Vitamin E is the common name for several similar types of oils called tocopherols. They’re commonly found in corn and other vegetable oil or made synthetically from petroleum. We often eat it as a dietary supplement, and manufacturers put it in food and cosmetics.
From plant sources of tocopherols, chemists extract vegetable oil, then separate the tocopherols from the rest of the vegetable oil using fractionation. It’s like distilling.
It’s also possible for chemists to create tocopherols without using plant matter. It’s commonly synthesized in three steps, using toxic petroleum-derived precursor chemicals—most significantly trimethylhydroquinone.
Hydroquinone is a controversial compound sold in the United States as a topical skin lightening agent. It’s used to get rid of dark spots or discolorations. The European Union has banned hydroquinone because of its potential carcinogenic effects. The FDA has expressed concern over the use of the compound but so far has not limited its sale in the United States. Inhaling residual hydroquinone aerosol from a cheap vitamin E oil would be problematic.
FORMS OF VITAMIN E OIL
Eight main types of tocopherol exist, from alpha-tocopherol all the way through gamma-tocopherol.
“The most relevant vitamin E compound is alpha-tocopherol since it is the most abundant and potent of the group,” said Vu Lam, an official with Anresco Laboratories in San Francisco.
“The main difference between naturally occurring vitamin E and synthetic vitamin E is the presence of stereoisomers,” Lam explained. “Naturally occurring vitamin E will only contain the D-isomer (i.e. D-alpha-tocopherol). Synthetic vitamin E will typically be a mix of the D- and L–isomers (DL-alpha-tocopherol).”
Alpha-Tocopherol Is Different Than Tocopheryl-Acetate
“Tocopheryl-acetate is the ester form of tocopherol. Tocopheryl-acetate is more stable towards oxidation and will typically have longer shelf life than tocopherol,” Lam said.
Neither Is OK to Inhale, Experts Say
All these forms of vitamin E oil go into foot creams, face creams, and other cosmetics as topicals. In some people it can cause rashes.
The cosmetics industry never considered its use for inhalation, at least beyond accidentally getting some lotion in your nose. Its acute inhalation toxicity is not known, and inhaling oil is generally a bad idea.
“Just the lack of toxicity data for inhaled Vitamin E acetate should raise red flags,” said Duke University School of Medicine Dr. Sven-Eric Jordt—expert on dangerous chemicals in vaping aerosol.
“Lipids [i.e. oils] in the lung are highly toxic and have been associated with lung injury for years,” retired California pulmonologist Dr. Howard Mintz told Leafly. “They are most commonly seen in persons using ointments in their noses,” which can lead to a condition known as lipoid pneumonia.
All tocopherols may uniquely disrupt the function of the fluid lining the surface of the lungs.
“No vitamin E should be vaped regardless of its chemical structure,” said Eliana Golberstein Rubashkyn, a New Zealand–based pharmaceutical chemist and the chief scientist of Myriad Pharmaceuticals.
Drug-involved vitamin E oil inhalation injuries have been documented dating back at least to the year 2000.
Tocopheryl-Acetate May Compound Problems
The acetate form of vitamin E oil, tocopheryl-acetate, may worsen lung reactions.
Tocopherols adhere to your lung’s liner fluid, called lung surfactant. Lung surfactant enables oxygen to transfer from air into your body. Tocopherols serve to block the necessary gas transfer from occurring.
“Vitamin E has the ability to integrate on membranes by creating a coating over the pulmonary surfactant layer,” said Rubashkyn.
It’s part of a class of “long-chain” oils that can adhere to and clump up your lung fluid, she said.
“Tocopheryl-acetate destabilizes the fragile, lipo-hydrophilic balance of this lung surfactant, causing occlusion, affecting the permeation of gases and substances in the bronchial structures and alveoli,” said Rubashkyn.
The result: Lung cells die. That damage can initiate a runaway immune system reaction resembling lipoid pneumonia, she said. This may especially occur with high doses of tocopheryl-acetate, such as in formulations found in a vape cart cut heavily with the oil. And it may occur even at relatively low vaping temperatures.
“Vitamin E acetate, when inhaled, is likely to accumulate at higher levels in the [lung immune cells],” said Dr. Jordt. “Vitamin E acetate may also oxidize or burn when heated too high in a vaping device, producing toxic chemicals in the vapor. Again, this is hypothetical but these are feasible mechanisms.”
Tocopheryl-acetate’s chemical acetate ring enables it to cling even more strongly to lung surfactant than the non-acetate form. It’s like Saran-wrapping the inside of your lungs.