Aloe: Nature's skin soother

Aloe Is Turning Up Everywhere, But Is It Really Doing Anyone Any Good?

Aloe is one of today's hottest selling herbs, but it's not on my top 10 list. It's not that I don't think aloe is a useful herb. My hesitation in recommending it stems from confusion in the marketplace. You see aloe in everything from pills and potions to skin creams, sunscreens, shampoos, and even tissues. But aloe is one herb you're better off growing yourself.

In its fresh form-squeezed from a leaf-aloe gel is an effective treatment for minor cuts, burns including sunburn, frostbite, and other minor skin irritations. Aloe appears to increase blood flow to wounded areas, which helps speed healing. It also contains compounds that may relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and prevent infection.

A few studies have shown that some commercial aloe preparations work too. In a study of people undergoing dermabrasion, a procedure to remove the top layer of skin, an aloe product speeded healing by 72 hours. Another study showed that a different aloe product helped maintain circulation in the skin after frostbite.

The problem, however, is that most of these studies don't provide any details on the type of aloe preparation used.
A Complex Plant

Common as aloe is, there is nothing simple about this ancient plant or its various products-even its names are confusing. The leaf of the common aloe plant (Aloe vera) contains two different kinds of cells, each yielding a different product. Long, specialized storage cells contain a milky juice or latex. When dried, this forms a powerful laxative known as aloe. Because it is so potent, using the latex part of the aloe plant internally is presently not recommended.

Other cells contain the more common viscous, sticky material known as aloe vera gel, probably the most useful part of the plant. The gel, which is sometimes erroneously referred to as juice, is obtained from the leaf by a number of different methods-some extract it with solvents; others simply squeeze it out. As a result, the amount of active compounds varies from one product to another.

There are other reasons for the inconsistency between aloe products. For one, some of the active compounds are unstable and decompose during processing or simply by standing. Attempts have been made to stabilize preparations, but these have not been completely successful. And secondly, most products do not indicate how much aloe gel is present. In many cases, the amount of aloe gel is too little to produce any beneficial effect.

Until standards are established, you can't be sure of what you're getting when you buy aloe products. An organization of companies producing such products, the International Aloe Science Council, does certify the purity and quality of various products based, in part, on where the aloe comes from and how it is processed. However, certification doesn't guarantee that a specific aloe product will work.

For now, your best bet is to keep an aloe plant handy and break off a leaf when needed. Squeeze or scoop out the gelatinous pulp and apply it to the affected area. To relieve sunburn or for a whole body treatment, add a cup or two of the gel (an amount equivalent to a large leaf or two) to a warm bath.

Even if you don't have a green thumb, an aloe plant is easy to grow. It needs little water and almost no care.
Read labels

If you must use an aloe gel product, try to find one that states the amount of the gel on the label. If no amount is given, check the list of active ingredients. Aloe gel should appear toward the beginning; otherwise the amount present is probably very small.

Processing can also make a big difference, so you may have to try several brands to find one that works. Be cautious if the label reads "aloe vera extract," which may mean a dilute preparation, or "reconstituted" aloe vera gel, which means the product was prepared from a liquid or solid concentrate. These preparation techniques can affect the quality and effectiveness of the aloe gel you use, so the fresher and less processed your aloe, the better. As for products such as sunscreens, shampoos, and tissues, only trial and error will tell you if they're better than similar aloe-free products.
Soak, but don't sip

Aloe vera gel is also widely touted as a healthful beverage for internal consumption. These products, often erroneously called aloe juice, are touted for ailments ranging from coughs to constipation and almost everything in between, anatomically speaking. But, there are no good studies supporting these claims. And because some of the active compounds are unstable, it is likely that they'd break down rapidly in the digestive tract before they could do any good.

Also, aloe gel for internal use is problematic if it contains any latex with its potent laxative action. Because both the gel and latex come from the leaf, complete separation is not always possible. Therefore, I don't recommend the use of any aloe products internally.
Aloe Vera At A Glance

Common name: Aloe gel, aloe vera gel

Scientific name: Aloe vera

Beneficial uses: Helps heal minor cuts, burns including sunburn, frostbite, and other minor skin irritations

Possible side effects: Rare when used externally, but may cause skin irritation in some highly sensitive individuals

Herbal oddity: Recently, some unorthodox physicians have recommended the injection of aloe vera gel directly into cancer tumors. At least four deaths have resulted from this practice. The use of aloe gel products should be restricted to topical use only.

Got an herb question? Send it to "Honest Herbalist," Prevention Magazine, 33 E. Minor St., Emmaus, PA 18098. Or e-mail us at Prevention@rodalepress.com with "Honest Herbalist" on the subject line. Dr. Tyler regrets that he is unable to answer each letter individually.

PHOTO (COLOR): Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD.

PHOTO (COLOR): Fresh squeezed aloe gel soothes winter-weary skin.

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By Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD

Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD, is America's foremost expert on herbs and plant-derived medicine. He is dean emeritus of the Purdue University School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences and distinguised professor emeritus of pharmacogosy. He is also the author of more than 270 scientific article and 18 books, including The Honest Herbal (Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1993).

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