Aside from being a staple in your mother's medicine cabinet for sunburned skin, aloe vera has been used by different civilizations for centuries for a range of skin care, health, and medicinal purposes. A cactus plant that naturally grows in arid climates, the succulent-like leaves of the aloe plant house a clear gel that's home to more than 751 (and perhaps up to 2002) different active compounds, including vitamins, minerals, sugars, enzymes, salicylic acids, and amino acids.
Suffice it to say, all of these components have been shown to provide a wide array of benefits for skin care and beyond:
Aloe's benefits for your face & beyond
Let's begin with aloe's treasure trove of benefits, shall we?
It soothes sunburn
Topping off our list is aloe vera's most well-known usage: soothing sunburned skin. Because of its naturally moisturizing, and subsequently healing, properties, research has shown that aloe vera may help heal3 first- and second-degree burns on the skin, although the mechanism in which it does so has yet to be fully understood—probably because it is a combination of factors.
Some research has found that aloin4, a compound found in the aloe plant, has anti-inflammatory properties that aid in the skin-healing process. Aloe is also chock-full of antioxidants, and one antioxidant protein, in particular, called metallothionein, has been found to have a protective effect on skin1 that's been exposed to and damaged by UV rays. The plant is also incredibly hydrating, which could help combat the skin peeling that usually takes effect post-sunburn.
It helps fade dark spots
Dark spots on the skin, also known as hyperpigmentation, can leave their mark for a variety of reasons. Whether from sun exposure, acne, or just the normal aging process, all dark spots typically have one thing in common: They're stubborn. However, a compound called aloesin, found in the aloe vera plant, could help lighten things up.
According to one study, when applied four times per day for 15 days, aloesin was found to be effective in treating UV-induced and post-acne hyperpigmentation5. Another study found that the topical application of aloesin can directly inhibit hyperpigmented skin from producing more melanin, the pigment that, when overproduced, causes dark spots to form.
It moisturizes skin
Aloe vera's moisturizing properties are twofold. "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," explains board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, M.D. "The sugars [it contains], also known as mucopolysaccharides, [also] help to retain moisture in the skin."
Mucopolysaccharides, as found in the aloe plant, help retain moisture in the skin. When applied topically, aloe vera has been shown to increase the water content6 of the outermost layer of skin (called the stratum corneum), making it an ideal ingredient for dry skin types.
It makes a restorative scalp mask
Though there is little research specifically on aloe vera as a scalp mask, all of the plant's beneficial properties for skin—namely, moisturizing, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial—also lend themselves to the scalp (which is also skin, after all).
Applying it as a scalp mask can help soothe irritation, exfoliate, replenish hydration, and even strengthen and smooth hair follicles. "It can also be used to keep hair smooth and shiny and also for the scalp to help eliminate dead skin cells," Garshick says.
It provides healthy aging benefits for skin
Hydrated skin is happy, healthy skin, and as we know, sufficient moisture also helps stave off the visible signs of aging (e.g.: fine lines and wrinkles).
In addition to its ability to help replenish and retain moisture in the skin, aloe also stimulates the production of hyaluronic acid and collagen and elastin fibers in the skin—all of which are necessary to keep skin hydrated, firm, and supple, and all of which decline naturally with age. Applying aloe vera topically has been shown to help restore skin elasticity7 and decrease the appearance of fine lines8.
It can help clear up acne
"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., director of cosmetic and clinical research, department of dermatology, at Mount Sinai Hospital. "It should not take the place of your traditional acne medications but can be used alongside them."
In addition to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, aloe vera is also a natural source of salicylic acids, "which can also help with breakouts such as blackheads and whiteheads," Garshick says. Aloe's acne-busting powers are backed by science: One study found that the topical use of aloe9 in combination with tretinoin cream was found to be effective in treating inflammatory and noninflammatory acne.
It soothes psoriasis and eczema
Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis signal general inflammation and a compromised skin barrier—both of which can be helped by aloe vera.
Additionally, skin with a broken barrier is also more prone to fungal and bacterial infections, and aloe vera "can be considered an antiseptic acting against fungi, bacteria, and viruses," Garshick says. According to the Mayo Clinic, using aloe vera cream on psoriasis may also help reduce the scaling, redness, and irritation caused by the disorder.
It treats and prevents dandruff
In one study, participants who applied aloe vera onto the scalp saw a significant reduction in symptoms11, namely scaling and itching. According to another body of research, the antibacterial and antifungal properties12 of the plant help prevent and treat dandruff altogether.
It may help fade stretch marks
Another unwanted skin signal of aging, as well as pregnancy, are stretch marks. According to some research, the topical application of aloe vera has been shown to be effective in lessening the appearance and preventing the spread of stretch marks13.
Although the exact mechanism is still unknown, aloe's ability to help fade stretch marks is likely in part due to its skin-restoring and anti-inflammatory properties (promoting the production of hyaluronic acid, collagen, and elastin).
How to use it
Let's review the many ways to reap the benefits of this versatile gel.
As a sunburn soother
We'll start with the most popular use for the gel—its quick sunburn relief. Simply slather on the gloop on inflamed areas and feel it instantly soothe—just make sure you're purchasing 100% natural aloe, without any harsh additives that could aggravate the sunburn (more info in a moment).
As a face mask
For a cooling, soothing face mask, aloe vera reigns supreme. Grab your aloe (and other ingredients, if you so choose), and follow the below:
- Mix aloe and other ingredients together in a bowl until you get a spreadable consistency.
- Apply the mask to your face and let sit for a few minutes. Five to 10 usually does the trick. Just don't let it sit for longer than 20 minutes, as it can lose its moisturizing effect and potentially cause irritation when sitting on the skin for too long.
- Rinse your face thoroughly and pat dry.
- Apply an occlusive cream or oil to keep all the moisture in.
See here for more ways you can elevate your aloe vera face mask with other targeted ingredients.
As a spot treatment
Due to aloe's natural source of salicylic acids, it makes a worthy spot treatment—you know, if you have a stubborn pimple you want to zap overnight. Plus, the hydrating aspect helps stave inflammation (which is the core of all acne, after all). Dab a bit of aloe on the blemish and simply let it do the work.
As a hair & scalp mask
While much of the evidence is anecdotal, many are quick to sing aloe's praises for shiny hair and a healthy scalp. Grab your goop and apply it directly on your roots, by itself, 20 minutes before you shower. Give it a gentle rub to help it penetrate, and rinse thoroughly after 10 to 15 minutes (again, don't leave it on for longer than 20). See here for the full breakdown.
Find it in topical formulas
Aloe is a popular natural ingredient for many products from face creams to body lotions to hand treatments—thanks to the fact that the botanical comes with all those healthy skin benefits mentioned above. It's also a popular addition because of the texture: By adding it to lotions, creams, or gels, it provides a smoother slip and absorbency.
Aloe extract vs. gel
Perhaps this goes without saying, but a product infused with aloe extract might not yield the same results as slathering on a fresh aloe gel. That's not to say those aloe-infused products aren't worth your while—they can certainly have some skin-soothing benefits, and many formulas are laced with other hydrating players as well!—but if you're attempting to soothe a sunburn or are just generally looking for straight-up aloe, a 100% pure gel is your best bet.
Although, you might not want to snag any aloe gel from the drugstore and slather on. Try to use a pure, fresh aloe leaf if you can (like from your local grocery store or farmer's market), as many commercial gels can include irritating fragrances or preservatives.
"Fresh aloe vera is best, as the medicinal properties deteriorate over time. Many commercial aloe vera gels and juices contain other ingredients such as preservatives," says California dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, M.D., a diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology.
Bonus points if you grow your own aloe plant and harvest the fresh gel yourself: See here for a full guide. And if you do opt for a commercial gel? Just make sure it's from a brand you trust.
Are there any side effects?
Generally, no. Aloe, as mentioned, is an incredible hydrator and anti-inflammatory, but you should always patch-test before applying it all over your skin, just to make sure you don't have a reaction. As one scholarly review14 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."
Again, it's not common, but a reaction is not impossible, either. Of course, if you use a commercial gel with artificial fragrance or irritating preservatives, those additives cause a reaction as well. We should also warn against drinking the juice or consuming the gel—while using aloe topically is considered safe, there are plenty of health concerns from taking it internally.
"Despite the emergence of many new botanical ingredients in skin care, aloe has been used in the skin for centuries and has proven skin benefits," explains Zeichner. In other words, while it may not be the newest, trendiest skin care ingredient on the market, aloe vera is tried and trusted, and its benefits are backed by plenty of research.
Rebecca Dancer is a beauty and lifestyle writer who obtained a print and digital journalism degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She’s worked at and contributed to various print and digital publications, including Byrdie, Allure, Brides, Teen Vogue, Beauty Independent, Shape, SELF, and Women's Wear Daily.