I have a friend who swears by aloe vera for acne. Whenever a blemish decides to crop up, she doesn't reach for some of the more classic natural-leaning treatments, like clay, tea tree, or witch hazel—rather, she taps some cooling aloe onto the spot to sink in overnight.
Now, aloe vera's soothing and hydrating abilities abound, no doubt, but to shrink a gnarly-looking zit? You might be a bit skeptical—understandably so. I certainly was, too, until I saw how her stubborn blemish had all but vanished the next day.
Turns out, the precious gel has tons of benefits for all kinds of acne (yep, even blackheads). Scroll below for what makes the plant a spot treatment staple:
Let's be clear: All acne is triggered by some level of inflammation, so taming that response is key to keeping breakouts at bay. But when people discuss inflammatory acne, they typically refer to those red papules or pustules.
Enter aloe, which is chock-full of anti-inflammatory vitamins, enzymes, minerals, and amino acids to soothe angry skin. Much of the research points to aloin, a specific compound in the aloe plant that can promote overall skin healing1, as well as bradykinase—an enzyme that can help reduce excessive inflammation when applied topically2.
In other words, the cooling gel does more than provide a feel-good sensation—it's putting in the work to calm down your skin. Research has even shown that the gel was even more effective at suppressing skin inflammation than hydrocortisone cream3. So if you have an angry, inflamed spot that won't let up, a bit of aloe vera gel as a spot treatment can temper the blemish.
It contains salicylic acid.
Aloe doesn't just soothe inflamed, angry pimples—it also contains natural salicylic acids to help unplug budding acne at the source. Salicylic acid is beloved for acne-prone skin, as "it is able to penetrate the skin deeper into pores to help remove dead skin cells, fight bacteria, and control excess sebum," board-certified dermatologist Zenovia Gabriel, M.D., once shared about BHAs. That's what makes salicylic acid particularly helpful for comedonal acne, like blackheads and whiteheads, as it can loosen buildup deep within those pores.
Aloe vera's antibacterial and antiseptic properties4 are well-documented, which is why the gel has been used for centuries for pain and wound healing. While research is limited on aloe's ability to kill P. acnes (the acne-causing bacteria) in particular, those antimicrobial properties can't hurt acne-prone skin.
"There is data to suggest that aloe may have antimicrobial properties and may help acne-prone skin," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., about the benefits of aloe vera. "It should not take the place of your traditional acne medications but can be used alongside them." In fact, aloe used topically in combination with tretinoin cream (a prescription-strength retinoid) was found to be effective in treating inflammatory and noninflammatory acne5.
Another reason aloe feels extra cooling on the skin: It's a star hydrator. "The leaf of the aloe vera plant is rich in water, particularly in the innermost layer, so it helps to hydrate the skin and lock in moisture," board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, M.D., once told mbg. In fact, aloe vera has been shown to increase the water content6 of the outermost layer of skin. Not only does aloe deliver this precious hydration, but it also helps it stay put: The specific plant sugars in aloe, called mucopolysaccharides, help retain moisture in the skin.
You might be thinking: Sounds great, but what does this have to do with acne? Well, your skin typically responds to dehydration with inflammation (which is the core acne, remember?). That inflammation can trigger the release of a hormone called CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone)7, which tells your sebaceous glands to produce more oil—and, thus, a greater chance for excess sebum to become trapped within those pores. Translation? Paying attention to hydration (hello, aloe!) can help manage inflammation and ultimately stabilize oil production.
It helps protect the skin barrier.
A strong skin barrier is crucial for healthy skin function. See, when you have a compromised skin barrier (or "leaky skin," as many experts call it), not only can hydration easily seep out, but potential irritants, allergens, and bacteria can sneak their way in and cause—you guessed it—inflammation. That's why inflammatory skin conditions, like acne, eczema, and psoriasis8, are all in some way affected by poor skin-barrier health.
As we mentioned above, aloe vera can help hydrate the epidermis and seal in moisture, which can help speed up barrier repair. The plant is also chock-full of antioxidants—like vitamins A, C, and E—as well as metallothionein, an antioxidant protein that has been found to have a protective effect on the skin2.
It helps fade dark spots.
When it comes to clearing acne, banishing dark spots (or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) is half the battle. For many, it can take longer to get rid of the lasting mark than the original blemish itself—dark spots can take months or even years to completely fade.
Aloesin, a natural compound in the aloe plant, has brightening capabilities that can help speed up this fading process. In one study, when aloe was applied to skin four times per day for two weeks, aloesin was shown to effectively fade post-acne hyperpigmentation9. Another report showed that topical application of aloesin can directly inhibit hyperpigmented skin from producing more melanin—hyperpigmentation simply means excess melanin production in your skin, so keeping the pigment-producing cells from becoming overactive is key.
Are there any risks?
It's not common, but some people do have allergies or sensitivities to aloe and may face some potential side effects. As one scholarly review10 reads, "It may cause redness, burning, stinging sensation and rarely generalized dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Allergic reactions are mostly due to anthraquinones, such as aloin and barbaloin." Generally, aloe is an incredible hydrator and anti-inflammatory, but you should always patch-test a small area before slathering it all over your skin, just to make sure you don't have a reaction.
A final tip to note: Try to use a pure, fresh aloe leaf if you can (like at your local grocery store or farmers market), as commercial gels may include other ingredients or preservatives that could potentially irritate the skin. Best to harvest the gel yourself (our guide here) and slather it on as a spot treatment or full-on face mask.
Don't sleep on aloe vera for acne—whether you have an angry-looking pustule or cluster of blackheads, the soothing plant's hydrating yet powerful antimicrobial properties can truly do it all.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and more. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.