Anyone with acne knows how inconvenient (at best) a breakout can be. Although our individual acne symptoms—like pimples—will eventually go away, sometimes, a scar can stick around for weeks or even months. Professional treatments like microneedling, dermal fillers, lasers, and subsicion surgery can be very useful in reversing the indentations left by scars, but your wallet will be happy to know that an inexpensive, all-natural ingredient can also help improve the appearance of scarring: aloe vera. We spoke with board certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City to learn what aloe vera can do for acne scars, and how to get the most out of the ingredient.
Type of Ingredient: Topical hydrator and exfoliant
Main Benefits: Hydrates and helps repair the skin.
Who Should Use It: Most people can benefit from aloe as its' helpful for a plethora of skin conditions from dry skin, to sunburn, to eczema.
How Often Can You Use It: For acne scars, look for aloe in its purest form and apply once in the morning and in the evening for two weeks.
Works Well With: Other anti-inflammatory ingredients like colloidal oatmeal, chamomile, and turmeric. Also, when used in conjunction with tretinoin, aloe can actually help heal acne lesions better as opposed to tretinoin on its own.
Don't Use With: Alcohol will negate the hydrating effects of aloe. Also, if you're using it on a burn, avoid ingredients like petrolatum and other heavy ointments as this might trap heat in the skin.
What Is Aloe Vera?
Aloe vera is a naturally-derived ingredient found in the aloe plant and is sold in powder, liquid, and gel form. It's made up of mostly water, as well as polysaccharides, amino acids, vitamins, lipids, and enzymes. The high water content helps restore water into the skin; however, overuse can actually dry out the skin as the natural exfoliating properties of aloe's enzymes can potentially over-strip if used too often.
Benefits of Aloe Vera for Acne Scars
- Repairs the skin: “Aloe vera is a wonderful natural option for reducing the residual injury to skin caused by acne or other wounds,” Nazarian says. Like scars found elsewhere on the body, acne scars occur when a breakage occurs in the skin. Even if you don’t pop or pick your pimples, you may still notice scarring if the clogged pore beneath the breakout expands so much that the follicle wall breaks, says the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. Fortunately, aloe vera can help heal those scars over time thanks to its naturally anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. "There are studies that have shown aloe vera to increase growth factors for fibroblasts—the cells that make collagen," Nazarian adds. "It’s possible that this is the pathway that allows aloe to improve wounds and scars, via the production of enhanced and increased collagen fibers. It’s a great alternative medical treatment following burns or skin injury,” she explains.
- Heals wounds and inflammation: "There are also studies that have supported the use of aloe vera to improve wound healing, and to decrease skin inflammation," Nazarian explains. "Aloe vera has been shown to decrease a chemical called thromboxane, which is known to inhibit or slow down wound healing. Aloe also contains magnesium lactate, which is a chemical that decreases histamine and can decrease itching and irritation."
Other Skin Benefits
- Soothes the skin: Aloe vera is best used for soothing itchiness or irritation. Dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD says aloe vera is a great added bonus to use in conjunction with your other calming products.
- Prevents transepidermal water loss (TEWL): Transepidermal water loss occurs when the skin gets dehydrated, which causes dryness and inflammation. Says Nussbaum, "The phytosterols soothe itchiness and irritation and prevent transepidermal water loss, which is really important when you have a sunburn or a windburn."
- Cools and hydrates the skin: "For burns, it creates a better barrier for the skin while cooling it and hydrating it," Nussbaum says. She adds that the reason aloe vera extract is so hydrating is the fact that it's primarily water. She also credits the polysaccharides for the hydrating and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Moisturizes: Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist, says that another main benefit is a small level of moisturization. "It wouldn’t be my go-to for eczema or psoriasis, although it has been shown to help it," Nussbaum adds. "It can give a moisturizing effect, just not a healing effect."
How to Apply Aloe for Acne Scars
Aloe vera is available in a number of forms, from drinks to gel to supplements, so which formula is the best for healing acne scars? "Oral intake of aloe vera likely does not have the same wound-healing properties as the topical forms, so I would recommend topical use immediately following tissue injury, twice a day for 1-2 weeks," Nazarian recommends. To apply aloe to the skin, start by washing your face and drying it with a clean towel. Then, apply a thin layer of aloe vera to the affected areas on your skin and allow it a couple minutes to dry before following up with your usual skincare routine.
While aloe can work well on its own, some people may see better results if it's used in tandem with specific products. “For acne, it can be used in conjunction with traditional acne medications nightly, which will aid in curbing irritation and dryness, and potentially improve residual scars and marks,” says Nazarian.
One product sticks out above the rest: retinol. According to a 2014 study, aloe vera gel used with retinoid tretinoin proved more effective in treating acne with less irritation than tretinoin alone.
As with anything we put in or on our bodies to treat a medical issue, there’s always the risk of experiencing side effects, but when it comes to aloe vera, there are very few. “There’s always a consideration for contact allergy, so use a small amount in a discreet location to test your sensitivity first,” says Nazarian. If you’ve applied aloe vera to your skin and notice redness or itching, carefully remove as much as you can and discontinue use immediately. If you have sensitive skin and worry that you may have an adverse reaction to aloe vera, reach for products with the highest percentage of pure aloe possible as some may contain fragrance, which might result in irritation, or reach for fresh aloe from an actual mature aloe plant. “Unfortunately, because the use of aloe vera is not standardized, it’s often difficult to know the composition and purity of the various options available for sale,” Nazarian adds.
Aloe Vera Products for Acne
If you’re looking to try aloe vera for yourself but aren’t quite sure where to start, Nazarian lists a few of her favorite products formulated with aloe vera.
E.L.F. Cosmetics Soothing Aloe Facial Mist
Designed to be used as a hydrating mist for bare skin or a setting spray over makeup, this aloe mist makes application easy.
Badger Fair Trade Certified Aloe Vera Gel
Cruelty-free, organic, and fair-trade certified, this gel, made with 96% pure aloe vera, won’t irritate most sensitive skin thanks to its unscented formula.
Holika Holika Aloe 99% Soothing Gel
Made with 99% aloe vera juice harvested in Japan, the gel in the fun bottle also boasts nelumbium speciosum flower extract (also known as lotus flower extract) as its second ingredient, which is packed with proteins and known for its skin-soothing and moisturizing properties.
Baylor College of Medicine. Using aloe vera has multiple benefits. Updated March 21, 2018.
American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. Acne scars.
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Kim SY, Moon GS. Photoprotective effect of lotus (Nelumbo nucifera gaertn.) seed tea against UVB irradiation. Prev Nutr Food Sci. 2015;20(3):162-168. doi:10.3746/pnf.2015.20.3.162