(Back To Basics)

This Little-Known Hydrating Ingredient Has Been Utilized For Over 750 Years

A staple in Latinx culture, it boasts a slew of beauty benefits.

With new products, brands, and categories popping up every day, beauty can be a bit overwhelming. Back to Basics is our rudimentary beauty series that serves as your crash course on the science behind some of the best formulations in the game.

Cactus has long been lauded for its ability to thrive in some pretty extreme environmental conditions, namely scorching desert heat, dry air, and high winds. Due to cacti’s extraordinary resilience against the elements, it’s no wonder that some are inclined to slather the plant’s extract — known as prickly pear extract — all over their skin. If these desert flowers can survive centuries in the heat, they can certainly help the skin survive a typical day in a polluted city, right?

There’s been a boom in succulent-derived skin care in recent years, but prickly pear cactus is one of the most noteworthy — especially if you have dry, irritated skin. According to Julio Lamberty, cosmetic chemist at Paula’s Choice, prickly pear (also known as the nopal cactus or Opuntia ficus-indica) is quite the soothing, hydrating, and skin-protecting superstar.

This shrubby cactus is originally native to Mexico, growing in dry, rocky, and warm areas, and has since spread to the Americas, the Mediterranean basin, Africa, India, and as far as Australia. But while it may now be found in different parts of the world, this resilient plant is as rich in Latinx history and culture, as are its benefits.

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Prickly Pear In Latinx Culture

“The Nopal is an ancient symbol of Mexico — in fact, it’s on the Mexican flag,” explains Sandra Velasquez, founder of Nopalera, a bath and body brand that utilizes prickly pear in all of its formulas. “According to the legend, Huitzilopochtli (the Aztec god of sun and war) told the Aztecs to build a city at the spot where they found the nopal with an eagle sitting atop it eating a snake. The story has it that this is where the Aztecs built their capital, Tenochtitlan — over whose ruins the Spanish conquistadors built present-day Mexico City. This legend became the emblem for the Mexican flag.”

Due to its numerous healing abilities, cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Mariana Vergara explains that the prickly pear became a common treatment in Latin American medicine. “Curanderos [native Latin American healers/shamans] have used this plant to treat many conditions, and Spanish conquerors of Mexico recognized the benefits of the fruit due to its vitamin C levels as a partial cure for the scurvy that plagued their sailors,” she says. And according to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rebecca Vasquez, Mexicans have long used the leaves and fruit of the prickly pear for treating ailments such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, gastritis, and hyperglycemia.

The Beauty Benefits of Prickly Pear

Medicinal properties aside, you’ll find prickly pear in many everyday beauty products, from face oils and serums to moisturizers, cleansers, masks, and hair treatments — and for good reason. “It’s incredibly hydrating, soothing, and nourishing for the skin,” says Dr. Shuting Hu, cosmetic chemist and founder of skin care brand Acaderma, pointing out that it has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and skin barrier-strengthening properties. “It’s often used for anti-aging since it’s packed with antioxidants, vitamin E, and essential fatty acids. It’s also rich in amino acids which can help to stimulate collagen production, as well as vitamin K which is known to brighten the skin and reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation.” Dr. Vergara adds that it also contains piscidic acid, a potent antioxidant that plays a role in UV protection.

Prickly pear’s cosmetic uses go beyond the skin, too. Dr. Vasquez says that, according to some studies, prickly pear can also moisturize the hair and promote keratin regeneration, “eventually bringing back the shine and strength of the hair.” Dr. Hu adds that it’s excellent for keeping the scalp healthy, balancing its delicate pH levels.

Depending on the product you’re using, different parts of the plant may be utilized — the stem, the flower, or the fruit (which contains the seeds in which prickly pear seed oil is extracted) — and can be found in extract or oil form.

And while prickly pear, in general, is deeply nourishing, Lamberty explains that there are some compositional differences between the different parts of the plant, which, in turn, boast different benefits. For example, he says the stem features antioxidant, regenerating, moisturizing, soothing, and exfoliating properties, while the flower is an excellent mineralizer that can add strength to hair and nails and can enhance skin firmness and suppleness. The fruit contains potent antioxidant and moisturizing properties, ideal for mature, damaged, or stressed skin.

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How to Use Prickly Pear

The great thing about prickly pear is that it has no known negative side effects and can be used by all skin types and tones. Says Dr. Vergara “Its hydrating and antibacterial properties make it ideal for patients with acne-prone, sensitive, dry, and aging skin — plus it’s considered a non-comedogenic ingredient [meaning it won’t clog your pores].” She also points out that since it contains vitamins K and E, it’s a good option for anyone looking to fade bothersome dark spots.

With that in mind, how and when you use prickly pear will depend on the type of product it’s formulated into. In serum form, it’s best to use it alone or under a heavier moisturizer or face oil. A heavier cream may be best used at night or only when your skin is particularly dry. If it’s incorporated with other actives, such as vitamin C or a hydroxy acid, you’ll want to use it based on when it’s best to apply those particular actives.

In terms of incorporating it into your existing routine, Dr. Hu considers it a neutral ingredient that will likely work with any of your current favorites. However, she recommends a few different product combinations: “Someone that is using prickly pear is likely looking to target dehydration, irritation, or dull skin, so pairing it with a vitamin C serum would be good to help brighten the face and restore a natural glow. If you’re looking to maximize the anti-aging benefits of prickly pear, you can use it with retinol or bakuchiol at night.”

Ready to try succulent skin care for yourself? These eight prickly pear-rich products are a great place to start.

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