Plus, the best aloe vera products to buy if you have a sunburn.
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a woman's back with a sunburn next to slices of aloe plant
Credit: Getty Images / supamas lhakjit / Marjan_Apostolovic

For many people, spending any type of extended period of time outside with unprotected skin means one thing: a painful sunburn. And although there are misconceptions around the weather and sunburns (yes, you can still get burned on a cloudy day), there are also misunderstandings when it comes to the best ways to treat the excruciating aftermath. This includes using aloe vera for sunburn—and whether or not it actually works.

Sunburn is a form of radiation burn that affects the skin, explains Cheryl Rosen, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City, and it's caused, she says, when "ultraviolet (UV) radiation damages the DNA in skin cells, leading to mutations that can cause skin cancer." Sunburns also can cause some painful short-term side effects such as "pain, redness, swelling, blisters and loss of skin pigmentation," Rosen says.

Diane Madfes, M.D., FAAD, an assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, adds that a sunburn is trauma to the skin, which means that any meaningful treatment aims to decrease inflammation. So does aloe vera accomplish this? She says yes, and adds that it's effective because aloe vera contains anti-inflammatory properties similar to those of aspirin and Motrin.

What Is Aloe Vera, Exactly?

Aloe vera is a succulent plant, and there are more than 500 different varieties, explains Lilliana Ramírez García, M.D., of Nava MD, a dermatologist in San Juan, Puerto Rico. For centuries, people have used the gel from aloe vera leaves to soothe and hydrate skin and treat a range of skin-care concerns, and she says that's because it contains a compound called aloin. "In a study by Chinese researchers, aloin was found to be helpful in fighting inflammation," she explains. "This makes aloe vera effective in reducing pain, redness and irritation from a sunburn."

Additionally, she notes that aloe vera also packs an added punch with molecules called sterols. "These molecules promote the production of collagen, a protein that helps the skin heal," she says. "Last but not least, aloe vera is incredibly moisturizing — this can help reduce the drying and peeling that occurs after too much time in the sun."

How Does Aloe Vera Help Sunburns?

According to Rosen, aloe vera aids burned skin in three ways: it cools it, hydrates it and helps heal it. That's because the gel from an aloe vera leaf is a natural humectant, meaning it helps the skin retain moisture and has a soothing effect when applied topically. "It may also help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and age spots," she adds, because aloe vera is "also a good source of vitamin E, which helps protect the skin from damage."

In other words, aloe vera gel has the unique ability to relieve sunburn effects by temporarily reducing pain and swelling of the skin that sunburn-induced inflammation causes. Research also shows that in addition to having an anti-inflammatory effect, aloe vera also reduces potential peeling as the skin begins to heal, thanks to the added hydration.

And then there's also the aloin, that crucial natural compound found in aloe vera. According to Jeffrey T.S. Hsu, M.D., FAAD, a dermatologist in Chicago, lab tests have found that aloin has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. "Other research shows that aloe vera is useful specifically for treating burns. A review of four studies found that aloe vera is effective for treating first- and second-degree burns." He notes that sunburn causes tens of thousands of visits to U.S. emergency rooms annually.

Benefits of Using Aloe Vera for Sunburn

There's a reason why aloe vera is considered one of the best natural remedies when it comes to healing sunburns. "It's an anti-inflammatory [treatment], which helps to calm and soothe the skin, and its water-based properties allow for a great source of hydration, which will also helps rid dry chafing on the skin," says Stephanie Johnson, an aesthetician and educator in San Diego. "It's also one of the safest ways to treat sunburn and typically won't cause irritation—however, scented aloe vera products that contain fragrances can cause irritation, so be sure to avoid those," she adds.

According to Rosen, aloe vera gel is thought to help sunburns because it:

  • Cools the skin to soothe skin and relieve pain
  • Helps maintain hydration
  • Has anti-inflammatory properties to reduce inflammation
  • Has antibacterial properties for wound healing

One of the ways aloe vera is able to do all of this is because it also contains a compound called barbaloin, which has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, explains Rosen. When applied topically, she notes, aloe vera gel not only reduces burn pain and inflammation but also, since it helps to promote healing, it may even reduce scarring.

Types of Aloe Vera Products to Shop

There are three main types of aloe vera products for skin:

  • Gels: These are the most common type of aloe vera product and are usually used to treat sunburns, minor skin irritations and insect bites, explains Rosen. The downside is that some people find that gel makes their skin feel sticky or oily. However, aloe vera gels have an added benefit: they immediately create a cooling feeling upon application, particularly if you place the product in the refrigerator before use. "This can provide such much-needed relief to sunburned skin," adds García.
  • Lotions: Lotions are thicker than gels, and they are used to moisturize the skin. "Some of the pros include that they can help soothe sunburned skin and may be beneficial in treating psoriasis," says Rosen. "Additionally, they are often considered to be safe for use on all skin types." However, there can also be some drawbacks to using aloe vera lotions. "For example, they may not be effective in treating more severe cases of psoriasis," she adds. "Additionally, if someone has a latex allergy, they may also have a reaction to aloe vera."
  • Creams: These are the thickest type of aloe vera product, and they have been found to be helpful in treating more severe skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Aloe vera creams are also a good source of antioxidants, which can help to protect the skin from damage caused by free radicals. "This makes it a promising natural treatment for aging skin," says Rosen. "However, there are some potential disadvantages of using aloe vera cream on the skin—for example, aloe vera can cause allergic reactions in some people."

What to Know Before Using Aloe Vera for Sunburn

Aloe vera gel is a great topical aid but only if you have a mild sunburn, which is typically considered a first-degree burn, according to García. Side effects of a first-degree burn include mild swelling, redness, pain and heat, and applying aloe vera to inflamed skin in this instance can help provide relief. "If you get a more severe sunburn, such as a second-degree burn which causes blisters or opening of the skin, then you should not apply topical aloe vera or any other topical treatments to the skin," she says. "Instead, seek the help of a medical professional to ensure skin is properly treated and protected against infection."

What to Look for in Aloe Vera Products

When considering all of the different aloe vera options on the market, there are a few key things to consider:

  1. The percentage of aloe vera. Any aloe vera product in a gel or lotion form that contains 100% aloe vera is the best option. "But pay close attention to the purity of the product and look for products that consist of 100% aloe vera," says García. "In fact, a small study showed that a product containing only 70% aloe vera had no benefits for sunburned skin, so sticking with the pure form is best." However, Hsu warns not to let a label with "100%" listed trick you. "If an aloe product says '100% aloe gel' on the bottle, it does not mean it contains 100% aloe," he clarifies. "In this instance, it is misleading because while the product is in fact, 100% gelatinous, it's not made of 100% pure aloe," he clarifies.
  2. The number of ingredients. Madfes also suggests looking for products that only have a few ingredients. "Less ingredients are best, so use either a natural aloe vera plant or an organic product such as Badger Aloe Vera Gel," she says.
  3. The "type" of aloe vera used. It's also crucial to read the fine print on potential products to ensure that it's made with real, organic aloe, notes Rosen. Or else, you might get duped. "Some cheaper products on the market may not actually contain any aloe, so be sure to check the ingredients list before purchasing," she says. This can be misleading because over-the-counter aloe vera products are considered cosmetics, explains Hsu, so "they aren't strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not standardized in this way." That means the quality of what you get can vary, and the products you buy are not guaranteed to contain any aloe at all. "In 2016, for instance, Bloomberg published the findings of an investigation into four store-brand aloe gels sold by Walmart, Target, CVS and Walgreens," he says. "After laboratory tests looked for three chemical markers of aloe — acemannan, malic acid and glucose — they found that three of the four products tested (from Walmart, Target and CVS) contained no evidence of aloe."
  4. Other irritating ingredients. Although aloe vera products are in theory intended to soothe skin, they may actually have the opposite effect, depending on the product's formula. "Be sure to purchase a product that is free of artificial colors, fragrances and other harsh chemicals," says Rosen. "These are all synthetic ingredients, therefore your skin may have adverse reactions from the added chemicals. This is especially true for those with sensitive skin types."

The Best Aloe Vera Products for Sunburns

All aloe vera products aren't created equal — but these are some top picks to consider, according to the experts.

Badger Aloe Vera Gel

When it comes to the best aloe product, fresh will always be best, according to Hsu. "Getting the most pure version of aloe, immediately using the gel after cutting it is the most effective method," he says. "Aloe begins to lose some of its potency after a few hours, so cutting a fresh leaf will give you the most nutrients." However, he knows that this isn't always an option, and that's why he recommends Badger's gel to his patients due to its formula that includes a high concentration of aloe vera and no harmful additives. "The simplicity in their ingredients mixed with high aloe contents is definitely a sign of effective aloe that will alleviate the effects of sunburned skin," he adds.

Aromatica Organic Aloe Vera Gel

Hsu's other top aloe vera recommendation is a vegan-certified, hydrating gel made from 96% organic aloe vera gel. This hypoallergenic option is ideal for those with sensitive skin and is safe to use all over, including on your face. "Additionally, unlike many fancy aloe brands, the costs are reasonable," he says, and he also likes that there are no harmful additives.

Lily of the Desert Aloe Vera Gelly

One of the best products to help with sunburns, according to Rosen, is Lily of the Desert's soothing moisturizer that's made from organically grown aloe vera plants. "It has a great texture, not too thick or slimy, and it absorbs quickly without leaving a sticky residue," she says. "It also has a light, refreshing scent." But benefits-wise, this is her personal go-to because she's found it to be great for moisturizing and conditioning skin. "I've used it on both my face and my hair with great results," she says. "Plus, it's organic and cold-pressed, so you can feel good about using it."

Herbalife Herbal Aloe Everyday Soothing Gel

Rosen recommends Herbalife's "true aloe" soothing gel that's free of fragrance, added parabens, colors and dyes. "It's great for your skin, and it can help you feel more energized," she says. "It's also a good source of antioxidants, which can help protect your body from free radicals. And finally, it's super hydrating, which is essential for keeping your skin looking healthy and young."

Green Goo Skin Repair Salve

This multipurpose cream has many intended uses—including as a daily moisturizer or as a treatment for acne spots, minor burns, puffy eyes and sunspots. However, it's also excellent for helping with sunburns and sun-damaged skin, in Johnson's experience. Plus, she appreciates its range of 100% natural ingredients including aloe vera, rosehip seed oil, helichrysum, vitamin E and coconut oil.