The widely used botanical ingredient is so much more than just a sunburn soother.
Aloe is one of the most prolific ingredients and recognizable botanical names in all of skin care. Widely available — you can find it potted in its succulent form mere feet away from its bottled extracts at virtually any CVS — aloe vera (the most commonly used species of the aloe genus when it comes to beauty and personal-care products) has been used on the skin for centuries, New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick says, though “there is limited scientific evidence and research on the role of aloe vera in skin care.” That said, it is widely believed by experts and average shoppers alike to have undeniable dermatological benefits.
“Aloe is well known for its ability to help provide anti-inflammatory and soothing benefits to the skin, hence why it’s so commonly used to help treat sunburn,” cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat Ron Robinson tells Allure. “It can also hydrate and provide antioxidant benefits. Because of this, it is being used more and more in skincare and hair care.”
Whether you’ve found yourself a little overexposed to the sun or you’re simply in search of something calming for your sensitive skin, there’s always a good reason to keep aloe vera around — and we asked skin experts to explain exactly why.
What exactly is aloe vera?
Aloe vera is a species of the aloe plant that grows around the world — perhaps even in a pot a few feet away from you as you’re reading this, as it’s a common houseplant. But in addition to being a lovely succulent with distinctively spiky leaves, what’s inthose leaves makes it a very desirable topical treatment.
“The leaf of the aloe vera plant is rich in water, particularly in the innermost layer of the leaf, so it helps to hydrate the skin and lock in moisture,” Garshick explains. “The sugars, also known as mucopolysaccharides, help to retain moisture in the skin.”
Drew Barrymore famously applied a piece of aloe vera “meat” (basically a chunk of the inner part of the leaf) to an irritated area of skin on her face and said it drastically reduced redness in a short timespan — a claim that dermatologists don’t shoot down. “Aloe is actually a natural antiseptic agent, meaning it stops or slows the growth of microorganisms and helps prevent infections,” Stacy Chimento, a board-certified dermatologist in South Florida, tells Allure. “Aloe can also help [a bug] bite heal faster and reduce itching, swelling, and pain.”
But there’s no need to apply a slice of the plant itself to your face in order to experience aloe vera’s benefits, of which there are many.
What are aloe vera’s benefits for skin?
Because aloe vera tends to store water, Garshick says, it can be an effective moisturizer. But that moisture can do so much more than simply moisturize.
“Providing moisture to cuts on the skin can help facilitate healing,” she says, explaining that may be due to a compound in aloe vera called glucomannan, which can help with wound and sunburn healing by improving collagen production. That healing is helped along by antioxidant vitamins C and E. Furthermore, “The antibacterial properties allow aloe vera to be useful for the treatment of minor cuts and wounds to prevent infection and also may contribute to how it can be effective for acne.”
In fact, antibacterial properties aren’t the only reason aloe vera may be a boon for acne-prone skin. “In addition to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, aloe vera is a natural source of salicylic acid, assisting with flare-ups of blackheads and whiteheads,” Chimento says.
Garshick points to a study that showed that aloe vera combined with tretinoin, the most bioavailable retinoid that’s often prescribed for topical treatment of acne (commonly as Retin-A), was more effective than tretinoin alone for acne lesions. However, that’s not true of all aloe vera ingredient combos. “Some formulations, when combined with other ingredients, may clog the pores or be irritating on the skin, so it is important to consider this when selecting a product,” she advises.
Due to its cooling effects, Chimento says, aloe vera is often used to reduce inflammation, decrease redness, and keep skin glowing — but Garshick says that glow can also be attributed to its enzymes and antioxidants. They further decrease inflammation and fight off free-radical damage, which may lessen the appearance of signs of aging.
What are aloe vera’s benefits for hair and scalp?
The scalp is simply a hair-covered extension of our facial skin, so it reaps the same rewards from aloe as the rest of our epidermis. Aloe vera can calm a scalp irritated by dandruff by helping to eliminate dead skin cells and, thus, stop the uncomfortable itching, Chimento says.
And aloe is no slacker when it comes to hair, either. “Aloe vera’s active ingredients can also contribute to cell turnover, which repairs and strengthens hair strands,” Chimento continues. Garshick adds that it may help keep hair smooth and shiny.
Pure aloe vera gel versus aloe as one of many ingredients
When looking to reap the benefits of aloe, the dermatologists we spoke to agree that 100 percent pure aloe vera gel is the way to go. In fact, if it’s present in a formulated product, there’s a good chance it’s in there not for the main advantages of aloe, but rather to make other ingredients more tolerable, Garshick says.
“You are more likely to get the benefits from using 100 percent aloe vera gel than from a formulated product, as the amount of aloe in formulated products usually only has a small amount of aloe in them,” Chimento tells Allure, recommending both Honeyskin Organic Aloe Vera Leaf Gel and Green Leaf Naturals Aloe Vera Gel.
Garshick agrees. “If you are looking for a direct outcome from the aloe vera itself, it makes sense to use 100 percent aloe vera gel so you know how much you’re actually getting,” she says.
That said, if you don’t love the texture of aloe vera gel or the fact that you have to wash it off, she recommends several aloe-including products. One of her favorites for after-sun soothing is Sun Bum Cool Down, a lotion that combines aloe and additional vitamin E to relieve sunburnt skin.
Whether or not you’ve been in the sun, she recommends Cetaphil Soothing Gel Cream With Aloe to ease sensitive skin’s irritability and supply long-lasting moisture. And finally, you can even get a quick, calming hit of aloe in the shower with Dove Hydrating Body Wash With Aloe and Birch Water, which Garshick says leaves skin especially hydrated and refreshed.
Originally published on Allure.com