Nopal Cactus Vs. Aloe Vera — Everything You Need to Know
By Pia Velasco
As far as natural ingredients go, aloe vera is certainly one of the most popular. Over the past few decades, it has earned a reputation as an effective sunburn remedy and as a super hydrator. However, there’s another green plant that comes to mind and gives aloe a run for its money, and that’s the nopal cactus.
Also known as prickly pear, nopal cactus has been used for millennia for its anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant-rich properties. It works wonders on its own and when mixed with other skincare ingredients, which is partly why Nopalera’s founder, Sandra Velasquez, launched an entire brand surrounding it.
She grew up in California near the Mexican border and remembers being surrounded by nopal cacti. Then, when she first started working on Nopalera in 2019 and was learning to make soap, a DIY recipe called for aloe vera, which she did not have. However, she had nopales on hand and so decided to use them as a substitute in the formula—and a light bulb went off. “Here, is this ancient and culturally symbolic plant that’s packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. I couldn’t believe nobody had created a skincare brand with it and believed the world should know about its benefits,” shares Velasquez. And with that, Nopalera was born.
Below, learn more about the nopal cactus, how it benefits the skin, and how it differs from aloe vera.
What is Nopal Cactus?
Also known as prickly pear cactus, the nopal is a type of cactus that’s native to the Americas and is primarily found and used in Mexico. While it thrives in warm climates and temperatures, it can grow in any climate. Visually, nopal cacti stand out for their rounded tips with blossoming pink fruits (known as tuna) sprouting from the top.
What is Aloe Vera?
Everybody and their grandparents know the aloe vera plant for its inner gel—that’s made up of 99.5% water—is renowned for soothing (regular) burns and sunburns. Unlike the nopal cactus, this type of succulent only grows in warm climates and is native to the Arabian peninsula and several African countries, such as Madagascar. Aloe vera plants are similar to the nopal in color only, as its leaves are long and pointy as opposed to the nopal’s round finish.
What are the Benefits of Topical Nopal Cactus?
First things first: there are two parts of the nopal cactus that are used in beauty products. There’s the pad and the tuna, and we use both at Nopalera. The nopal cactus benefits the skin and hair with its hyper-hydrating properties. But its benefits go way beyond keeping the skin at healthy moisture levels.
In skincare, it also brightens a dull complexion, stimulates collagen production, and promotes skin cell turnover. This is due to the nopal cactus’s high concentration of antiinflammatory and anti-aging omegas 6 and 9; healing vitamin E, softening and moisturizing essential fatty acids; reparative amino acids; and brightening vitamin K. At Nopalera, we believe that skin deserves the premium treatment from head-to-toe, which is why we feature it in all our Body Moisturizers, Body Cleansers, and Body Exfoliants.
In haircare, the nopal cactus is used to repair damage, boost shine, and even increase volume. Furthermore, it’s widely believed that it also encourages hair growth and reduces hair loss, but more research is needed to prove the claims. What we do know is that nopal stimulates blood circulation to the scalp when applied topically, which in turn helps promote healthy hair growth. Plus, it also helps regulate oily scalps thanks to its antimicrobial properties which keep sebum under control.
What are the Benefits of Topical Aloe Vera?
As mentioned beforehand, aloe vera is widely used to soothe burning sensations and is popular for calming itchiness. It’s rich in vitamins A, C, D, and E; amino acids, and minerals such as magnesium and zinc. With so many rich properties, one could assume that there’s a lot of scientific evidence of aloe’s benefits, but that’s not the case. There isn’t enough medical evidence to support most of aloe’s skin care claims, but it is widely accepted that it’s a good hydrator and soother.
What Are the Differences Between Nopal Cactus and Aloe Vera in Beauty Products?
“Aloe vera, like nopal cactus, has a lot of data showing that it helps with wound repair,” notes clean cosmetic chemist, Krupa Koestline. However, she adds that the mechanisms of both ingredients are actually quite different. “Most of the benefits of aloe vera are associated with its polysaccharide composition—the hydrating effects are more of a humectant effect, which draws moisture to the skin, as opposed to nopal cactus oils which are rich in fatty acids.”
As such, she highlights that aloe vera is a great ingredient for lightweight products, but that the nopal cactus can be used in both lightweight serums and gels to add moisturizing effects as well as richer, more nourishing formulations.
What Are the Sustainability Differences Between Nopal Cactus and Aloe Vera?
In terms of sustainability, Velasquez highlights how quickly the nopal cactus can regenerate itself. “When you cut off a [nopal] pad, a new one grows back in three weeks—aloe doesn’t do that,” she says, nodding to its sustainability benefits and how reliable it is as an ingredient. As such, the same plants can be used over and over again and can withstand any climate, whereas aloe takes longer and needs a warm climate to grow.
And as if that weren’t enough, since nopal cactus thrives in all types of weather it’s completely drought-proof. (Hey, there’s a reason the United Nations called it the crop of the future!) The aloe vera plant can also withstand long periods without water, but not nearly as long as nopal can.
This is important for the health of the planet, but it’s also important when considering food scarcity issues. The nopal cactus can be consumed as food (both in its raw form and cooked) whereas the aloe vera plant can only be consumed in juice form.
Beyond that, the nopal cactus can also help tackle sustainability issues in the fashion industry, as its outer layer is used as a high quality leather alternative. (Most vegan leathers use plastic, which isn’t eco- or animal-friendly.) Unfortunately, the outer layer of the aloe vera cannot be used as a textile material.
What are the Nutritional Differences Between Nopal Cactus and Aloe Vera?
Both the nopal and aloe are known to be rich in antioxidants, but studies have shown that nopal has greater antioxidant potency than aloe does. Furthermore, the nopal cactus up to 50 percent more amino acids than the aloe; has higher percentage of vitamins C, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B9; is richer in minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and sodium; and has certain vitamins that aloe doesn’t, such as vitamin K and A. Furthermore, nopal has been used in Mexican traditional medicine as an alternative treatment for type 2 diabetes. Further research is needed, but a small study did find that those who ate nopal cactus had reduced glucose spikes in comparison to those who didn’t.
The nopal cactus is as rich and resilient as the Mexican culture Nopalera was born from. We’re proud to share its many benefits with the world—one product at a time.