The All-purpose Gel
Aloe vera, or commercial products containing aloe, are found in most American households. Aloe vera gel is widely used for the treatment of various skin conditions. Aloe-containing creams, gels, and ointments are used for minor burns, sunburn, cuts and abrasions, wounds, and frostbite. Aloe gel is also found in many shampoos, soaps, sunscreens, skin creams and other cosmetics that are used to soothe, heal, protect, and moisturize the skin..
Aloe vera is a stemless perennial evergreen plant belonging to the lily family. It is thought to have originated from northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Today it is widely cultivated in southern Texas, Mexico, and coastal Venezuela.
The plant has about 15 to 20 succulent leaves growing in an upright dense rosette. The lanceolate-shaped, gray-greenish leaves contain irregular white marks. The leaves are thick and fleshy and measure about 15 to 20 inches in length. The leaf margins contain a row of pale teeth that are about one tenth of an inch long.
Aloe gel is a mucilaginous gel obtained from splitting open the center of the succulent leathery leaves of the aloe vera plant. The gel from the inner core of the leaf is rich in glucomannans and other polysaccharides.
Recent studies have shown that aloe vera gel facilitates the healing of wounds and damaged skin tissue. It can decrease the redness and swelling associated with a burn. The gel also prevents skin damage resulting from exposure to ultraviolet radiation associated with direct sunlight. Applying aloe gel several times a day causes the redness of sunburn to disappear within a day or two without the skin peeling off. In addition, a cream containing aloe gel has been found to be effective in treating frostbite injury.
Topical use of a cream containing 0.5 percent aloe vera extract three times a day for four weeks has been shown to provide a high cure rate of the skin lesions in psoriasis patients. Further research suggests that aloe vera gel may also provide mild analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects. To date, there are no known adverse reactions or side effects with the topical use of aloe gel.
Raw or Processed Gel?
Some people may choose to grow a small potted aloe vera plant in their home. Aloe is a low-maintenance plant. It is very easy to grow, since it requires little water and almost no care. Having the household plant enables a person to break off or cut part of a leaf and obtain some freshly exuded gel to apply externally to a burn or wound as needed. This procedure is a safe and inexpensive treatment for minor skin complaints.
While fresh aloe gel is known to be effective for the treatment of minor skin ailments, there is doubt regarding the effectiveness of some aloe vera creams and ointments. The different commercially processed aloe products are known to have various ingredients. Much of the aloe gel on the market has been reconstituted from a powder or occurs as a “stabilized extract.” There is concern regarding the activity of some of these commercial products. Little is known about the stability of the active ingredients of aloe gel. In addition, some products that claim to contain aloe actually have so little aloe that they have no therapeutic value at all.
While aloe gel has successfully been used externally for skin problems, there is no support for the claims that aloe vera can successfully be used internally to treat coughs, allergies, and peptic ulcer. Internal use may actually cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Aloe gel should not be confused with the drug aloe, which is widely used as a laxative for cases of constipation. The outer leaf tissue of aloe produces a bitter yellow juice that is usually sold as a dry powder. This powder contains a family of colored compounds, anthrones and anthraquinones, that provide purgative and antibacterial properties. This product should not be used by pregnant women or young children. It is also contraindicated in cases of acutely inflamed intestinal diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Aloe has now been superseded by the less-toxic herbal laxatives cascara and senna.
The Bottom Line
Aloe vera is a very popular herbal remedy. The gel obtained from the center of the leaves of aloe vera provides useful healing qualities. The external application of the gel provides simple relief from common skin problems. On the other hand, the yellow juice from the outer margins is a potent laxative. The two extracts of the plant should not be confused.
Remember: Herbal products and dietary supplements can have pharmacological effects, may produce adverse reactions in some people, and could interact with over-the-counter and prescription medications you may take. Discuss with your physician your decision to use any herbal product. Anything mentioned in this article is not intended to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any ailment.
Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is a professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.