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Let me tell y’all something. I am obsessed with aloe vera gel. Remember how the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding spritzed Windex on everything from dry skin to a scraped knee? Well, that’s how I feel about aloe vera gel. Got a sunburn? Aloe vera gel can fix it. That pesky pimple? Just dab some aloe vera gel on it. Ashy knees? Aloe vera gel, baby.
Now, admittedly, my love for aloe vera gel has not historically been research- or evidence-based. I love the way it smells and the way it goes on sticky but dries smooth. (I mean, magic, right?!) So I wanted to find out if aloe vera gel is the skincare miracle I’ve been claiming—or is it way overrated?
I spoke with skincare experts to get the scoop on why aloe vera gel might just be the missing piece in your skincare routine.
What is pure aloe vera gel?
“Aloe vera is the botanical or scientific name for the plant,” says Justin Hancock, certified professional horticulturist and garden expert at Costa Farms in Miami. “Botanists have given it a name change, so you’ll also see the old botanical name Aloe barbadensis used—confusing, I know!”
A tropical succulent, there are literally hundreds of varieties of aloe. But aloe vera (or aloe barbadensis) is the kind you’re most likely find in spots from your neighborhood supermarket to the local nursery. Aloe vera doesn’t just refer to the plant itself, though. According to Hancock, “Aloe vera is also used commonly to refer to the thick gel found in the leaves. So you can essentially use the term however you want and not be wrong.”
Bloomberg News recently reported that many popular brands of aloe vera gel, including those from CVS and Walgreens, contained little or no aloe vera at all!
What’s more, says Hancock, you actually can grow and harvest your own all-natural aloe vera gel at home. Even if you don’t have an aloe plant, whole aloe leaves can usually be found in specialty grocery stores.
No time to grow or harvest your own aloe vera? Celebrity facialist Ildi Pekar, who counts Miranda Kerr as a client, says if you’re buying aloe vera gel, “Use a 100 percent natural aloe vera and stay away from added alcohols.”
When purchasing aloe vera gel, don’t get fooled by deceptive labeling; always look at the ingredient list before purchasing. Bloomberg News recently reported that many popular brands of aloe vera gel, including those from CVS and Walgreens, contained little or no aloe vera at all! What’s more, these manufactured “aloe” gels often contain alcohol for a cooling effect. Instead of hydrating your skin, the alcohol in these faux aloe vera gels actually ends up drying skin out.
Aloe Vera Gel for Skincare
Aloe vera gel is a great addition to any skincare routine because it isn’t comedogenic, meaning it won’t clog your pores. And, according to Adrienne Haughton, MD, director of clinical and cosmetic dermatology at Stony Brook Medicine at Commack, aloe vera may help fight signs of aging.
“One scientific review of aloe vera states that the mucopolysaccharides help in binding moisture into the skin,” says Haughton. “It goes on to state that aloe stimulates fibroblasts, which produced collagen and elastin fibers—making the skin more elastic and potentially less wrinkled.”
“Another study showed that taking aloe vera gel orally has anti-aging effects,” Haughton continues. “Those who took aloe vera gel showed improved skin elasticity and decreased skin wrinkles, which was shown to be the result of increased pro-collagen throughout the dermis (the layer of the skin that contains collagen).”
As if reducing fine lines and wrinkles weren’t wonderful enough, aloe vera gel may even help clear up acne breakouts faster. In one study, participants whose acne was being treated with the topical retinoid tretinoin were also given aloe vera gel, which was applied topically. Tretinoin and aloe vera gel used in combination were shown to be more effective at treating acne than acne medication alone.
So how can you use aloe vera gel as part of your daily skincare routine?
Well, you can use aloe vera gel daily as a moisturizer. I have incredibly dry skin, and I’ve found that pure aloe vera gel is one of the only products, aside from literally bathing in olive oil (which I do not recommend), that keeps my face hydrated all day long. Or you can use aloe vera gel to make a moisturizing aloe vera lotion with basic ingredients, almost all of which can be found in your kitchen cupboard.
Aloe Vera Gel for Home Hair Remedies
Wait, you mean you can use aloe vera gel on your head too?! you ask? Yes! I told you aloe vera gel is amazing.
According to Dominic Burg, PhD, chief scientist for évolis hair products, “Aloe contains enzymes that provide an exfoliating effect and remove dead cells. It is also rich in vitamins C and E, which provide it its antioxidant/anti-aging effect.” These properties, says Burg, make aloe hugely beneficial to hair and scalp health.
Because aloe vera helps exfoliate the scalp, it’s a great treatment for dry, flaky skin and dandruff. In addition to its anti-aging properties, aloe’s vitamin E helps lock moisture into the scalp, preventing further dryness and irritation. And, while aloe vera gel won’t make your hair grow faster, its moisturizing qualities help prevent breakage and split ends.
Aloe vera gel can even be used to promote postpartum healing after a vaginal birth. The easiest way to apply aloe vera gel postpartum is by making padsicles to stash in your freezer.
“Pure aloe vera gel is not very convenient to use,” explains Burg, “so it is best to look for combination products. Avoid silicones and too many heavy oils that may block pores and cause greasy hair at the roots.”
If you’d rather not decipher the ingredients on haircare products that claim to contain pure aloe vera gel, Burg says it’s easy to make your own aloe vera conditioning treatment at home.
“You can dilute fresh aloe vera gel with water [using a] 1:2 [ratio] and use it as a conditioner while in the shower after shampooing,” explains Burg. “You can also mix essential oils such as rosemary in it for added anti-aging benefits. For a moisturizing mask-style treatment, you can mix aloe vera gel with coconut oil and apply to the hair and scalp, then leave for at least 30 minutes.”
Other Uses for Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera gel isn’t just great for your skin and hair. According to a 2016 study, when applied topically, aloe vera gel accelerated wound healing in rats, resulting in reduced inflammation and decreased scar tissue size. According to a 2015 review of aloe vera used in wound care, aloe vera may help heal wounds faster due to its antibacterial and antifungal properties. You can apply 100 percent aloe vera gel topically straight to a wound to promote healing, or you can apply it to your bandage before covering a wound.
Aloe vera gel can even be used to promote postpartum healing after a vaginal birth. The easiest way to apply aloe vera gel postpartum is by making padsicles to stash in your freezer. Simply take a pad of your choice (I suggest the jumbo ones they send home from the hospital with you), coat it in aloe vera gel, wrap it back in its packaging, and stick it in the freezer. Once it’s frozen, stick that sucker in your giant postpartum undies: The aloe promotes faster healing, and the ice-cold pad will help reduce swelling.
You don’t have to spend big bucks to find an aloe vera-based makeup remover. In fact, you can make your own aloe vera gel makeup remover at home with this recipe from Wild for Nature. Best of all? It’s also vegan.
If you’re not the DIY type, Pekar says that many products in her eponymous skincare line contain aloe vera, including a facial cleanser that can be used to remove makeup.
Shop some of Pekar’s aloe-infused products here…
Aloe Vera Gel Side Effects
It’s pretty rare to be allergic to topical aloe treatments, but Haughton says that “allergic contact dermatitis has been seen with aloe vera gel.”
If you’re allergic to aloe vera gel, you’ll likely just get a mild rash or feel itchy where the aloe was applied. If that’s the case, wash the area with soap and water to remove the aloe vera gel completely. However, if you notice any signs of a severe allergic reaction, be sure to call your doctor right away.
Aloe Vera Gel and California’s Prop 65
You may have heard recently that California added aloe to the list of known carcinogenic ingredients included in the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (more efficiently known as Prop 65). But, you may be wondering, didn’t you just tell me all the amazing ways aloe vera can help my skin and hair?
Yes I did, and it still can. That’s because the aloe included on the Prop 65 list was actually a very specific type: non-decolorized, whole-leaf aloe extract. A study found that this specific type of aloe extract, which is manufactured using a charcoal filtration process, can release organic compounds called anthraquinones, which are known for their laxative properties. Anthraquinones aren’t all carcinogenic, but one type called aloin, which is found in the outer leaf pulp of the aloe plant, was shown to cause cancerous tumors in rats.
The good news is that aloin caused tumors to grow in rats when ingested. Little or no cancer-causing activity was reported when aloe (even if the product contained aloin) was applied topically.
Aloe vera gel may not be the cure to absolutely everything, despite what I’d been preaching to anyone who’d listen. But it turns out that when it comes to your skin and scalp, aloe vera gel is pretty darn close to being the magical skincare remedy I’ve always known it is. And it’s way safer than Windex.