When it comes to cosmetics, aloe vera is everywhere! It’s a Super Ingredient, a base to always have by your side – it seems like a real miracle plant that can do it all. Is this too good to be true? Maybe…
Aloe vera: a mythical plant
Aloe vera, or aloe barbadensis miller, is a tropical plant that’s very resistant to dryness. It is often said that the amount of water it can store in its leaves allows it to live for years without even a drop of rain! So the scene is set: aloe vera is the object of much admiration.
What’s its treasure? It’s leaves. And particularly the flesh that they store away. This is what we use, and not just in a small way: soaps, shower gels, and shampoos… but also cleaning products, detergents, even toilet paper, and razor blades! A big ‘contains aloe vera‘ slapped on the packaging is supposed to convince us of their effectiveness and respect to even the most sensitive skin. On natural DIY skincare sites, aloe vera is part of the very basic recipes for looking after skin, hair or even the mouth.
The recurring argument? It’s ancient use. The Egyptian papyruses of the 16th century BC praise it for its laxative, anti-inflammatory, disinfectant properties and its ability to fight against skin conditions, hemorrhoids, and even hair loss. It is said that Alexander the Great embarked upon conquests in order to seize these plants to treat his soldiers, that Nefertiti and Cleopatra owe their beauty to it. Sacred historical facts… Or perhaps just myths?
Regardless, when it comes to cosmetics, Aloe Vera is praised for its long list of benefits: soothing, stimulates collagen production, anti-aging effects, healing, and beneficial against skin conditions (acne, eczema, psoriasis) or sunburns. Not bad…
Your skincare products are turning green
On paper, aloe vera sap has its arguments, with no fewer than 75 active components: mineral and trace elements (magnesium, calcium, copper, iron zinc…), vitamin C, B1, B2, B3, B6, regenerating polyphenols and phytosterols, beta-carotene… And many more! The best part? Its exceptional wealth in antibacterial polysaccharides, antifungals, healers, anti-inflammatories. But for cosmetics, it is usually transformed and used in two different ways.
Aloe gel, aloe barbadensis leaf juice, is extracted from the leaves and then filtered to strip it of its laxative properties. The problem: like pure sap, it is primarily composed of water – 99%! In reality, its active molecules make up only 1% and, crucially, they do not last: if it is not consumed directly after extraction, it oxidises and rots very quickly. The result is that it needs to be processed, pasteurised, heated, enriched with preservatives and pH regulators. A natural substance that is already less natural thanks to various processes that can make it lose up to 85% of its properties.
Aloe vera also exists in powder form, aloe barbadensis leaf juice powder, which has a higher concentration of active components… But is usually obtained by high-temperature atomisation which destroys the sap’s nutrients. A cold-temperature equivalent procedure does exist, lyophilisation, but is complicated and costly and so is generally reserved for pharmaceutical uses. So have a read of the label of your product that claims it ‘contains aloe vera’ and you’ll find… Bingo! Aloe barbadensis leaf juice powder will usually appear right at the end of the list. In other words, your product or even your tube of aloe vera gel that claims to be pure, actually contains an incredibly low percentage.
Because in cosmetics, most often you’ll encounter a combination of these 2 problems: there is a large chance that your aloe vera is a reconstituted gel. In other words, a low-quality powder AND drowned with a lot of water and a heap of additives (fragrances, gelling agents, preservatives). This doesn’t stop certain products boasting about their enormous and deceptive percentage of aloe vera. What’s the advantage? The product gains stability. But its real use? Largely just to increase the organic percentage of a product. And yes, water, which is not certifiable usually makes up a large part of this. Aloe vera gel, even when reconstituted, can be certified if the plant has been harvested without synthetic phytosanitary products. And there you have it, your product that in reality just contains a lot of water, magically responds to the requirements of a label. Clearly, a large part of the aloe vera market has caught on to the wonderful practice of greenwashing…
Aloe vera is not an essential component of slow cosmetics
You’ve found a high-quality aloe vera gel that is cold-stabilised, with a good content of active ingredients, and a natural preservative and setting-agent? It’s pretty rare, but it does exist. Now what?
When it’s applied on its own, aloe vera has one major limitation: it’s a water-based ingredient that contains no fat. And fat is the most essential condition required for a product to penetrate the skin. But what about its reputation as a god-tier natural moisturiser? Overrated! Your aloe gel can neither get through the skin’s fatty barrier nor can it strengthen the skin’s ability to retain water: the majority of the product evaporates very soon after application, leaving only a temporary feeling of freshness and a film of a light tightening feeling. Aloe vera is moistening and filmogenic, but it is certainly not hydrating. Without an element of fat to emulsify it, it even risks taking some of your skin’s water away with it, in the event that it is cold or very hot. Basically, it’ll dry out your skin. So, if used it on its own, regardless of its benefits, it can’t do very much for your skin.
Its anti-inflammatory and healing powers, and its relatively high salicylic acid content can be useful for the treatment of acne and scarring. But other natural active ingredients, which are much easier to find in high-quality formats, can be just as effective for helping your skin thoroughly regulate itself: plant oils, essential oils, and hydrolats are among the mix. Aloe vera doesn’t bring a lot to the table and makes the mixtures really difficult to preserve with no additives.
Of course, aloe vera shouldn’t be ignored, with a calming and soothing effect after shaving, insect bites, irritation or after sun exposure. As an ingredient, it imparts a smooth texture and a pleasant fresh feeling to cosmetics. As a natural hair styling product, it helps to tame frizziness. But even still, it’s a long way off being a star ingredient!
A plant that doesn’t just bring good you good stuff
Though it is generally well-regarded, there are a few things to be wary of: it is photosensitising and can cause contact dermatitis and spots. Be especially wary of any formulas that bring together aloe vera and essential oils without any fatty agent: this is like applying your essential oil pure. It’s risky and aggressive for the skin.
In particular, the aloe vera trend brings with it some serious downsides. Search ‘aloe vera benefits’ online and you’ll find many long and inventive lists, even the alleged prevention of cancers! At a push, it might even bring back loved ones and eternal life! Very suspiciously, you’ll find anything and everything, including some pretty serious side effects, from diarrhea to liver problems.
In short, if you’re hoping to incorporate home-grown aloe vera into your routine, be careful! It’s trendy, but your garden centre plant, often grown with the help of fertilizers and pesticides, is an air-cleaning plant. Your homemade gel, therefore, risks being rich in… All of the chemical substances that the plant has absorbed. Maybe you buy the leaves in an organic supermarket? That’s better, but you need to be sure you’re collecting the sap correctly, or you’re risking severe irritation of the hands, and, if you’re consuming the aloe vera orally, you’re risking poisoning, possible damage to DNA, and potential disruption to your hormonal system. The biggest offender? Extremely toxic yellow latex, classed by the WHO as carcinogenic, which surrounds the sap and is very difficult to remove. You should avoid this entirely during pregnancy (it also contains abortive substances), breastfeeding (there’s a risk of dehydration due to diarrhea and allergy in your baby), or for young children or weak people. Be careful of commercial aloe vera too: the growing demand comes alongside mass production using suspicious methods (for example, crushing the leaves whole, leaving the toxic substances inside). Practices that are so serious they’ve been taken up bu the European Food Safety Agency.
To sum up, commercially available aloe vera can be considered as neither an essential cosmetic ingredient nor always natural. Somewhere between the effects of trends and marketing tricks, there are always reasons to be wary. Yes, it has its virtues. As long as it is fresh, natural, unprocessed and free from additives, the plant has been grown in a specific climate and harvested at the right time… But this is very rare! For us, aloe vera’s virtues are not numerous or unique enough to justify the use of this expensive product, that is grown far away, and doesn’t keep well without preservatives. At oOlution we’ve made different choices when it comes to ingredients that guarantee deep action on your skin and allow our products to truly be 100% natural.
This post is also available in french.