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When it comes to skincare ingredients, aloe vera has truly amassed an impressive amount of hype. Got a sunburn? Everyone from your colleague to your grandmother will recommend slathering on aloe vera. Struggling with dry skin? Aloe vera. Dealing with superficial burns from your latest attempt at cooking class? Aloe vera. Raving testimonials of its healing properties can be found across cultures throughout history, but with so much praise going around it can be difficult to differentiate the true miracle from the myth. So before you replace all your skincare products with a bottle of the green gooey gel, find out what skin experts have to say about which benefits have been proven to be true.
We turned to dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD, and cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski to explain whether aloe vera is the cure-all ingredient it's said to be—or whether it's a little overrated. Keep reading for the expert intel on the real benefits of aloe vera for dry skin.
Meet the Expert
- Marnie Nussbaum, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in non-invasive aesthetic rejuvenation.
- Perry Romanowski is an independent cosmetic chemist and the founder of The Beauty Brains.
Type of ingredient: Skin soother
Main benefits: Calms, soothes, and hydrates the skin
Who should use it: In general, anyone looking to soothe burns, including sunburn and windburn, and moisturize their skin.
How often can you use it: Nussbaum recommends applying it two to three times daily.
Works well with: To increase the calming benefits, Nussbaum suggests using it with anti-inflammatory ingredients.
Don't use with: Nussbaum says to avoid using aloe vera products that also contain alcohol, which will negate the moisturizing, soothing effects of the aloe, and to also avoid combining it with chemical exfoliants, which could worsen any stinging or irritation. If you have a burn, Nussbaum advises against using it with an ointment or petrolatum, which will trap the heat inside.
What Is Aloe Vera?
Aloe vera is a naturally derived ingredient known for its soothing properties. It can come in powder, liquid, and gel form and can be found in products like creams, moisturizers, gels, and masks. The leaves of the aloe vera plant are made up of three layers: the inner gel or mucilage (which is 99.5% water), the middle latex layer, and the outer layer or rind. So how did aloe vera get its reputation for being a magical cure-all ingredient? That likely has to do with the fact that the other 0.5% is made up of a wide range of chemicals: "Aloe is rich in vitamins, amino acids, polysaccharides, and phytosterols, so it has all these calming, great properties," Nussbaum says. "Additionally, it has vitamins A, C, D, and E, and it also has minerals, like zinc, potassium, and magnesium, so it really is this rich gel or extract that can be used for a variety of things."
Despite all the anecdotal testimonials about the miraculous effects it has on the skin, there's not enough medical research to support most of these claims. Romanowski says when it comes to its actual benefits, there are two main functions: to soothe and moisturize the skin. Nussbaum adds, "There are tons of uses for it, and it’s great for face masks and calming, but it’s not better than other things we have, like vitamin C and niacinamide. It’s a safe thing to use for the skin for hydration and anti-inflammatory, but it’s not an end-all, be-all."
Benefits of Aloe Vera for Dry Skin
Although most of the purported claims may not be proven through scientific studies, the skin experts say that aloe vera does have a few main benefits:
- Soothes the skin: Aloe vera is best used for soothing itchiness or irritation. Nussbaum 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, causing dryness and inflammation. Nussbaum says, "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 mostly water. She also credits the polysaccharides for the hydrating and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Moisturizes: Romanowski 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."
- Promote healing of breakouts: Although it could possibly help to treat an acne breakout, thanks to the salicylic acid it contains. Nussbaum says it's the moisturizing properties that make aloe vera beneficial for acne, seeing as a moist environment is better for healing. "I wouldn’t put it on an active acne lesion, but after it’s already drying up when you get that dry healing, it helps moisten the dry skin," Nussbaum says. She adds that the barrier it creates will help make the dry skin easier to cover with makeup.
Side Effects of Aloe Vera
As is the case with any ingredient, Nussbaum says it's possible to have an allergic reaction to aloe vera, so she recommends testing it out first before applying it all over. She adds that if you have a sensitivity to it, you can experience itching or slight burning or develop rash and hives, in which case you should stop using the product immediately.
How to Use Aloe Vera
"If there is any benefit to using aloe topically, you are much more likely to get those benefits from using a treatment directly from a plant versus using a formulated product," Romanowski says. "The amount of aloe in formulated products varies widely, but the vast majority of products have only a tiny bit of aloe in them." If you have an aloe vera plant, you'll need to harvest one of the exterior leaves as these are the most mature and, therefore, can provide a richer gel. Cut the leaf at the base, shave off the spines, and slice away the top and bottom layers of skin. Scrape off the gel at the center and use as needed.
Nussbaum also recommends using the plant for a DIY face mask, but because of the risk of stinging from the use of the plant, she suggests a formulated gel product when dealing with a burn. To best apply aloe vera in the instance of a burn, Nussbaum suggests taking an anti-inflammatory orally to calm the inflammation, then applying the aloe vera two to three times daily.
Nussbaum notes that refrigerating the gel before use can provide a cooling sensation that will reduce inflammation further and provide an additional soothing effect.
For the colder months of the year, Nussbaum recommends using Kiehl's Calendula Calming Mask for inflamed or irritated skin. In addition to aloe, this formula relies on calendula (an ingredient Nussbaum says works well in conjunction with aloe vera), to soothe the skin. "It’s amazing for winter," she says. "It’s not for a burn, but if you have dry skin that’s getting irritated or inflamed from the elements, it’s a great product."
As previously mentioned, aloe vera comes in a powder, liquid, and gel form. "The raw material typically starts out as a liquid or gel, depending on what type of plant extract they take," explains Romanowski. "To make a powder, the water is evaporated off. But when companies make aloe products, they either add powder to a liquid or add a diluted version of the stuff that comes from the plant." As far as how the different forms are used in cosmetics, Romanowski says there isn't much of a difference but that the decision is mostly an economical one.
In addition to topically, aloe vera can be consumed orally. However, Romanowski notes, "There isn't any evidence that drinking aloe will help skin or hair." Nussbaum adds, “I would not suggest taking it orally at all to help the skin. It’s much more effective used topically on the skin.”
How can I use aloe vera on my face?
For topical use, Romanowski suggests using aloe vera directly from a plant to get the most benefits as formulated products may only contain trace amounts. The gel can be applied directly to the skin or mixed into a DIY face mask. If you find the natural sting too irritating for a burn, Nussbaum recommends opting for a formulated gel instead.
Who can benefit from using aloe vera on skin?
In general, anyone looking to soothe burns, including sunburn and windburn, and moisturize dry skin.
Are there any side effects of using aloe vera on skin?
As with any ingredient, it's possible to have an allergic reaction to aloe vera, so do a patch test on a small area of skin before applying it all over. If you experience itching, slight burning, or develop rashes and hives stop using the product immediately.
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