Let me ask you directly: would you put cactus on your skin? Yeah, just thinking of it make you wince and flinch in horror. Turns out, it’s actually the contrary and cactus can do a lot for your skin. But when you think how cacti grow in the arid desert, where days are baking hot and nights are freezing cold. Not only do they grow, they thrive and maintain their moisture levels.

Cacti are excellent at storing moisture, a quality that any self-respecting skin care brand would want its products to achieve. Paired with amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and trace minerals, cacti not only help your skin retain water, and resist evaporation but also bring a slew of properties your skin will love.


What marks a cactus is that it has stems, branches, and spines but no leaves. Cacti are members of the plant family Cactaceae and they have a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Most cacti grow in dry regions that are even subject to drought. For this reason, they’ve adapted to conserve water. Cacti are native to the American continent, ranging from as north as Canada to as south as Patagonia.

Most cacti are succulents. A succulent has thick flesh parts to store water (a typical succulent is aloe vera).

The cacti are efficient at retaining water in their fleshy stems, roots, and scales. They don’t have leaves anymore, these have been adapted into spines. The spines help the cactus prevent water from evaporating by air flow close to the plant. In addition, the spines also defend against any animal wanting to graze. Since it doesn’t have leaves anymore, the stems have taken over the task of carrying out photosynthesis.

Although some cacti grow in quite humid environments, cacti and deserts are inextricably linked. You can see for yourself: What image pops up when you think of a cactus? It’s a desert, right?

To survive in arid climates, cacti had to adapt and develop humectant and water retention abilities. Thanks to this adaptation, cacti may just be what your skin needs.


There are about 1750 cacti in the family of Cactaceae. Some cacti were eaten, and some had psychoactive compounds which were then used in shamanistic rituals. Some cacti were cultivated as ornamental plants when they were brought back to the old world. Some had medicinal uses. They could also be used as construction materials. Of some, a gum can be obtained from the stem.

As there are so many varieties, you can imagine that each has a different set of properties.

Opuntia ficus-indica

This is probably the most famous in the beauty world. You probably have seen it under the names of prickly pear, Indian fig opuntia, Barbary fig, cactus pear, and fig opuntia among many others. Although it’s not clear when precisely humans began to use prickly pear, it has a long history.

Opuntia ficus-indica, photo by Bruno Rijsman

The Aztec thought that the ripe red fruits of Opuntia ficus-indica were a symbol of the human heart. That’s also the reason why human hearts were offered to the gods, just as the fruit quenches thirst, human hearts satisfy gods.

The prickly pear has long been an important source of food. All parts can be eaten and see many uses. The fruit is known as tuna and the paddle as nopal (plural nopales). People eat both after they carefully removed the spines and peeled them. Another method to get rid of the spines was to roll the fruit in something gritty like send or rotate the fruit over a campfire.

For skin care, the extract of the paddle has similar effects to aloe vera. When you cut open the nopal, you find a jelly-like substance. The cactus flesh is full of water and contains a concentration of high levels of antioxidants and other compounds that help the plant to survive. This jelly-like is hydrating, cooling, and soothing when applied to the skin. Apart from the similarities with aloe, the cactus flesh has been found to purify water.

The flower is not only edible, they’re used to treat bleeding and digestive ailments. They have astringent effects and are just as interesting for skin care as the fruits. The cactus pear as a whole is a great source of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and copper.

You probably have heard of prickly pear oil. This oil is obtained from the edible seeds found inside the fruit and is all on the way to pushing argan oil from its throne. It does everything Argan oil does but more intensly because it contains larger doses of the very same vitamins and antioxidants.

Since the seeds contain different types of fatty acids, phenols, nutrients such as vitamin E, and antioxidants, the oil obtained has anti-oxidative and antibacterial effects. It’s highly effective in helping your skin retain water. It makes a light carrier oil that delivers other nutrients into your skin, especially this that can’t be applied directly to the skin.

Beyond food and skin care, the cactus pear has still more to offer. Instead of tossing the skin, after eating the flesh, it’s a source of vegan, environmentally-friendly leather. The thick skin is an almost impenetrable membrane – it has to be to protect the plant. Any water or nutrient that it would pull from the ground or the air throughout the year would otherwise evaporate.


If you had a shot of tequila, you’ve gotten to know agave, specifically agave azul. Agave is cultivated because each plant produces several points of edible flowers. The stalk too can be eaten. Mostly they’re roasted and then they taste sweet just like sugarcane. In winter and spring, the leaves are collected, when they’re full of sap, for eating. Beyond food and drink, agave also yields a fibre that can be processed into textiles.

Agave, photo by Photo by Erol Ahmed

Since its sap tastes sweet, agave became popular as an alternative to table sugar because of its lower glycemic index. I’ve already hinted at how similar it’s to sugarcane so you won’t be surprised to learn that its sap is rich in glycolic acid (an AHA).

Dragon fruit

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say almost any fleshy cactus fruit is edible. And when it’s edible, it’s almost always also interesting for skin care. Why not reap the benefits also from the outside when it’s good for your from the inside?

Maddi Bazzocco

Dragon fruit is not the fruit of a singular cactus species and depending on where you are, it also has a different name: pitaya. This word refers to all kinds of scaly fruit, mostly of cacti. Depending on the type of dragon fruit, you’ll get a slightly different set of properties.

Closing words

Whether you’re dealing with dry, mature, oily skin, contending with dark spots, or just want to shield your skin against daily wear and tear (free radicals), cacti have an answer.

Cacti can help improve your skin from within. It’s said that drinking can help with soothing inflammation, strengthen your immune system, and even help alleviate hangovers!

Cacti Can Mend Prickly Skin

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