There are more than 300 species of aloe plant, but Aloe barbadensis (aka aloe vera) is the best known and most prized in the health and beauty worlds for its internal and topical healing properties, according to an article in the Journal of Pharmacy and BioAllied Sciences.
The spiky succulent plant is native to dry regions and tropical climates in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the southern and western parts of the United States.
Many centuries ago, people realized the plant had more to offer than its good looks. The gel and juice found inside aloe vera became a popular herbal remedy, used to treat everything from skin disorders to digestive problems, according to an article in SAGE Open Medicine published in September 2019.
Let’s take a look at the long history of aloe vera, its uses, and its potential benefits.
What Is Aloe Vera?
Aloe vera has been known for its healing properties and medicinal uses for at least 6,000 years. In the early days, it was considered a “plant of immortality” and was presented to Egyptian pharaohs as a funeral gift, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
Over time, groups from many geographical areas have used aloe vera, including people of India, China, Mexico, and North America, too, per a chapter in Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects.
Aloe plants, which go by a few common names such as “burn plant,” “lily of the desert,” and “elephant’s gall” — have been used traditionally to treat wounds, hair loss, hemorrhoids, and digestive issues.
These days, aloe has an entire industry behind it. Its juice and leaf gel is used in cosmetics and personal-care products such as moisturizer, soap, shaving cream, and suntan lotion. The aloe vera products that probably come readily to mind are the bright green gels that are stocked on drugstore shelves. You’ve probably used it to soothe a nasty sunburn.
Aloe vera is also available in supplement form, and is purported to offer similar benefits to the skin and digestive system as other preparations of the plant.
Common Questions & Answers
Types of Aloe Vera
There are two medicinally useful parts of the aloe vera plant: aloe leaf and aloe latex, per the NCCIH.
The fleshy leaves are filled with a clear gel, which is extracted from the plant and usually used in different aloe vera preparations:
- As a topical medication on the skin to treat burns and various skin conditions
- In liquid or capsule form for oral use
There are even more options these days: The latest trend is aloe vera beverages, such as aloe vera juice, which is made simply by extracting the aloe vera gel from the leaves and mixing it with water, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Aloe vera on its own can have a bitter taste, so some brands will add flavor or sweeteners to the bottle. Take a look at the bottle’s ingredients to make sure it’s not loaded with added sugar.
This is the yellow pulp that’s found just under the outer surface of the plant leaf. Mayo Clinic writes that aloe latex has been shown to have laxative effects, and it’s usually taken orally to treat constipation.
Potential Health Benefits of Aloe Vera
According to the NCCIH, there’s not enough evidence to prove aloe vera can treat all the health issues it’s said to help with. Some of the many and varied claims include the following.
Aloe latex contains aloin, an anthraquinone that gives the plant its laxative properties, and which may relieve constipation, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
Constipation is a symptom commonly seen in primary care patients and also occurs with chronic digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
A study published in JNM in October 2018 suggested that aloe vera may be useful for individuals with constipation, including those dealing with this symptom in IBS. This is because of aloe vera’s laxative effect and its ability to increase water in the intestinal lumen.
Treatment of Skin Conditions Such as Psoriasis and Acne
Topical aloe vera and aloe creams that contain the leaf extract can have a calming effect on the skin and have been shown to reduce itchiness and inflammation, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In a past review of aloe vera, researchers found that the plant had the ability to inhibit prostaglandin E2 production. These are lipids that not only play a role in the inflammatory process but are also active in the sebaceous glands, possibly contributing to inflammatory skin conditions, other research has noted.
In addition to being anti-inflammatory, aloe has antibacterial properties and promotes wound healing, which makes it a potential complementary approach to treat acne with topical application, according to a study published in May 2021 in Frontiers in Medicine. Data from the study showed that a new treatment combining aloe vera gel, a soft mask, and ultrasound led to significant improvements for patients dealing with moderate acne. A study from 2014 found that when added to the common topical acne treatment tretinoin, aloe vera gel had a more positive effect on acne than tretinoin alone.
Some people swear by a thick gel derived from aloe to calm a sunburn, but you may be surprised to learn this herbal remedy lacks concrete research results demonstrating its ability to soothe symptoms and speed recovery, as a review notes.
One study, for instance, found aloe vera applied topically after laboratory-induced sunburn didn’t have an effect on reducing redness compared with a placebo. And yet this study was small and included only 20 healthy volunteers.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, though, given its historical use and that it is generally safe. Indeed, you have likely experienced the gel’s cooling effect yourself, and according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, aloe vera is generally safe to use for soothing mild sunburns and doesn’t have any adverse effects. Kate Deery, a certified aesthetician with Clareo Plastic Surgery in Boston, can attest to this potential benefit, and notes its safety. “Aloe vera can be used as a mask for more inflamed or irritated skin, such as sunburned skin,” Deery says.
Although aloe products may not be as effective for treating sunburns, per research, it may provide some relief after minor burns, such as a first- or second-degree burn. In a review of four controlled clinical trials consisting of 371 burn patients, researchers found that healing times for patients who applied aloe vera to their burns was about nine days shorter than in the control group. That said, these studies differed in terms of the products used and conclusions measured, so more studies on the potential effects of aloe vera on wound healing are needed before well-informed decisions can be made. Talk to your healthcare team about proper treatment for severe burns before turning to over-the-counter options like aloe vera.
In one trial, researchers found that a standardized aloe vera extract in a syrup had therapeutic benefits for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and led to a decrease in symptoms such as heartburn, belching, and vomiting over a four-week period.
A limited number of studies support this notion, yet the effect may be due to GERD’s link to inflammation. Aloe vera has anti-inflammatory properties, as well as antioxidant and anti-ulcer properties that have been studied in animals and patients with IBD (irritable bowel disease), as past research notes.
Lower Blood Sugar
A past clinical trial found that 2 tablespoons of aloe vera juice every day for two weeks lowered blood sugar levels among people with type 2 diabetes. Triglyceride levels of the study participants also improved — which could be an additional benefit for those with diabetes: They're at an increased risk of heart disease, which is linked to triglyceride and cholesterol abnormalities. A more recent study suggests people with prediabetes may see similar effects on their blood sugar and lipids from aloe vera.
Again, these are possible benefits based on preliminary data, so work with your healthcare team before trying aloe vera for these reasons.
Can Aloe Vera Help With Weight Loss?
There is some research showing that aloe may speed up metabolism, which in turn would help you burn more calories throughout the day and potentially lead to weight loss, though research is very limited at this time.
Previous research found that rats who were treated with aloe vera gel powder had a significantly lower body weight and body fat percentage than those who weren’t. The researchers suspect this is because they increased their energy expenditure. Studies showing the same effect in humans, though, are lacking.
How to Select and Store Aloe Vera
Aloe vera substances are considered a dietary supplement, and supplements are not regulated fully by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way as prescription medication. That means there’s no way to know for sure whether the quality, safety, or claims from the manufacturers on the product are valid. And there are loads of products that claim to be rich in aloe vera, but many of them contain few to no active ingredients.
There is one thing to look for, however, when buying your product: the seal from the International Aloe Science Council, which is an organization that’s been active since the 1980s. Their seal on a product means the product’s aloe vera quality and purity has been tested and confirmed.
Consult the label on your aloe vera product to learn about the best storage method. Generally, it’s best to store aloe vera gel and aloe vera juice in a cool, not-too-humid environment, such as at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Humidity and temperature can affect the shelf-life of the product. That’s why you’ll likely find aloe vera juice in amber-colored bottles. The dark bottle, according to past research, is designed to keep light from affecting the active ingredients.
How to Use Aloe Vera
By now you may want to explore some of the potential benefits outlined above. It's best to do so in consultation with your primary doctor, nutritionist, or another healthcare provider who knows how to safely use aloe, especially if you want to try it internally rather than topically. The plant has been shown to have a few other potential uses, such as the following.
As a Way to Keep Produce Fresh
One study found aloe vera gel applied on the outsides of tomatoes helped delay ripening, aided in maintaining their quality and freshness, and prevented certain bacteria from growing.
As a Simple Mouthwash
Research has shown that aloe vera mouthwash reduces plaque formation on teeth in the short term. In the study, 300 subjects were assigned to rinse their mouths and gums with either aloe vera mouthwash, normal saline, or chlorhexidine gluconate mouthwash. Researchers found that after four days, aloe vera was just as effective at reducing dental plaque as chlorhexidine and caused no side effects. More studies are needed to assess longer-term effectiveness and safety.
As a Pain Reliever
The use of aloe vera could relieve pain. Salicylic acid, found naturally in aloe vera, is a compound that gives aspirin its anti-inflammatory effects, per research. More studies are needed to explore the effectiveness of aloe vera in treating pain, but one past paper suggests that oral aloe vera may help reduce chronic pain that is not related to cancer, such as osteoarthritis pain. Meanwhile, other past research in mice found that a small amount of aloe vera applied topically may inhibit inflammation from mild irritants, though more peer-reviewed studies in humans are needed.
As a Skin-Care Ingredient
Aloe vera is an “it” ingredient as a skin treatment in the beauty and cosmetics space as well. You’ll find it in everything from moisturizers and toners to shampoos and deep conditioners. There’s even an entire line of products called Aloe Vesta, which are designed to protect sensitive skin.
What’s the reason for the hype? The plant is known for supporting skin hydration, moisture, and clarity. It’s rich in antioxidants such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E, and it contains seven of the eight essential amino acids, according to a previous article. It’s known for its anti-inflammatory properties, though some critics say more research is needed before we can say that for sure.
A past uncontrolled study found that aloe has anti-aging potential: The researchers gave 30 women doses of oral aloe vera gel twice a day for three months. The women saw significant improvements in their wrinkles and the elasticity of their skin. Researchers posited that this effect was from an increase in collagen production.
You’ll also find hair-care products containing aloe vera. According to the website Byrdie, some beauty pros apply the gel extracts found inside the leaves of the mother plant directly to their hair and use it as a deep conditioner. It can leave a residue behind though, so be sure to rinse it out thoroughly, and if you have skin conditions it's best to seek help from a dermatologist before putting raw plant products on your skin.
Health Risks of Aloe Vera
Aloe gel (the part of the plant that’s commonly found in creams and moisturizers) is generally safe to use and contains therapeutic properties for the skin when it’s applied topically.
Aloe latex, however, can be dangerous. Taking aloe latex orally can lead to cramps and diarrhea, and it could make other oral medications you’re taking less effective, according to the NCCIH.
Aloe latex can lead to more serious problems, too. A dose of even just 1 gram (g) orally per day for several days could end up causing kidney damage and may even be fatal, per the Mayo Clinic. It also can lower blood glucose levels, so people with type 2 diabetes need to be careful and talk to their doctor before incorporating aloe latex into their care regimen.
Another potential negative for aloe latex: It may have cancer-promoting effects. A study from the National Toxicology Program found that whole-leaf aloe vera extract created cancerous tumors within the large intestines of rats. But don’t be alarmed. The study didn’t involve humans, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says there’s nothing currently in the literature that suggests researchers would find the same results in humans.
The rats in the study drank water containing 60 parts per million (ppm) of aloin every day. That’s much higher than the 10 ppm that the industry tends to set as their limit, so it’s not likely you’d reach unsafe levels, per the NIEHS.
Is It Possible to Be Allergic to Aloe Vera?
It is possible to be allergic to aloe vera, though it’s rare, according to Mount Sinai. An aloe allergy could be dangerous, however. Some signs of an allergic reaction to aloe include a rash, throat tightness, difficulty breathing, or chest pain.
Growing Your Own Aloe Vera
Good news for nongreen thumbs: Aloe vera is a cinch to grow as a houseplant at home.
Aloe vera is a hardy succulent plant that prefers dry, warm climates, so it doesn’t need to be watered every day. A little neglect in watering isn’t going to hurt it — in fact, watering sparingly may actually help, because this drought-loving plant lives best in dry conditions, per the Missouri Botanical Garden. You should be careful not to overwater the plant, and if you keep the plant outdoors, be sure to cover it when it rains.
Aloe vera plants grow to be one to two feet high and up to one foot wide, and prefer the sun and tropical climates. When in bright sunlight, the plant will flower. Unless you live in Hawaii, Southern California, Arizona, or southern Florida, you won’t be able to leave it outdoors all year. But you can easily leave it in a pot and bring it inside in the winter or whenever the temperature drops (ideally anytime it gets close to 50 degrees F or cooler). Sunlight is key to a healthy aloe vera plant, so position it outside in a sunny spot or indoors on a windowsill, advises the site One Green Planet.
When planting your aloe vera plant in a pot, choose a shallow, wide bowl so the roots have room to move and spread in the soil as they grow. Seedlings will grow around the base of the plant, which you can then take and plant in a new pot.
If you’re interested in using aloe vera, first turn to premade over-the-counter options — particularly those that can be applied topically. These may offer benefits with low odds of side effects. As for oral aloe vera, talk to your healthcare team first, as these products are riskier.
Additional reporting by Valencia Higuera.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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