Aloe Vera's Benefits for Skin Go Way Beyond Sunburn Treatment
Unless you've spent the majority of your years on this planet hunkered down indoors, you've probably suffered at least one seriously painful, bright-red sunburn, or maybe even too many to count. And chances are, you turned to the five-year-old bottle of aloe vera gel hidden in your bathroom cupboard to instantly alleviate the stinging and heat.
While aloe vera is basically synonymous with sunburn relief, this mighty succulent has plenty of compounds that make it useful in other facets of skin care, too, says Melanie Palm, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Art of Skin MD in San Diego, California. "Aloe vera may be beneficial for skin burns and injury, skin hydration, pigmentation, anti-aging, environmental protection, and even acne," she says.
Here, dermatologists break down those under-the-radar aloe vera benefits for skin, plus all the different ways to use aloe vera for skin and what to keep in mind before you slather it all over.
The Top Aloe Vera Benefits for Skin — Plus, How to Use It
It hydrates skin and eases redness.
Along with the plant's high water content, aloe vera hydrates the skin with the help of sugar molecules called mucopolysaccharides, says Dr. Palm. These molecules have a unique chemical structure that helps bind moisture to the skin, and research shows that the plant works its moisturizing magic fast. A 2014 study found that aloe vera gel improves skin hydration after a single application, and after six days of use, the gel reduced skin redness just as much as hydrocortisone gel (a corticosteroid commonly used to reduce swelling and redness). To keep skin hydrated all day long, Dr. Palm recommends applying an aloe vera gel as a moisturizer twice daily.
It calms the skin and reduces inflammation.
Another reason aloe vera is ideal to apply after a day spent lounging in the sun: "Aloe is wonderful for inflammation, such as sunburns, contact dermatitis, or other inflammatory conditions, as it has natural anti-inflammatory and calming properties," says Ted Lain, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and the Chief Medical Officer of Sanova Dermatology. The plant contains an anti-inflammatory compound called aloin, which encourages healing when it's applied to sunburned skin, adds Dr. Palm. (BTW, this substance also gives aloe vera its laxative effect when ingested, according to the National Institutes of Health.)
To help your sunburned skin get the TLC it needs, apply an aloe vera gel on the affected areas three to four times daily, suggests Dr. Palm. "The evaporation of the gel has a cooling effect, and the mucopolysaccharides provide a protective and hydrating skin barrier for the skin," she explains. (Related: What You Should Know About Aloe Water)
It can help treat acne.
If you're in need of a new spot treatment, aloe vera can take on the job, says Dr. Palm. The plant boasts six antiseptic agents — including acne-busting salicylic acid — that help curb the growth of fungi, viruses, and bacteria, according to an article published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology. ICYDK, salicylic acid also reduces swelling, eases redness, and unplugs blocked skin pores, allowing pesky zits to shrink into oblivion, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine. While Dr. Palm generally recommends using a legit acne treatment to remedy your blemishes, aloe vera gel can be used as a spot treatment for a new pimple, she says. Just apply a few dabs of the gel to the breakout in the morning and evening, according to the Mayo Clinic.
It works as a gentle exfoliator.
The salicylic acid found in aloe is also known to soften and loosen dry, thick skin, making it an ideal exfoliating treatment, according to the NLM. And even though it's typically seen as a facial skin-care ingredient, salicylic acid can be used on the scalp, too, as it can soften and eliminate the built-up dead skin cells there, Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, previously told Shape. To wash your flakes down the drain, Dr. Palm suggests applying aloe vera gel to a wet scalp, letting it sit for 15 to 20 minutes, then thoroughly rinsing it off.
It keeps the skin strong and healthy.
Just like your favorite anti-aging serum, aloe vera contains vitamin C, vitamin E, and metallothionein — antioxidants that protect the skin from free radical damage caused by environmental pollutants and ultraviolet radiation, says Dr. Palm. Aside from its damage control capabilities, vitamin C boosts the production of collagen — a protein that's essential to keeping your skin smooth, firm, and strong — and helps prevent it from breaking down, according to an article in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Plus, the vitamin has been shown to protect the skin from cancer development and photoaging (premature aging caused by the sun, leading to wrinkles and spots) and to reduce pigmentation, per the JCAD article. All that's to say that aloe vera packs a punch of protective anti-aging qualities.
To help your skin achieve that youthful glow, Dr. Palm suggests applying an aloe vera gel as part of your morning skin-care routine. "This could help provide the skin with anti-inflammatory agents and antioxidants that guard against UV exposure and environmental pollutants throughout the day," she explains.
The Drawbacks of Using Aloe Vera for Skin
In general, aloe vera is safe for the skin and and poses little risk of causing issues when added to a skin-care routine, says Dr. Lain. Still, Dr. Palm cautions that some individuals may have unfavorable reactions to it. "There are many varieties of plants that can cause skin irritation or allergies," she says. "Although quite rare, there are documented and published cases of contact allergy to aloe vera in the medical literature."
If you're using an aloe vera skin gel from the drugstore, look out for ingredients like dyes, stabilizing agents (such as EDTA and synthetic wax), and preservatives (such as phenoxyethanol and methylparaben) that could cause contact allergies or irritation, says Dr. Palm. And if you have sensitive skin, also consider passing on aloe vera products that contain added alcohol, astringents, fragrances, retinol, concentrated essential oils, and alpha and beta hydroxy acids, which can aggravate skin, says Dr. Lain. If you're unsure how your sensitive skin will react, patch test the aloe vera product to make sure you can tolerate it before applying it all over, adds Dr. Palm.
While research has shown that aloe vera can speed up wound-healing time, Dr. Lain says it's not the best choice when treating open wounds, including deep burns or scrapes. Typically, you want to treat open wounds with an anti-infective ointment or cream (i.e. an antibacterial such as Neosporin) or Vaseline, which will act as a protective barrier and accelerate the healing, not a spreadable gel like aloe, he says. (FWIW, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai also advises against applying aloe to open wounds.)
And as the adage goes, it *is* possible to have too much of a good thing, so you should stick to using aloe vera for skin one to three times per day just to be safe, says Dr. Palm. "Using thick applications more frequently without removing the previous layer could leave a film on the skin that could harbor microbes over time, although I think that would be unlikely," she explains.
The Best Aloe Vera Skin Treatments
Ready to put these aloe vera skin benefits to the test? Consider skipping the aloe-infused products and go straight for the live plant, even if you don't have a green thumb. "It's startlingly easy to grow this plant," says Dr. Palm. "Picking a stem right off the aloe vera is great, and it doesn't have any stabilizers, fragrances, preservatives, or dyes."
Just break a sprig off the plant, press it gently, and rub the gooey contents directly onto your clean skin, she says. And if you want to amp up the cooling effect, place the spring in the fridge for a few minutes before applying, she says. As for DIY skin-care treatments, Dr. Palm suggests blending a piece of aloe vera with plain yogurt (which research shows can moisturize and increase brightness) and cucumbers (which have a soothing effect and reduce swelling), then applying it as a calming, hydrating mask on sunburned skin, whether it be on the face or the body. (Related: Halle Berry Shared One of Her Favorite DIY Face Mask Recipes)
While using the plant itself keeps potential allergens and irritants away from the skin, it may be less concentrated than some commercially available aloe vera skin-care products, says Dr. Palm. So if you want to get more bang for your buck, consider incorporating Holika Holika Aloe Vera Gel (Buy It, $8, amazon.com) — which contains aloe vera and is free of artificial dyes — into your skin-care routine, suggests Dr. Palm. "It has a really pure formulation and the aesthetics of the bottle are on point," she says. Who needs the real plant when you can have a skin-care product that looks *and* acts just like it?
After a long day at the beach, Dr. Palm suggests spritzing on Herbivore Botanicals' After-Sun Aloe Mist (Buy It, $20, amazon.com), which contains aloe vera, mint, and lavender to hydrate and soothe skin while giving you a spa-like scent.
Targeting a larger area? Rub on Sun Bum's Cool Down Aloe Vera Gel (Buy It, 9, amazon.com), which is formulated with aloe vera, tea tree oil, and vitamin E to repair sunburned skin, she says. And to deep clean, tone, and erase your sweaty skin's redness — without totally drying it out — try Mario Badescu's Aloe Lotion (Buy It, $11, amazon.com), adds Dr. Palm.
Regardless of whether you choose to slather on goo from the plant itself or use a pre-formulated product, know that aloe vera isn't a magic bullet that will solve all of your skin woes. "For the most part, I think aloe vera is best used as a complementary treatment, rather than the sole treatment, for the skin conditions and injuries mentioned," says Dr. Palm. "It's best to consider this a great botanical complement."