Read The Label: What You Need To Know About Aloe Vera In Skincare
Ever tried and true, aloe vera is well-known by name. But do you know what makes it such a great skincare ingredient? We’ve got the scoop.
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Aloe vera is a natural skincare ingredient that’s loved by plant-based skinimalists and 10-step routine lovers alike. The soothing gel is also an Instagram-favorite. But while many of us are familiar with the plant by name and sight, the science behind why aloe vera is a skincare darling has been relatively unknown — until now. Here, three skincare experts talk to The AEDITION about what you need to know about the benefits of aloe vera for the skin.
What Is Aloe Vera?
Derived from the cactus-like plant also simply called aloe, aloe vera grows in hot, dry climates around the globe. The spiky succulent is believed to have originated from the Arabian peninsula, but it’s now naturally found in areas like Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan. It’s also cultivated in arid regions of Australia and the southern border of the United States.
Aloe vera refers to both the aloe vera plant and the gel that comes from its leaves. The “innermost part of the leaf is a clear, soft, moist, and slippery tissue that consists of large, thin-walled cells that hold water in a form of a viscous mucilage,” explains Krupa Koestline, clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants. “The plant cell walls contain carbohydrates like cellulose and hemicellulose.”
Basically, those leaves contain a high percentage of water and a rich variety of biologically active compounds that include vitamins, minerals, sugars, saponins, and amino acids, says Laura Arce, co-owner, founding member, and director of product research and development at Thrive Natural Care.
The true wonder of the plant is how all of these pieces come together. “Most of the medicinal effects of aloe leaf extracts are attributed to the polysaccharides found in the inner leaf tissue,” Koestline notes. “It’s believed that a lot of these biological activities are due to the synergistic actions of the compounds contained [in the leaf] instead of just one single chemical substance.”
The Benefits of Aloe Vera in Skincare
Historically, aloe vera was used in ancient Greece, Egypt, India, and China for its skin and health benefits. Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra reportedly used it as part of their beauty regimens, and it was also believed to improve baldness, promote healing of wounds and burns, and soothe rashes and acne.
To this day, we think about aloe in much of the same way. When applied topically on the skin, it has a vast array of benefits that include:
- Providing deep hydration
- Preventing transepidermal water loss
- Reducing the appearance of dark spots
- Soothing irritation caused by rashes, acne, and burns
“The most popular benefit of aloe vera is that it soothes inflammation,” says Shuting Hu, PhD, a cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Acaderma. “If you are familiar with aloe vera, it is likely that you have used it to help soothe a sunburn.”
The Best Candidates for Aloe Vera
One of the reasons why aloe vera is such a beloved ingredient is because it works on most, if not all, skin types. It’s particularly beneficial for those with easily irritated or dry skin. “Aloe vera is great for anyone to use,” Dr. Hu says. “I would recommend anyone with dry, irritated, or sensitive skin use aloe vera, as the ingredient that will help to calm inflammation and replenish moisture levels to rehydrate the skin.”
As with virtually any topical ingredient (even the gentlest), sensitivity is possible. “If you do experience any irritation, redness, sensitivity, or rashes when using aloe vera, stop using the product as it may be due to an allergic reaction,” Dr. Hu cautions.
Finding the Right Aloe Vera Product
First things first: Do you want to use aloe just straight from the plant? Or would you prefer a version of the gel that’s been pre-packaged? The good news is there’s no right or wrong answer here. It is safe to use aloe in its raw state, but it can also be professionally formulated. It all comes down to your personal preference and lifestyle.
Another decision to make is whether you’d like to use the ingredient alone or in conjunction with other actives. Again, you can’t really go wrong. “Aloe vera is a great ingredient to include in skincare products, but it is powerful enough that it can be used on its own,” Dr. Hu says. “Aloe vera is an easy product to use on its own, but, if there is a product that features the ingredient, it is nice that you get a few of the extra added benefits.”
If you do decide to pick up an aloe vera plant, you’ll need to make sure the plant gets enough sunlight. Water it no more than once a week. Once every other week may even be sufficient. When in doubt, less is more. It is, after all, used to being in dry environments! Last but not least, watch out for insects. To remove some of the guesswork, buy a mature aloe vera plant or leaf from a grocery store or natural foods store and cut it open to use the gel.
If you lack a green thumb or would just prefer to bypass the plant step all together, pre-packaged gels like Benton’s Aloe Real Cool Soothing Gel and Holika Holika’s Aloe 99% Soothing Gel are great options.
It should come as no surprise that most skincare products that contain aloe are moisturizers, like the Cetaphil Soothing Gel Cream and the Clinique Moisture Surge 100H Auto-Replenishing Hydrator Moisturizer. The ultimate multitasker, Thrive’s Face Balm is nourishing enough to use as a facial moisturizer, spot treatment, and aftershave. The Innisfree Vitalizing Sleeping Mask hydrates skin overnight. For a low-maintenance option, we like the Glossier Soothing Face Mist. It’s loaded with hydrating skin-soothers like aloe, rosewater, and glycerin and can be spritzed all day long.
If you’d like to add aloe to your cleansing routine, look no further than the Beautycounter Counterstart Cococream Cleanser, which pairs the botanical with coconut oil. The Youth to the People Superfood Cleanser, meanwhile, blends aloe vera juice with kale, spinach, and vitamins B5 and E.
Regardless of what you choose, Arce says it’s important to make sure the product contains a safe, high-quality version of the ingredient. “In the case of aloe, people have used it forever on its own,” she says. “However, there are some studies on aloin — a component of non-decolorized aloe — that has been linked to cancer in rats [when ingested].” She is quick to note that “there is no link when used topically,” but “it is better to be safe and use products containing purified aloe from a brand that you trust.” When in doubt, “you can reach out to the brand to confirm they are using the safe version,” she says.
How to Add Aloe Vera to Your Routine
Whether in its pure form or as an ingredient in another product, aloe vera is safe to use both A.M. and P.M., and it doesn’t increase sensitivity to the sun. If you’re using it alone, Dr. Hu says to apply sparingly. “You only need a small amount,” she emphasizes. “The product will absorb easily once it settles into the skin, and then you can follow with a moisturizer for extra hydration [if needed].”
Aloe vera is generally safe for all skin types, but it’s always a good idea to do a patch test — especially if you have allergies or skin that reacts to new products. “Try a small amount in a non-sensitive area to ensure you are not allergic and don’t experience any stinging or burning,” Arce suggests. “Also, it is high in electrolytes, so, when formulating, there may be some incompatibilities with electrolyte-sensitive ingredients.”
Another thing to keep in mind? How you store your aloe. While the aloe plant survives in the heat of the desert, Koestline says that, once the leaf has been opened to remove the gel, it’s important to keep it away from high temperatures. “The polysaccharides in aloe vera are not heat stable,” she warns. “So, to get the most amount of anti-inflammation and wound-healing activity, it is best used in a cold process application or incorporated in a way so it doesn’t get exposed to high heat.”
Last but not least, if you’re using a steroid cream, like hydrocortisone, aloe vera may increase the amount of the steroid that’s absorbed into your skin. This is why it is always best to talk to your dermatologist if you have any questions about safely incorporating new products or ingredients into your skincare routine.
Aloe vera is a plant with leaves that contain a nourishing gel that has been used for centuries to boost hydration and soothe skin inflammation. While all skin types can benefit, it’s best for those who are dry, sensitive, or acne-prone. You can use aloe vera straight from the plant, if you’d like, but you can also find it in moisturizers, masks, and mists that are used both morning and night.
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