Last Updated on September 19th, 2019
Is there any evidence that using aloe vera for acne could help clear your skin? There are a lot of home remedies for acne that circulate the internet, but how are you supposed to know which ones actually work? There isn’t always a ton of professional research done on home remedies, because the medical world doesn’t always take them as seriously as pills or creams formulated in a lab. But some natural cures have been around so long, that researchers just had to know if our ancient ancestors were right. Aloe vera is one of those remedies. Written record of aloe vera for medicinal use dates back nearly 6,000 years, and it is still used today.
Some studies show that it can help with burns, minor wounds, and some infections, but we wondered if you could effectively use aloe vera for acne. The results were mixed; it seems that using aloe vera for acne could help to a certain degree, but it’s best used as a supplement to a full acne treatment system. This article will dig into some of the research that explains what aloe vera can do for your skin, review the causes of acne and which ones aloe vera can treat, and answer some of your most frequently asked questions about using aloe vera for acne.
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Before we jump into aloe vera’s history, the confusing results of various studies on aloe vera, and how effective it could be when treating acne, what is it? Aloe vera is a succulent plant that usually flourishes in dry, hot areas, like South India, North Africa, or the American Southwest. It has long, tough “leaves,” but these aren’t like maple or sycamore leaves. Aloe vera leaves are thick, and when you cut into one, it reveals aloe vera gel in the middle. Although some people use the thick outside of the leaves to treat various health conditions, this article is primarily about uses for the gel inside. Although it is 99% water, it has over 75 other compounds1: vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and others that could have a positive effect on skin.
If you’ve ever used aloe vera for a bad sunburn, you probably didn’t go out and buy an aloe vera plant. Most people buy the aloe vera gels you can find at a grocery store. These are great for sunburn, but getting your aloe directly from the plant could be better for your acne.
Even though the current research is murky, aloe vera has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. The earliest written record dates back to 2,100 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Aloe is documented on clay boards as a way to help purify the intestines from demons. It is also documented in the “papyrus Ebers,” an Egyptian document outlining various medicines, written in 1,550 B.C.2 Aloe vera was used in Ancient Greece, Rome, and China, and there are some records of it being used in Europe during the Middle-Ages.
Today, aloe vera’s most popular use is to ease the pain of sunburn, but it was used for much more in the past. There are records that suggest Cleopatra used it in her daily skincare routine, while other sources claim that Alexander the Great used it to treat his soldier’s wounds. Many of these cultures ingested the juice from an aloe vera plant, citing its usefulness in keeping the digestive tract healthy.
This is likely because aloe vera is a laxative, which could help cleanse the gut from any harmful bacteria. Research from the last 10-20 years has shown that our guts contain a very delicate balance of bacteria that can affect our whole bodies, and many different ailments could be related to a bacterial imbalance. If we want to prove that our ancestors knew what they were doing though, we’ll have to find a more reliable way to study aloe vera.
There is no shortage of research on the medicinal effects of aloe. The trouble is, many studies disagree with each other, if they come to a solid conclusion at all. The best the scientific community can tell us is that based on its properties, aloe vera should, in theory, be able to help with inflammatory disorders, fight bacteria, and speed wound healing. But they’re having a hard time finding proof. Obviously you should never go into a study looking for a particular result because it can skew the data, and that could be where some of the confusion stems from. However, the bigger issues seem to be the number of aloe species and the instability of its compounds.
There are over 400 species of aloe, and each one has a slightly different mix of compounds. The variations can make a big impact3 on how the different gels interact with your body. Aloe vera is one of the most popular aloes being studied in the medical community, but it’s not the only one, and the variety can create confusion. Some studies look at several strains of aloe, while others study one in particular, and the result is a lot of inconclusive data.
In addition to this problem, certain compounds in all aloe are generally unstable. Aloe contains polysaccharides, which are a type of carbohydrate. Under some of the stressors common in research, such as heat, acid, or just passing time, they can break down and affect the chemical nature of aloe. These changes in the lab could make it seem like aloe is less effective than it would be in reality, without some of the forced conditions of research. Because of these issues, there is no solid verdict about using aloe vera for acne, but we will explore some of its possibilities.
Supposedly, the reason aloe vera is so great for sunburns is because of its anti-inflammatory properties4. When your skin is injured, because of a cut, a burn, or even acne, your skin tries to protect itself through the inflammatory response. This can help protect it from further injury and isolate the problem area so it doesn’t spread, but oftentimes, the inflammation response overreacts a bit and the inflammation can become part of the problem. Mild burns are a great example of this, but so is acne. Acne is caused when skin becomes inflamed and pores close, often trapping oil and bacteria beneath the surface. This leads to further inflammation when a minor infection occurs, but without the original inflammation, the acne may not have existed in the first place.
Some sources recommend aloe vera for acne because it can prevent inflammation, but as with most aloe vera research, no one is sure if that’s really true. It’s true, aloe vera does feel good on a sunburn, but even if it can reduce inflammation for burns, that doesn’t mean it can reduce all kinds of inflammation. Even though your own immune system is responsible for inflammation, it is triggered by a variety of sources, and they can impact the inflammation mechanisms. According to some research, aloe (species unspecified) may actually increase acne-causing inflammation.
Other research has found that aloe vera specifically can reduce redness and inflammation as effectively as a hydrocortisone cream, which is a more traditional medical treatment for inflammation. There is a lot of contradictory evidence when it comes to aloe vera, so if you want to try using aloe vera for acne, think of it as an experiment, and if it doesn’t help you, try something new.
Believe it or not, acne is technically a kind of wound, which means some wound healing substances can help. Again, the research is conflicting, but many sources seem to agree that aloe vera can help speed the wound healing process. This is due in large part to its vitamins and antioxidants.
Aloe vera is rich in vitamins A, C, and E, all of which are antioxidants. Antioxidants combat free radicals in the body, which can cause premature cell death and lead to any number of issues, including acne. Free radicals harm cells which can trigger the inflammation response and cause acne, so antioxidants are never a bad addition to acne treatment. According to a study5 on the effect of antioxidants on wound healing, they have the potential to reduce oxidative stress, meaning more energy can be spent on healing the wound.
This means aloe vera could help acne heal faster, which would be great because no one wants acne to last longer than it has to, but quick healing can also prevent hyperpigmentation. When your skin is injured, your body sends melanin to the site of the injury to help repair things. The longer melanin lingers around the wound, the more pigmentation will be deposited to the skin. This can especially affect those with Asian, Latinx, and Black or African-American skin, which is often prone to more serious hyperpigmentation scars from acne compared to people with fair skin. If you have dark skin, you know that some products or home remedies that claim to get rid of hyperpigmentation spots can actually make yours worse, but aloe vera is different and safe for all skin types. It doesn’t lighten scars after the fact, it just helps to prevent them by speeding the healing process and limiting the amount of extra melanin that gets absorbed into the skin. It doesn’t attempt to lighten the skin, so it doesn’t darken acne scars.
One thing that aloe research can agree on is that it has antibacterial properties. Finally, some solid evidence that aloe vera for acne is a plausible solution! Well, not exactly. When it comes to bacteria, aloe vera for acne runs into the same issue it had with inflammation. Different infections are caused by different bacteria, and even though studies have shown that aloe vera is effective in fighting Staphylococcus6, they have not proven to be effective in killing the primary bacteria associated with acne, Propionibacterium acnes (p. acnes).
Although inflammation is now understood to be the primary cause of acne, bacteria certainly don’t help. Without bacteria, when your skin was inflamed it would simply trap excess oil and cause a few blackheads or whiteheads. Bacteria are the ones responsible for more inflamed acne, like pimples and cysts. Once p. acnes are trapped under the surface of your skin, they feed on the oil trapped down there with them, and their numbers grow until the pore becomes a small infection. Your immune system sends agents to fight the bacteria, and both usually die in the process, generating the pus that gives pimples their white or yellow-ish color.
With cysts, the immune system does not successfully defeat the infection. Instead, p. acnes release a chemical that sticks to your skin cells, and tricks the immune system into thinking that your skin is actually bacteria. Immune system agents fight your own cells, which gives the bacteria time to grow unimpeded, and breaks down your cells, allowing the infection to spread wider and deeper, creating a cyst.
Aloe vera may be antibacterial, but if it can’t fight p. acnes, those antibacterial properties won’t make a difference for your acne.
Even if aloe vera could reduce inflammation, fight bacteria, and promote wound healing, it may not make much difference with acne. This is because aloe vera doesn’t penetrate the skin very well. Unlike many acne treatment products, it doesn’t enter the pores and absorb into the lower layers of the skin, it merely rests on top, where it is less likely to make a significant impact on acne.
However, oddly enough, when aloe vera is mixed with other acne-fighting topical agents, it can help those products penetrate deeper into the skin. According to this study, when aloe vera alone is applied to the skin, it shows minimal effects. But when combined with other acne fighting ingredients, it can enhance their effectiveness.
Although most research about aloe vera is inconclusive or in direct opposition to other aloe vera research because of its natural susceptibility to experimental variation, most researchers seem to agree that aloe vera can help with absorption. This study7 and this study8 also found that aloe vera is not overly effective at being absorbed itself, but it can help other substances absorb into the skin.
Based on current research, it’s not clear whether or not aloe vera for acne treatment is effective. There are too many experimental variables inherent to the aloe vera plant and the aloe species as a whole, but even the most optimistic of articles admit that aloe vera can’t replace more typical acne products, like benzoyl peroxide or retinoids. It could be the perfect add on though.
Many acne treatment products are very harsh on the skin in order to reduce oil production, exfoliate the skin, or kill acne-causing bacteria. All of these forget that the root of acne is actually inflammation. Harsh products or rough scrubbing easily inflame the skin, meaning your acne treatment products could actually be contributing to your acne, not reducing it. One way to prevent this inflammation is to apply a gentle anti-inflammatory, like aloe vera. If you add a very thin layer of aloe vera to your skin after applying your other skincare products, it could prevent harmful inflammation and help keep your skin clear.
But rather than adding a whole other step to your routine, which is probably already several steps long, you could buy products that already utilize the soothing power of aloe vera, like Exposed Skincare. Exposed actually combines a lot of ingredients, scientific and natural, in order to treat your skin as gently as possible. It’s important to reduce bacteria and remove excess oil and dead skin cells, but if you inflame your skin in the process, you are canceling out a lot of that progress. Exposed combines trusted acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid at low, safe concentrations that won’t irritate your skin with natural ingredients that help reduce redness, fight bacteria, and prevent irritation, like aloe vera and green tea extract.
One other way you may be able to use aloe vera for acne is by drinking aloe vera juice. Research about applying aloe vera topically abounds, even if it is often contradictory, but research on the effects of drinking aloe vera is far more limited. Most sources discussing the benefits of drinking aloe vera juice are health craze websites that are usually not reliable. Still, we have records of people drinking aloe vera juice to help with a variety of ailments throughout history—were they onto anything?
From the research we were able to find, there are a few possible benefits to drinking aloe vera juice, but also several drawbacks. Before drinking aloe vera juice, you should definitely check with your doctor. It has been known to lower blood sugar, which can make anyone feel woozy, but it could have a significant impact on those with diabetes or other blood sugar concerns. It’s also important to remember that aloe vera is a powerful laxative and could induce diarrhea or cramping. In the past, people may have thought this was a successful way to cleanse the gut, but today, if you want to make sure the bacteria in your gut are in balance, you can just take a probiotic.
Despite the caveats, there are some potential benefits to be gained from aloe vera juice. In small amounts, it may be able to help with indigestion, and one study found9 that it could speed wound healing (in rats, but still!) If aloe vera juice is a safe choice for your medical needs, it may be worth trying, but overall, we definitely recommend a full acne treatment system over aloe vera for acne.
Q. I thought aloe vera was supposed to be anti-inflammatory, but it’s making my skin redder. Should I apply more?
A. No, that may actually be a sign you’re applying too much. Aloe vera’s wound healing properties encourage the growth of new cells, and it helps the skin rapidly shed those new cells, keeping your skin fresh. But if the process goes too quickly, the aloe may actually irritate the brand new skin cells. This can lead to redness, itching, and peeling, all of which could cause acne. When using aloe vera for acne, be sure to use small amounts and listen to your skin. It’s okay if it isn’t the right choice for you.
Q. Can aloe vera clog pores?
A. This is a great question, and we were wondering the same thing. When you apply it to a sunburn, it seems to coat the skin in a way that could clog pores. We found that aloe taken directly from the plant definitely will not clog pores, but the gel found in grocery stores could. Aloe vera gel from the store often contains fillers and add-ins that could clog your pores or irritate your skin.
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