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This Aloe-Infused Gel Helped My Sensitive Skin Handle Retin-A

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Dousing inflamed, irritated skin in aloe vera is far from groundbreaking. We’ve all been there: You fell asleep in the sun, forgot to reapply your sunscreen, and woke with a painful, blistering sunburn across your chest. Naturally, you reach into your medicine cabinet and pull out the giant bottle of aloe vera you purchased the last time this happened, slather it on, and — aaah — sweet relief: The cooling, soothing sensation of the aloe helps alleviate that throbbing, stingy sunburn.

Like many, I’ve long relied on aloe vera to combat the aftereffects of summer carelessness. But after seeing the ingredient pop up more and more in everyday skin-care products (from reputable and efficacious brands like Cosrx and Skinceuticals), I wondered if aloe could work on more than just sunburns.

Recently, I decided to level up from my regular, over-the-counter gentle retinol to a more intense, prescription .025 percent Tretinoin. Retinoids, particularly those that are prescription strength, have a reputation for initially causing flakiness and redness until your skin eventually builds up a tolerance. Knowing how well aloe worked on my sun-inflicted irritations, I figured it would be the perfect ingredient to incorporate into my routine to combat retinol-induced sensitivity.

As always, I took to the internet to sleuth on skin-care sub-Reddits and magazines for the best aloe-vera-infused products. But it didn’t take long to uncover something unexpected: While aloe vera gel is considered a household staple and, to many, the gold standard for treating sunburns, there actually isn’t much scientific data backing up the claims behind its skin-repairing properties. After years of trusting the ingredient in some of my most painful and intense skin crises — like the infamous Miami, sunglass-shaped burn of 2013 — was it possible that, all this time, aloe vera had just been a product of good cosmetic marketing? Did aloe vera even do anything?

According to Dr. Lucy Chen, a board-certified dermatologist based in Miami, while aloe vera’s healing properties don’t have as much scientific backing as, say, panthenol or retinoids, its anecdotal evidence, particularly around its skin-soothing and -hydrating capabilities, is plentiful. Because of aloe vera’s high moisture count and cooling propensity, Dr. Chen explained that it’s a great candidate for reducing mild to moderate sunburn pain and inflammation, as well as delivering hydration to the affected area. In addition, Dr. Chen says that aloe vera contains a naturally occurring salicylic acid — this, in combination with its anti-inflammatory properties, is why it often pops up in gentle, acne-fighting products geared toward sensitive skin types. In short: Is aloe vera going to rapidly heal wounds or transform serious burns overnight? Probably not. But does it have moisturizing and calming benefits that can help ease irritation or inflammation? Yes.

As far as my retinoid journey goes, Dr. Chen agreed that aloe vera’s cooling ability and mild antibacterial benefits could likely help with the sensitivity and purging that comes with skin retinization. But, naturally, I had to confirm that the product I’d been eyeing was up to her standards. Dr. Chen explained that while, in general, 100 percent aloe vera formulas have the highest potential for efficacy (formulated products don’t often have a large quantity in it), the ISNTREE Aloe Soothing Gel incorporated a cocktail of trusted and research-backed ingredients such as panthenol, glycerin, and allantoin that — in tandem with the aloe vera — could help maximize the soothing and and anti-inflammatory benefits of the formula. Together, the ingredients in ISNTREE’s Aloe Soothing Gel work together to trap in water (reducing flakiness and dehydration), protect our barrier (which helps our skin restore itself), and deliver anti-inflammatory benefits (which can help calm redness, sensitivity, and itchiness).

Retinoids work by increasing our skin’s cell turnover, encouraging our body to slough off dead skin cells at a rapid pace. Oftentimes, your skin has shed cells before the new, fresh, baby ones are ready to come to the surface — this can leave your skin vulnerable, resulting in redness, dryness, and irritation. However, the humectants and vitamins in ISNTREE’s Aloe Soothing Gel provide anti-inflammatory and deeply quenching benefits that help keep your skin protected during this window of time. I’ve found this formula is doubly helpful with initial skin retinization when applied before the tretinoin — that way, it also creates a cushion of moisture that acts as a buffer between your skin and the retinoid. Since it’s a gel formula rather than a thick cream, the product sinks quite quickly into the skin and my tretinoin glides over on top — there’s no clumping or pilling. After applying the aloe soothing gel and a teeny-weeny bit amount of tretinoin, I follow it up with a rich, ceramide-packed moisturizer (I’ve been using the CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, per my dermatologist’s recommendation). With this method, I have been able to finally integrate a prescription-strength retinoid into my routine without fear of looking like Freddy Krueger in the morning.

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This Aloe-Infused Gel Helped My Skin Handle Retin-A