers to process, ship, store, and sell their products.
What are the Concerns?
The concerns with this ingredient are first, that it can be potentially irritating to skin, causing redness, rashes, and potential allergic reactions. According to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) of the ingredient, tocopheryl acetate helped protect against oxidative damage, but produced skin sensitizing or skin irritating effects in one animal study.
The science behind it
A 1991 study detailed four cases of contact dermatitis caused by cosmetic creams that contained tocopheryl acetate.
The CIR, though it concluded that tocopheryl was safe for cosmetics, also noted that studies with the ingredient demonstrated some “enhancement of photocarcinogenesis,” which means it may actually encourage the carcinogenic effects of UV rays.
High doses of this ingredient have also been found in animal studies to cause tumor formation. Though that's not likely to be a concern if you're using only a little of the ingredient, as in most personal care products, the concern is the potential buildup over time. We simply don't have the necessary safety studies on this ingredient when used for several times a day over many years.
the contamination issue
Another issue comes from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which notes concerns regarding contamination with hydroquinone, a whitening compound. During the manufacturing process, tocopheryl acetate may be contaminated with hydroquinone, which can also cause dermatitis, increase sensitivity to UV rays, and may have potentially carcinogenic properties.
Why Take the Risk?
Of all the potentially harmful ingredients, this is probably one of the milder ones. It is vitamin E, which can have some benefits. The thing is, why not just stick with natural vitamin E? Why take the risks with tocopheryl acetate when you don't have to?
Cosmetic Ingredient Review, “Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Tocopherol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Tocopheryl Linoleate, Tocopheryl Linoleate/Oleate, Tocopheryl Nicotinate, Tocopheryl Succinate, Dioleyl Tocopheryl Methylsilanol, Potassium Ascorbyl Tocopheryl Phosphate, and Tocophersolan,” International Journal of Toxicology, November 2002, Vol. 21, No. 3, suppl 51-116, http://ijt.sagepub.com/content/21/3_suppl/51.abstract.