If you have fair skin, you are probably very familiar with the soothing power of aloe vera on a nasty sunburn, but can you also use aloe vera for acne? Well, that’s a bit of a tricky question to answer. There’s a lot to consider when it comes to the possibility of using aloe vera for acne. When we consider many of its natural healing properties and look back at how it has been used in medicine for centuries, it seems that aloe vera could absolutely help reduce acne. However, acne needs more than just healing to go away completely, and even though it has been a popular remedy for a long time, the current research is inconclusive. All we know for sure about aloe vera for acne is that it can help the skin better absorb other acne-fighting ingredients. Beyond that, aloe vera is still very much a mystery.
How Aloe Vera for Acne is Supposed to Work
Supposedly, aloe vera can help acne in the following ways: it can reduce the inflammation that starts acne, absorb excess oil that could clog pores, kill acne-causing bacteria, hydrate the skin, heal acne faster so it doesn’t leave a scar, and help other acne-fighting ingredients absorb into the skin better. If aloe vera really did all of these things, there’s no reason everyone in the world wouldn’t already be using it in their skin care routine. That’s why we’re wary about all the hype around aloe vera. Even though we’d like there to be, there is no miracle cure for acne, and anything advertised as such is probably a scam.
That being said, we don’t think aloe vera is a total hoax—many of its properties make it a logical acne-fighting ingredient. The problem with aloe vera for acne isn’t that it’s completely ineffective, it’s that we just don’t know enough to say anything for sure.
Why Aloe Vera is Still a Mystery
We’ve been using aloe vera in our medicine since 1550 BC, and that was simply the first time someone wrote it down; we may have started using it much earlier. Surely by now we would have figured out exactly how it works, or at least if it really works at all. We have studied it, extensively, but we still don’t have many answers, mainly because of how hard it is to study aloe vera.
Aloe vera research faces two unique challenges: first, there are over 400 species of aloe; and second, some of aloe vera’s basic compounds easily break down under the forced conditions of research.
The problem with having over 400 species of aloe to study is that it’s easy for things to get mixed up, especially when one particular type of aloe (aloe vera) is the most well-known. Studies done on coral aloe or aloe squarrosa may find certain healing or anti-inflammatory properties, but that does not mean those properties also apply to aloe vera. However, because most people think of aloe and aloe vera as the same thing, those studies can be easily misinterpreted, and misinformation can spread. But it’s not only a social problem. Many researchers study multiple aloe species at the same time, thus creating a very unstable test group, and often inconclusive results.
The other issue with studying aloe vera is the instability of some of its compounds. Aloe vera contains polysaccharides which can easily break down when exposed to heat, acid, or even with the passage of time. Used at home, these elements would not necessarily come into play, but they are all common in laboratory studies. In the process of studying the aloe vera, the researchers are skewing their own data.
How Aloe Vera Affects the Three Main Causes of Acne: Claims vs. Reality
When we say “the three main causes of acne,” we aren’t talking about all of the large-scale factors, like stress, genetics, or skin picking (very bad for acne! resist the urge to pick!). We’re talking about what causes acne at the skin level. These large-scale factors cause acne specifically because they generate these three skin-level problems in some way: oil production, inflammation, and acne-causing bacteria. If you recall, using aloe vera for acne can supposedly help with all three of these things. So how much of it is true?
Claim: Aloe vera for acne works because it is naturally astringent, so it can absorb excess oil and reduce clogged pores.
Reality: Aloe vera contains zinc, which is astringent.
Excess oil can cause acne in many ways, so the best acne solutions are ones that can help reduce oil. Untreated, excess oil can clog pores, leading to whiteheads and blackheads, and it can encourage rapid growth of acne-causing bacteria, which feed on the oil our skin produces. If aloe vera is truly astringent, it could be very useful for people with oily skin.
However, there is no hard evidence to support this astringent nature. Many sources cite aloe vera as being astringent, but there are no randomized, double-blind studies investigating this claim. Some sources break down aloe vera to its component parts and use the properties of those individual components to arrive at a conclusion for what aloe vera can do. Astringency is a good example of this: because aloe vera contains zinc, and zinc is astringent (though the research on that is also somewhat weak), some sources claim that aloe vera is astringent as well. This is simply not how components work.
All substances are comprised of a vast number of minerals, vitamins, hormones, proteins, and more. Each of these components have individual properties when examined on their own, but once you combine them, they increase, cancel out, or even change to develop entirely new properties. Breaking aloe vera down into individual components, then claiming it has those components’ individual properties defies the nature of chemistry. Although it is difficult to study aloe vera in the lab, we cannot rely on simply extrapolating the information we have on the various components it contains.
Claim: Aloe vera for acne works because it protects the skin and reduces inflammation, which helps prevent acne from forming.
Reality: Reducing inflammation is the best way to prevent acne, but the research is very conflicted on whether aloe vera decreases or increases inflammation.
The biggest reason many people naturally support this claim is because it works so well on sunburns. Any time our skin is damaged, including when it gets burnt, it triggers the inflammation response to help protect it from further damage. This causes minor swelling which makes the pores constrict, trapping oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria inside the pore. This is how all acne starts, from blackheads to cysts. So it makes sense that aloe vera, which alleviates the pain of an inflamed sunburn, would also alleviate the inflammation that causes acne.
Some studies that look at the effectiveness of using aloe vera for acne have found this to be true. Just like with sunburn, aloe vera reduces inflammation, opens up pores, and prevents acne from forming in the first place. One study even found that aloe vera was just as effective at bringing down swelling as hydrocortisone cream. However, many studies have found that aloe vera has no effect on inflammation, and some have even found that aloe vera may make inflammation worse.
Claim: Aloe vera for acne works because it has antibacterial properties that allow it to kill acne-causing bacteria.
Reality: While aloe vera does have antibacterial properties, it has not been shown to be effective on acne-causing bacteria specifically.
This is a trap that many home remedies fall into: if something is antibacterial, then it kills all kinds of bacteria…right? Sadly, this is not the case. Although aloe vera has proven very effective in killing certain kinds of bacteria, including Staphylococcus, a notoriously stubborn bacteria commonly referred to as a Staph infection, it has proven much less effective with acne-causing bacteria, also known as p. acnes.
Although p. acnes do cause acne, they aren’t objectively terrible bacteria. In fact, they’re a healthy part of your skin’s natural bacterial biome, meaning they always live on the surface of your skin to some degree. In small numbers and with limited inflammation, they typically don’t cause a problem. The issues start when the skin becomes inflamed and traps bacteria in the pores, and when the skin produces too much oil and the bacteria have more food than normal, so they reproduce much more quickly.
In both of those scenarios, p. acnes can grow into a minor infection. This will cause further inflammation, as your skin tries to prevent the infection from spreading, and the generation of pus. This happens because when your immune system sends cells to kill the bacteria, the immune system cells die as well, and all the dead cell matter turns into pus. This is how pimples, and if the infection continues to grow, cysts, are formed. If aloe vera truly killed p. acnes bacteria, it would be very helpful in treating and preventing pimples or even cystic acne, which is typically much more difficult to treat. However, there is no evidence to support this.
What About Aloe Vera’s Healing Properties?
Although aloe vera is not guaranteed to address any of the three main causes of acne, you may be able to use aloe vera for acne scarring. Going along with aloe vera’s general theme of uncertainty, the research on its wound healing properties is not conclusive. However, the majority of studies seem to agree that it can speed the wound healing process along. So how does this help with acne scarring?
Technically, acne is a type of wound, especially pimples or cysts, or any kind of acne that you’ve picked at. To return to normal, your skin has to heal the acne like it would any other wound, and when healing takes a long time, scars often result. Acne scars can be raised, indented, or hyperpigmented (dark spots), and once they’ve formed, aloe vera will not be of any help. Instead, it helps prevent them entirely by helping the healing process move along more quickly. This prevents a buildup of melanin, the substance which gives our skin pigment, but which also encourages wound healing. The longer a wound takes to heal, the more melanin is deposited and the more likely it is that a dark spot will appear. Similarly, longer healing times encourage the growth of more scar tissue, which could increase the likelihood of raised scarring as well. Aloe vera’s wound healing properties could help prevent this scarring.
Aloe Vera and Its Paradox of Absorption
When you apply aloe vera to a sunburn, you probably notice that it doesn’t actually absorb very well. It just sits on your skin until it dries. Because of this, researchers worry that even if aloe vera does have acne-fighting properties, it may not absorb into the skin enough to make much of a difference. Knowing this, it may seem odd that the one way aloe vera can almost definitely help acne is through its ability to help other substances absorb into the skin.
When aloe vera is combined with another ingredient, the aloe doesn’t absorb into the skin very well, but the other ingredient absorbs even better than it normally would. This is a relatively unusual trait, and because of it, you can use aloe vera for acne as a supplement to other acne treatment products. The best acne treatment is a consistent skin care routine that cleanses, treats, and moisturizes, like the Ultimate Kit available here at Exposed Skin Care. You can apply aloe vera gel from a bottle or directly from the plant before using the acne-fighting products included in the kit, but you’ll find that several of our products in the Ultimate Kit already include aloe vera extract, like our Clearing Tonic and Microderm Scrub. Despite the many uncertainties of using aloe vera for acne, the research agrees that aloe vera can improve acne when combined with standard acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and tea tree oil.