The word cactus is typically synonymous with dry, desert conditions, prickly surfaces, pain, and a plant that should be avoided (‘don’t touch’ comes to mind)– not so much as an ingredient in beauty products that has soothing and hydrating properties. Every year, there seems to be a trendy skincare ingredient dominating the beauty market. A recent one that caught our attention amongst plant-based cosmetic ingredients is cactus. It seems counterintuitive that a desert plant could be beneficial for the skin but cactus is known for its restorative and hydrating properties.
Despite their dry surroundings, cacti are rich in antioxidants and fat soluble vitamins like Vitamin E, which contribute to the plants being able to retain moisture in dry conditions. Think of it this way – because cacti come from desert environments where there is limited rainfall, they adapt to this harsh climate by retaining water. Cacti derivatives have soothing and healing benefits, which makes sense given aloe and cactus are related in that they are both succulents.
More beauty companies are highlighting cactus in their skincare products. LA-based beauty brand Freck Beauty launched their skincare collection in November 2018 with cactus as their main ingredient, citing its hydrating and nourishing properties when used topically. Brands like Japanese brand, Boscia, created their ultra-lightweight moisturizer and peel-off mask with cactus water while Youth to the People released a face oil containing prickly pear cactus extract.
This all left me wondering – can a dry, prickly plant hydrate your skin with long-term benefits? To find out, we asked two founders, a dermatologist and a chemist to weigh in and tell us everything they know about cactus in beauty.
Why cactus? What nutrients do cacti contain?
Most cactus species grow in hot, dry desert regions and are prevalent in parts of the Southwestern United States. Cactus-containing skin care products are mostly “derived from prickly pear cactus seed oil, which has potent antioxidant vitamins and hydrating ingredients,” says Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Mudgil Dermatology. Prickly pear seed oil, also known as barbary fig seed oil, is native to Morocco. The oil contains high amounts of Vitamin E, about 150% more than another known oil found in Morocco, argan oil, and is rich in essential fatty acids, amino acids and vitamin K.
Lan Belinky, Co-Creator of Boscia, notes that the company wanted to “harness the power of cacti because of their ability to survive and thrive in the driest and harshest climates.” She adds that “cactus water can help retain moisture in the skin to help prevent future dehydration and improve the skin’s barrier function to prevent moisture-loss.”
How does cactus benefit the skin?
“Because of its mineral richness, prickly pear extract is an excellent hydrator and skin soother,” says Mercedes Taylor, Lead Chemist and Product Innovation Manager at Youth to the People. Cactus is “rich in anti-inflammatory ingredients and antioxidants and can be a potent moisturizer,” says Dr. Mudgil. It is composed of “fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), water, fatty acids, amino acids and other antioxidants,” he adds.
Because cacti are high in antioxidants and fatty acids, they have an anti-inflammatory and calming effect. The fatty acids in prickly pear cactus seed oil help calm inflammation and redness. An added benefit is that the oil is easily absorbed into the skin and doesn’t leave a greasy residue.
Prickly pear seed oil also has potent antioxidants called betalains, which are also found in acai, beetroot, and goji berries, and can help protect the skin from damaging radicals that can lead to wrinkles. The oil contains amino acids, which can help with collagen production. The vitamin K component helps brighten hyperpigmentation areas like dark spots and can help minimize under-eye dark circles. A small study of 11 healthy women using eye pads containing vitamin K and caffeine in an emu oil base demonstrated an improvement in minimizing under-eye dark circles and wrinkles, but we should note that it was unclear if the improvement was due to the vitamin K or caffeine component.
Fatty acids, linoleic acid and oleic acid, replenish lost lipids in the skin to restore the skin’s elasticity and moisturize. The high linoleic acid content of prickly pear seed oil is thought to help with acne, as it can prevent sebum from hardening and clogging pores.
What skin types are best for cactus products?
“This is a well-tolerated ingredient, which can be used on all skin types,” says Dr. Mudgil, unless you have an allergy to prickly pear cactus, he adds. In particular, “dehydrated skin can benefit from the cactus water nutrients that hold water and moisture in the skin,” says Belinky.
Belinky explains that although the Boscia cactus water products are great for all skin types, “the texture is great for those with combination-to-oily skin types due to the cactus flesh-like properties.” Remi, founder and CEO of Freck Beauty, notes that the Freck Beauty cactus collection can be used for any skin texture, but is especially useful for dry or acne-sensitive skin.
The Superberry Hydrate + Glow Oil can be used for “any skin type at any age because it is fast-absorbing, will not congest pores, and can be added to any moisturizer for a boost of hydration and antioxidants,” says Taylor of Youth to the People.
What should I look for in skincare containing cactus?
There are over 2000 different types of cacti but they are not all created equal. Look for prickly pear cactus or cactus seed oil in a product’s ingredients. Prickly pear extract is the most common cactus derivative and although it is “mostly made of water, it is nutrient dense and contains potent doses of magnesium, calcium and vitamin C,” explains Taylor.
The Queen of the Night cactus, also known as Cereus Grandiflorus Flower Extract, is from the flower of the cactus and is a rare cactus that blooms on one night of the year between dusk and dawn and withers away shortly after. The plant “adapts to drastic climate conditions and rebounds from dramatic dehydration,” says Belinky. It is known to “rejuvenate, nourish and rebound dry skin and impart intense moisture and conditioning to the skin,” she adds. Both Boscia and Freck Beauty use the Queen of the Night cactus in their products.
How long do I wait until I see a difference in my skin?
Generally, “it takes four weeks to gauge skin changes from any tweak in your regimen,” explains Dr. Mudgil. For many of the products containing cactus, there is a notable difference in hydration and glow upon initial use and long-term benefits such as a more supple complexion are seen after 4-6 weeks of use.
Which skincare products contain cactus?
The starter pack
Freck Beauty Cactus Collection, The Haul includes four products that are nourishing for the skin at an affordable price point and all use different parts of the cactus. Regarding the price point, “our chemist freaked out when she saw the eye jelly was $28 and said we could sell it for $200, “ says Remi. “We stand behind quality ingredients and fair pricing and want to pass it on to consumers,” she adds. A consumer, she notes, who is “adventurous, savvy about ingredients and cares about self-expression and originality.” Details about the four products are included below:
· SO JELLY – an under eye jelly containing cactus flower extract, which provides hydration and cell proliferation and prickly pear seed oil, which contains vitamin K and helps brighten hyperpigmentation.
· CACTUS WATER – a cleansing lactic acid toner containing cactus flower extract and lactic acid, which works to slough away dead skin. Added kelp extract is rich in antioxidants and is known to calm the skin and fight inflammation.
· FORECLAY – a cactus clay mask containing prickly pear seed oil, kelp extract and kaolin clay, which “pulls toxins from the skin while replenishing and hydrating with cactus oil so the skin is not left feeling chafed,” says Remi.
· RICH BITCH – a cactus and vitamin c moisturizer containing prickly pear seed oil, jojoba seed oil, and both kelp and rosemary leaf extract.
Although not part of The Haul, LIL PRICK is a cactus seed dry serum, which contains over 30% raw prickly pear seed oil, a non-comedogenic oil rich in linoleic acid. Pro tip: make sure the ingredient you are most interested in is not at the bottom of the ingredient list, which signifies a low concentration.
The ultra-lightweight moisturizer
Boscia Cactus Water Moisturizer is a lightweight moisturizer made from hydrating ingredients like the coveted Queen of the Night Cactus, South African Resurrection Plant and Aloe Vera. It is a fast-absorbing solution for combination-to-oily skin and helps improve skin moisture and revitalize dehydrated skin without the weight of a heavy cream, explains Belinky. It’s also great as a primer under makeup application. Pro-tip from the founder – store this moisturizer in the fridge for a cool, refreshing hydration boost.
The Prickly Pear Seed Oil
The Youth to the People Superberry Hydrate + Glow Oil is a quickly-absorbing lightweight face oil with hydrating prickly pear cactus and squalane oil that hydrates the skin. The prickly pear cactus extract is taken from the “fruit of the cactus and cold-pressed to ensure all of its hydrating benefits are present,” says Taylor. After cleansing, apply 2-5 drops of oil into hands, rub together and press into skin. Pro tip – mix a drop of oil into makeup for a smooth finish.
Are there any side effects?
Representatives from Boscia, Freck Beauty and Youth to the People noted there are no known side effects from their cactus products. Per Remi of Freck Beauty, the RICH BITCH moisturizer contains high amounts of vitamin C so use this product with a daily sunscreen.
So, what do you think? Are you ready to try cactus skincare for yourself?