Like tangled-up Conair dryers and dusty Clinique samples, almost every bathroom cabinet graveyard has a jumbo-sized tub of electric-green aloe vera gel buried in the back right corner. For me, it’s always been the thing I reach for in mid-July when I fall asleep on my stomach halfway through a trashy beach read — not something I slather on every day as part of my routine. But that all changed when I visited Aruba last year.
The Caribbean island, which is situated so close to the Equator that you can feel the sun burning your epidermis the second you step onto the airport tarmac, counts aloe as one of its main exports. The desert-like climate creates an ideal environment for the plant to grow, and the economy has relied on it as one of its top agricultural products (followed by livestock and fish) since it was introduced by the Dutch in the mid-1800s.
As I drove out of the airport in Oranjestad, I noticed advertisements for aloe scattered along the road and displayed prominently in storefront windows downtown. And when I walked into the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino where I was staying, the first thing the front desk staff offered me was a vodka-spiked aloe cocktail. Every single toiletry in my bathroom — from body cream and sunscreen to shampoo and hand soap — had aloe listed in the first few ingredients. On the shore, vendors floated between beach umbrellas, selling aloe creams and drinks out of the same coolers. The resort even offered weekly DIY aloe scrub classes, aloe massages and facials at the spa, and tours of the local Aruba Aloe factory to guests.
In Aruba, aloe isn’t just a sunburn remedy — it’s a way of life. And according to dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, Joshua Zeichner, MD, they’ve got it right. “The aloe plant has many hydrating and soothing benefits, making it useful in treating skin conditions,” he says. “It also contains polysaccharides and vitamins that help calm the skin in addition to phytosterols, which give antioxidant benefits.”
After seeing how much my skin and hair improved after just a week on the island, I checked an absurd amount of aloe products in my suitcase and headed home a changed woman. After a few months of incorporating the ingredient into my routine, I started noticing substantial results. My acne cleared up, my combination skin became more balanced, my redness subsided, and even my fine lines and wrinkles started to fade. “The hydrating and antioxidant benefits of aloe may provide anti-aging benefits to the skin,” Dr. Zeichner says. “There is data to suggest that aloe has antimicrobial properties and may be useful as an adjunctive treatment for acne.” That's not to say that aloe replaced every ingredient on my bathroom shelf — retinoids, lactic acids, and vitamin C did most of the heavy lifting — but it was the first time my skin reacted positively to those ingredients without looking dry or ruddy in the process.
To be clear, the widespread benefits of aloe aren't anything new: As one of the earliest recorded healing botanicals, aloe vera has been used for millennia. In Ancient Egypt, it was considered “the plant of eternity,” and was both a part of regular skin-care routines for the living and used to embalm the dead, thanks to its anti-fungal properties. It’s long been used in Chinese and Indian medicine for everything from gastrointestinal issues to fungal diseases. And it was even believed to have the power to exorcise demons in early Mesopotamia, which isn’t too far off from the role it plays in my acne routine today.
In 2019, aloe quietly serves as a pillar for some of the buzziest new brands on Instagram, including the ones I personally swear by: Shani Darden, Barbara Sturm, and Augustinus Bader. “I use aloe a lot in my facials, and I love to use it in the custom masks I make for clients,” says L.A.-based esthetician Shani Darden, whose clients include Jessica Alba and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
Darden also packs aloe into her eponymous skin-care line, including her famous Texture Reform serum, which has worked wonders on my acne scars. “Aloe is great for the skin because it has antioxidants, which help to prevent damage from environmental stressors,” she says. “It also has antibacterial properties, which speed up healing and can help with acne. It’s a really great ingredient for people who have sensitive skin and react to most products.”
According to Düsseldorf, Germany-based aesthetic doctor Barbara Sturm, MD, aloe is one of the first ingredients she ever encountered in skin care — and she’s used it in her practice ever since. “Growing up, my mother had an aloe plant in the house. She would snap off a piece and rub the gel-like pulp on our cuts and burns,” says Dr. Sturm. “She was a chemist, and she did it because it worked.”
Now, Dr. Sturm uses it in her Face Mask and Cleanser, and incorporates it into facials and post-treatment regimens for her famous clients (including Angela Bassett and Kim Kardashian). “Aloe vera has been shown to speed wound healing by improving blood circulation through the area and preventing cell death around skin damage,” Dr. Sturm says. “Aloe stimulates fibroblasts that produce the collagen and elastin fibers, making the skin more elastic and less wrinkled. Its astringent properties tighten pores… and it also has an anti-acne effect in part because of its antiseptic properties.”
With so many incredible benefits, why isn’t the natural ingredient being touted in the same way that CBD, bakuchiol, or kakadu plum are today? “Aloe is a traditional botanical used to heal the skin for centuries,” Dr. Zeichner says. “Despite the emergence of new botanicals with questionable benefits, I think that many brands are choosing to include aloe because newer ingredients don’t mean they work any better.”
Adds Dr. Sturm, “It’s hard to say that an ingredient that has been in global use for 2000 years has been underestimated! People probably don’t know the ingredient science behind aloe, but they notice anecdotally this ingredient’s efficacy as a topical skin care and wound healer.” After a full year on the stuff, I’m definitely one of them.
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