Since the reign of Cleopatra, people have used the cool, soothing gel from inside the leaf of the aloe vera plant as a skin dressing to treat burns and minor wounds. This clear gel is also the basis of aloe vera juice, which can calm digestive complaints.
What it is?
A succulent in the Lily family, aloe vera has fleshy leaves that provide a gel widely used as a topical treatment for skin problems – a practice dating back to at least 1500 B.C., when Egyptian healers described it in their treaties. The plant is native to the Cape of Good Hope and grows wild in Africa and Madagascar. Commercial growers cultivate it in Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Japan and the United States.
What it does?
Scientists aren't quite sure how aloe vera works, but they have identified many of its active ingredients. Rich in anti-inflammatory substances, the gel contains a gummy material that acts as a soothing emollient, as well as bradykininase, a compound that helps to alleviate pain and reduce swelling, and magnesium lactate, which quells itching. Aloe vera also dilates the tiny blood vessels known as capillaries, allowing more blood to get to an injury and thus speeding up the healing process. In addition, some studies show that it destroys, or at least inhibits, the growth of a number of bacteria, viruses and fungi.
Aloe vera gel is particularly helpful when applied to damaged skin. It aids in the healing of the first-degree burns, sunburn, minor skin wounds and even painful shingles by relieving pain and reducing itching. The gel also provides an airproof moisturizing barrier, so that wounds do not dry out. Furthermore, aloe vera's capillary-dilating properties increase blood circulation, speeding the regeneration of skin and relieving mild cases of frostbite. The gel's antiviral effects may promote the healing of warts as well.
Though effective against minor cuts and abrasions, aloe vera may not be a good choice for more serious, infected wounds. In a study of 21 women in a Los Angeles hospital whose caesarean-section wounds had become infected, applying aloe vera gel actually increased the length of time – from 53 to 83 days – it took for the wounds to heal.
Aloe vera gel is also used to make a juice that may be taken internally for inflammatory digestive disorders, including ulcers and heartburn. However, there's very little research on its internal use. In Japan, purified aloe vera compounds have been found to inhibit stomach secretions. In one study, 17 to 18 patients with peptic ulcers recovered when they took aloe vera juice, but unfortunately there was no comparison group taking a placebo. A commercial laboratory in the US is conducting trials with an aloe-derived compound as a treatment for ulcerative colitis – a common type of inflammatory bowel disease.
Other studies are exploring aloe vera's effectiveness as a possible antiviral and immune-boosting agent for people with AIDS, as a treatment for leukemia and other types of cancer, and as a therapy to help in the management of diabetes.
- Heals minor burns (including sunburn), cuts and abrasions, insect bites and stings, welts, small skin ulcers and frostbite.
- Relieves the itch of shingles (herpes zoster).
- May help to clear up warts.
- Soothes ulcers, heartburn and other digestive complaints.
- Fresh herb/gel.
- Soft gel.
- Don't confuse aloe vera with the bitter yellow aloe latex, which is sold as a laxative and can cause severe cramping and diarrhoea. Pregnant or breast-feeding women in particular should avoid aloe latex.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
For external use: Liberally apply aloe vera gel or cream to the injured skin as needed or desired.
For internal use: Take one-half to three-quarters of a cup of aloe vera juice three times a day, or take one or two capsules as directed on the label.
Guidelines for use:
Topically, aloe vera gel can be applied repeatedly, especially for burns. Just smooth it on the affected area, let it dry, and reapply when needed. Fresh gel from a live leaf is the most potent – and economical – form of the herb. If you have an aloe vera plant, cut off 8-10 cm from a leaf, then slice the cutting lengthwise. Spread the gel found in the centre on the affected area. For internal use, take aloe vera juice between meals. Another form of aloe called aloe latex, a yellow extract from the inner leaf, is a powerful laxative and should be used only sparingly and under medical supervision.
Possible side effects
In rare cases, some people get a mild, allergic skin reaction from aloe vera gel with itching and rash; simply discontinue use. Aloe vera juice may contain small amounts of laxative ingredient in aloe latex. If you experience cramping and diarrhoea, stop taking the juice immediately and replace it with a new supply. Never take aloe vera juice if you're pregnant or breast-feeding.
- When buying aloe products, check that aloe vera is close to the top of the list of ingredients. Creams and ointments should contain at least 20% aloe vera. Juice for internal use should contain at least 98% aloe vera and no aloin or aloe-emodin.
- Make sure the products you use are from manufacturers who use certified raw ingredients and process them according to standard guide-lines. Your practitioner or a reputable health-food shop should be able to advise you on suitable brands.
- Add another potential use for aloe vera gel: treating the inflammatory skin condition psoriasis. A study of 60 people with long-standing psoriasis found that applying aloe to skin lesions three times a day for eight months led to significant improvement in 83% of the patients, as against improvement in only 6% of those who used a placebo.
Did you know?
Aloe vera makes a soothing bath that is especially helpful for sunburn. Just add a cup or two of the juice to a bathtub of lukewarm water.