Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Knights of the aloe vera roundtable

Despite aloe vera's ubiquitous appearance in products, few of us know exactly how it works and why. Many believe that it is the supreme source of moisture for hair, yet for some people, aloe vera makes their hair "squeaky" and brittle.

Is it possible to get easy, straightforward answers regarding aloe vera? Doesn't seem so. Even the Wikipedia entry says: "Scientific evidence for the cosmetic and therapeutic effectiveness of Aloe vera is limited and when present is typically contradictory."

I thought it might be fun to assemble a group of informed people who work in the beauty business and get their opinions. We've got Marsha, the owner of Curl Junkie, who concocts her own products and was a stylist before that. She's got definite opinions about curly hair. Next, we have JC, whose blog I wrote about a few days ago. She is a curly-hair scientist in the UK who backs up her findings and determinations about hair by quoting from specific scientific studies. Jessica McGuinty, founder of Jessicurl, uses aloe in many of her product formulations, and as she stated in a recent interview, does a lot of testing of these products and how they perform. Tiffany Anderson-Taylor, aka StruttsWife on the NaturallyCurly.com discussion boards, has been a hair stylist in Florida for several years, and recently wrote a book about caring for curly hair. Her site, Live Curly Live Free, is a fantastic resource for people curious about curls' unique needs. And finally, we have Perry Romanowski, an independent cosmetic formulator who is associated with one of my favorite blogs, The Beauty Brains as well as a site for cosmetic chemists called Chemists Corner. He's written a book titled Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry, and he has been a senior project leader at Alberto Culver.

That's a lot of hairy brain power. And yet, opinions at this roundtable are as divergent as Elvis Costello's discography. See for yourself.

Jillipoo: I've heard aloe vera described as pure moisture, a humectant, a protein, and an astringent. How would you describe it?

Marsha: I would describe it as a moisturizer and I believe it has a small amount of amino acids in it, but not enough that I would call it a protein.

JC: I didn't realize just how popular aloe vera was until I received repeated requests for research about it. It does contain a whole bunch of stuff including sugars, calcium, iron, vitamins, proteins (enzymes) and aminoacids. You can read the full list here Br J Gen Pract. 1999 October; 49(447): 823–828. I think aloe vera defies description and is probably one of the substances to watch for the future. It is sort of important to say though that the gel is different from whole leaf extracts (as far as medicinal properties are concerned)

Jess: I also know it to be moisturizing, without being overly heavy or causing build up. In the testing during the production of my styling products, it the batches without aloe didn't seem to allow for the same softness to the hair once dried as the batches with it.

Tiffany: Because aloe vera contains enzymes that promote stimulation of the hair follicles, I tend to view it mainly as an astringent, although I feel it certainly has its place within the other categories as well.

Perry: Aloe vera is primarily a humectant made up of polysaccharides. It is formulated into hair care products to help support a marketing natural story and is not expected (nor has it been demonstrated) to provide a significant benefit for hair.

Jillipoo: Is it really moisturizing or does it merely simulate moisturizing? My hair curls quite a lot when I use it, which makes me think it's getting moisture, but how exactly does aloe vera work?

Marsha: This is completely non-scientific, but I've found that it works as a moisturizer in that it seems to form a film (although it's a very thin, not very stable film) that helps to keep moisture in the hair. I've read that Aloe has a small amount of amino acids in it and this could help explain its film forming qualities.

JC: Most research that I have seen refers most to skin and wound healing. One journal article which was reviewing aloe vera said that it 'seals in moisture due to its high water and mineral content' (Phytotherapy Research, pg 987-1010,2003). It has been used to keep wounds moist and also help break down callusses. I guess on hair it may be a source of water for the hair to keep drawing on? This is a monumental piece of guesswork I must warn you.

Jess: I've found it to be actually moisturizing, but of course in a totally different way than we might think of oils or conditioners being moisturizing. (ie: not creamy like a conditioner or oily like butters.) The humectant properties allow it to attract and retain moisture, as the other ladies have already said. :)

Tiffany: In its role as a humectant, it attracts moisture from the surrounding environment; additionally, since it is a coagulating agent, my thought is its thickened gel state forms a protective layer that helps to hold that existing moisture in. I don't know how much moisture it can actually generate in and of itself, however.

Perry: Aloe vera acts as a humectant. When it is applied it will help to draw moisture to your hair. It has a similar function to ingredients like Glycerin and Propylene Glycol. But it will only work when delivered from a leave-in product since it is water soluble and easily rinsed away when used in rinse-out hair products.

Jillipoo: What kind of hair is likely to benefit most from aloe vera? What kind is likely to not benefit at all?

Marsha: I think all hair types can benefit from Aloe vera, but specifically, fine hair, damaged hair, and dry hair, regardless of curl pattern. If your hair type is extremely protein sensitive, then you would likely see little benefit.

JC: I can't really answer this one scientifically as there is not much research on this subject. I definitely think it is hugely popular among the readers on my blog so my anectodal research would say it is good for the gorgeous super curly/kinky haired women whose locks are prone to dryness. I think many people are opting for natural products along with their natural curls so I think many will try it regardless of hair condition.

Jess: Since it's so light in texture and doesn't build up, any hair type can use it, as it won't weigh down fine hair. Some people are allergic to aloe, so obviously they shouldn't use it.

Tiffany: Anyone with moisture needs should most likely find aloe to be beneficial, although individuals with porosity issues should be careful, as any product ingredient with humectant properties can cause issues by forcing the hair shaft to "drink" moisture out of the atmosphere until it is bloated and swollen.

Perry: Aloe vera is actually an ingredient that cosmetic chemists refer to as a "claims" ingredient. It is not actually put in hair formulas at a level that would (even if it could) have any effect. The only effect that it has is to create a story for the product that consumers find compelling. The "work" of the formula such as moisturizing, cleansing, & conditioning is really done by ingredients that have less compelling names like 'dimethicone', 'cetrimonium chloride', and 'cocamidopropyl betaine'. But aloe vera is a humectant and may have some moisturizing effects when delivered from leave-in products. However, other ingredients are much more effective at a lower cost. From rinse-out products, aloe vera has no effect since it just gets rinsed away with all the other non-substantive ingredients.


auntnett said...

Maybe aloe is a humectant but my hair behaves totally different with it than with others, especially glycerin. It likes aloe and doesn't seem to draw moisture from the atmosphere and plump, bush and frizz like it tends to with glycerin. I almost always use some aloe on my hair beneath my leave-in and whatever styling product(s) I'm using for some weightless moisture, frizz control, and curl enhancement. My scalp also enjoys it.

Angela said...

This was a really fun and informative post! Loved getting all of the experts' opinions in one place :)

I find when I use Aloe on damp hair, underneath my gel, I tend to get a bit poofy but when I use it on dry hair, to tame my flyaways or bits of frizz, it works perfectly.

Paula said...

For me it acts like a moisturizer and a weak humectant, not as strong as glycerin or honey as far as poofiness goes.

Super article with a great variety.

I love the pic too. :)

Katrina said...

I agree with Paula - if aloe is a humectant, it seems to act weakly. I put it over Kinky Curly Curling Custard all winter for fatter curls. Glycerin dried me out something fierce though. Thanks for assembling all that great info!

DEL said...

How did I refrain from posting a comment before LOL!! For me it works like a humectant and makes me poof in a lot of products during Summer, but in the Winter it behaves like an emollient and additional moisture. Very tricky ingredient, but I love it most of the time!