The Real Benefits of Aloe Vera for Hair, According to Experts
While aloe vera is quite the popular ingredient for self-care and beauty products these days, this gel-filled succulent is far from a current trend. Aloe vera has been touted for its medicinal, health, beauty and dermatological properties for thousands of years—the ancient Egyptians called it "the plant of immortality" and it was an essential element of Cleopatra's and Nefertiti's beauty regimens. While research has uncovered dozens of potential applications for aloe vera over the last several thousand years, from improving gut health to clearing psoriasis—aloe vera has become especially coveted for hair care.
We chatted with Tonya Lane, a cosmetic chemist and founder of the popular YouTube channel Curly Chemistry, and Patrick Obukowho, a member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists and president of Advantage Research Lab, to learn more about the actual benefits of aloe vera for hair and how effective the products on the market really are for those seeking solutions for their hair-related woes.
Benefits of Aloe Vera for Hair
Lane explains that aloe vera has a host of benefits for hair, whether you're looking to heal your scalp or simply pamper your tresses. She says that the ingredient is a humectant, a substance that reduces moisture loss and has the ability to draw moisture from one's environment into skin and hair.
"Aloe is amazing at providing long-lasting moisturization that you can see and feel," Lane says. "For the hair, you'll notice an increase in softness and manageability." She also notes that aloe creates a subtle glow for the skin. However, aloe's healing properties go beyond kicking dryness to the curb.
Lane says, "Aloe has the ability to promote pH balance to the hair, scalp and skin. [This] plays a huge role in the health of our body, and unfortunately, a lot of scalp issues arise due to pH imbalances. Adding aloe vera to your regimen will definitely be an asset." However, she notes that everyone responds differently to various ingredients—even natural ones—and it's important to go with the products and treatments your hair best responds to.
Research also shows that aloe vera is an anti-inflammatory ingredient and can protect against UV radiation, which can strengthen and benefit both your hair and scalp. UV-protective properties will preserve color and shine to keep your hair looking radiant. It even has the power to stave off grease, as aloe vera has special enzymes that can strip the hair (and skin) of excess oils. And if that wasn't enough, aloe vera may help with hair growth, as it both increases blood circulation to the scalp and is full of vitamins A, C and E, which fight inflammation and free radicals.
The Reality of "Aloe Vera-Based" Hair Care
Lane and Obukowho have used aloe vera in formulating skin and hair products many times, and they both prefer to work with it in its gel-like liquid state, rather than in powder form, which may be less effective. However, Obukowho says that simply picking up a hair-care product that touts having aloe vera in it doesn't ensure you'll achieve all the benefits listed above.
"We use aloe vera a lot, and ingredient stories are about place. Marketing people love it because aloe vera itself is a natural, organic ingredient, so it's a good story to tell," he says. "I've been doing formulations for 27 years, and aloe vera concentration is below 1% in every formula I've worked with, even though marketing goes around and makes big claims."
Obukowho notes that while aloe vera has been around for thousands of years and has historically been used for a variety of benefits, its efficacy in products is questionable. He doesn't believe there is ample research to back all of the claims made about aloe. Obukowho adds that nearly all shampoos and conditioners on the market—as well as many other hair-care products—are formulated with surfactants, chemical compounds that can bond water and oil, which can interfere with aloe vera's integrity.
The major purpose of surfactants in hair-care product formulations is to remove dirt, so it's a pretty important part of the formulation process, but it breaks down those buzzy active ingredients listed on labels that are the initial draw for consumers (think: olive and argan oils, vitamin E or aloe vera), Obukowho explains. However, there are some formulations out there that feature bases that will actually work with the active ingredients, and Obukowho says that oil- or water-based products that contain aloe vera are likely more effective than your typical drugstore shampoo that advertises being made with aloe.
Additionally, Obukowho notes that consumers often forget that hair is dead. If you're looking to heal dandruff or other scalp issues, improve hair growth and boost the overall health of your hair, a product needs to be used directly on the scalp. For example, while an aloe vera-based conditioner may help moisturize your hair, you won't reap the anti-inflammatory benefits or see longer strands. You'll need to use something on your scalp if your goal is to promote hair growth and healing.
How to Use Aloe Vera for Hair
If you don't want to take the time to research aloe-based hair care products, the ingredient is very potent in juice form and straight from the plant itself, both of which are becoming more commonly found at supermarkets and should be available at most natural-foods stores.
"For those who have a dry or flaky scalp, doing aloe vera juice rinses weekly will help promote a healthier scalp and can also reduce itchiness as well," says Lane. "Aloe vera juice rinses on the hair are also a great way to give your hair a juicy treat throughout the week, especially if it's feeling a bit on the dry side." You can also scoop out the gel found in the center of aloe vera leaves (or purchase it bottled) and apply it directly to the scalp and strands for an all-natural (and very inexpensive) hair mask.
If you are looking for special products beyond raw aloe to refresh your daily or weekly hair-care regimen, it's worth taking the time to find the ones that will give you the most bang for your buck. An all-natural shampoo with a short, simple ingredient list could be worth the investment for those looking for scalp relief and added moisture. An aloe vera-based thickening spray that can be applied to your roots may also be a viable option if you're looking to promote hair growth. Just remember that everyone reacts differently to certain products and ingredients, so be sure to monitor how your scalp and skin are feeling if you incorporate a new step into your self-care regimen.