Succulent Soothers

A prickly, barbed plant doesn’t sound like something to nourish the skin, but beneath a cactus’ rough, thorny exterior lie ingredients that hydrate and smooth. You, too, can tap into the same properties that allow this hearty plant to thrive in harsh desert conditions and nurture the skin with a boost of moisturizing, anti-aging benefits.

Cactus extracts prevent moisture loss, keeping the plant hydrated in the hot desert sun. When used in skincare treatments, it prevents water from evaporating from the epidermis. “All desert plants have super-high anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties and an amazing capacity to hold moisture, protecting the skin from dryness,” says Barbara Close, founder and CEO of Naturopathica. “The juice and seed oil also reduce inflammation and speed up cell turnover.”

Prickly pear cactus, in particular, has been proven to protect the skin against environmental stress and aging, says Close. The Sonoran Desert native is loaded with betalains—super- antioxidants—that protect the skin from the arid  climate and help minimize fine lines and wrinkles. “Prickly pear is a survivor, capable of pulling through extreme conditions, earning kudos for endurance,” she says.

According to Soraya Thonier, Sothys Paris’s marketing manager, prickly pear cactus extract, a key ingredient in Sothys Firming Body Cream, also acts as a natural exfoliant to boost cell turnover and smooth skin. “In addition to its natural exfoliating properties, cactus extracts contain copious amounts of phytochemicals to promote increased immune function and high levels of potent antioxidants and flavonoids,” says Thonier. “These antioxidants neutralize free radicals and protect against future cellular damage and premature aging.”

Bioelements’s Cactus Cloth uses natural woven cactus fibers to exfoliate the skin, buffing away dead, dull skin cells and can be used from the neck to the toes, says Teresa Stenzel, director of education. “It’s ideal for dry, flaky areas where skin is the thickest, such as the soles of the feet, knees, and elbows.”

Cactus also soothes sensitive skin, irritations, and sunburn. “Extract from the cactus stem can actually improve the ability of the skin to protect itself from UV ray exposure and absorption,” explains Alejandro Gomez, spa supervisor for Apuane Spa at Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita (Nayarit, Mexico). The spa offers guests its signature Hakali Massage ($182, 50 minutes; $250, 80 minutes), which is named after the Huichol language term for cactus. The treatment involves the application of a warm meringue made of cactus, tuna (the blossom of the Cactus), and pulque (an alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant) using various massages techniques. It also involves using the nopal—cactus paddles—to apply the meringue directly on to the skin. “The nopal is well known for its many healing properties and benefits, such as skin moisturizing and sedative properties,” says Gomez. “It helps to remove toxins and rehydrate the skin, leaving it feeling completely rejuvenated.”

The cactus is considered one of Mexico’s best healing plants—and a magical plant by the Aztecs. “The heat of the cactus paddle is very relaxing,” explains Gomez. “Aztecs used the cactus blossom to heat the kidneys and to moisturize lips, hands, and feet. Many of our clients are surprised to learn of multiple medicinal properties of cactus and that it is an edible vegetable and actually quite delicious. Fresh cactus juice was used to lower high fevers, too.” It’s also an excellent ingredient in spa treatments, because it contains vitamin B complex, an antioxidant containing 17 essential amino acids, beta carotene, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and E, which help repair and moisturize the cells. Because of the concentration of antioxidants and vitamins in cactus, along with its skin-conditioning benefits, FarmHouse Fresh founder and president Shannon McLinden says she prefers to use it in products that are left on the skin (like moisturizers) or incorporated with additional steps (like heat and moisture wraps) that aid in absorption.

Sagestone Spa at Red Mountain Resort (Ivins, UT) and LakeHouse Spa at Lake Austin Spa Resort  (TX) use FarmHouse Fresh’s Cactus Toning Wrap and Agave Nectar Ageless Body Oil year-round in treatments. Sagestone Spa’s Soothing Agave Ritual ($165, 75 minutes) features FarmHouse Fresh’s cactus gel wrap that warms on the body and increases blood circulation while improving elasticity and helping to firm and tighten the skin. It’s followed by a hydrating agave nectar oil massage. LakeHouse Spa’s Calming Detox Wrap ($205, 80 minutes) also features FarmHouse Fresh’s cactus gel, nourishing the skin with vitamins, minerals, and calming aloe.

“Opuntia cactus fruit contains vitamin C and free-radical scavenging and antioxidant properties, which makes it a great addition to our Cactus Toning wrap,” says McLinden. “Agave rigida extract is noted for its skin-conditioning properties. We blended this extract with a host of others into our Agave Nectar Ageless Body Oil to help not only condition skin but also improve skin’s rate of water loss, which can lessen the look of fine lines and wrinkles.”

In addition to firming body treatments—such as the Total Firming Body Wrap ($90, 60 minutes) at Muses Day Spa & Salon (Fresno, CA), which features Sothys Firming Body Cream—cactus works well in anti-aging and hyperpigmentation facials. “Antioxidants help prevent and repair damage to the body’s tissue,” says Thonier. “This is why it is important to constantly replenish your supply of antioxidants all year long. Cactus services can be promoted to clients as a natural treatment against free radicals, providing nourishment, and anti-aging benefits.”

Joya Spa, at Montelucia Resort & Spa (Scottsdale, AZ), offers guests a Desert Cactus Renewal Facial ($149, 50 minutes) that uses RA for Men Cacti Mud Mask to exfoliate, smooth, and rebuild healthy skin. “A nourishing cactus mud mask combines the natural healing and hydrating benefits of aloe vera and the queen of the night cactus with mineral-rich clays to fortify and strengthen the skin’s protective barrier,” says spa director Erin Stewart.

You may also want to combine cactus extract with other moisturizing ingredients, such as aloe vera and shea butter, to further nourish and restore suppleness to the skin. Gomez says cactus works well with Apuane Spa’s signature sage and tequila body lotion, as well as with its yogurt and honey body lotion. If this sounds good enough to eat (or drink), it’s because it is. You can also promote cactus-themed services with culinary pairings and drinks. “At Apuane Spa, one of our featured fresh juices of the week is a delicious cactus juice, mixed with celery, pineapple, orange, and honey,” says Gomez. The plant is high in fiber and can also be prepared as a fresh salad or cooked as a vegetable side.

McLinden suggests offering a flavored tea with agave nectar for sweetener. “We also like to think of treatments as a journey you might experience at a chef-prepared dinner,” she says. “While you might not imagine pumpkin pie made with cactus, guests might just love a cranberry-cactus serum followed by a pumpkin mask. There is a sophistication that comes with just the right culinary-spa treatment approach that our partner spas find success in offering to their guests.”

Present cactus treatments in a way that highlights the beneficial, soothing properties—and scrub away the thorny mental image. Remind guests of the plant’s magical, exotic roots, and let them experience the hydrating, anti-aging benefits firsthand.—

Discover the softer side of cactus with a host of products that contain the skin-saving benefits from this prickly plant.


Bioelements Cactus Cloth: With natural cactus fibers, this exfoliating cloth helps slough off dead skin. 


Cactus Skincare Nature’s Anti-Oxidant Creme: Designed for dry and sun-damaged skin, this cream contains apricot kernel oil, avocado oil, cactus flower extract, jojoba oil, and vitamins A, D, E, and F to help restore elasticity and replace lost lipids.


Éminence Organic Skin Care Stone Crop Serum: Formulated with alpha lipoic acid, bearberry extract, and green tea, this serum diminishes the signs of aging and reduces the appearance of age spots.


Farmhouse Fresh Nectar Body Oil: Containing agave extract, bark extract, barley extract, sandalwood extract, soybean and sweet almond oils, and vitamin E, this body oil reduces trans-epidermal water loss, resulting in softer skin.


Illume Eternal Nomad Cactus Verde Lathering Body Scrub: Infused with aloe vera, avocado, geranium, and pink sea salt, this scrub uses tiny beads that act like ultra-mild cleansing sponges to restore a healthy, vibrant glow to the skin.


MyChelle Hydrating Cactus Mask: Combined with blue agave, malachite, prickly pear cactus, and smithsonite stone extracts, this mask hydrates and creates a shield against environmental stress and pollution.


Naturopathica Aloe Replenishment Gel: Ideal for all skin types, this anti-inflammatory gel contains desert succulents, such as aloe vera and prickly pear cactus.


Nu Skin Creamy Hydrating Masque: Made with soothing nutrients from cactus and pine cone, this mask binds moisture to the skin.


Prima Fleur Aloe & Cucumber Face Balm [No. 1137]: This after-shave gel shields men’s skin from razor burns and breakouts and hydrates with a stem extract derived from the Mexican prickly pear cactus.


RA for Men Cacti Mud Mask: Complete with bentonite and kaolin clay to draw out impurities, this mask relies on cactus extract to soften and protect skin.


Sothys Paris Firming Body Cream: Formulated with flavonoid-rich black crowberry juice, prickly pear cactus, pumpkin, and rutin salt, this cream nourishes and moisturizes.—Jessica Morrobel