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Native to Africa, the Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis) plant now grows in the Caribbean, Latin America, some Mediterranean regions, and southern portions of the United States. Nicknamed “the burn plant,” it has been used for millennia to soothe and stimulate the healing of burns, rashes, and minor skin abrasions. Aloe vera, a perennial member of the lily family, has fibrous, grayish green leaves resembling spears. The edges of the leaves are serrated. Outdoors, aloe vera plants attain an average height of 2.5 to 3 feet (80 to 100 cm). Indoors, potted versions are considerably smaller, growing to about 12 inches (30 cm) tall.
The most widely used portion of the aloe vera plant is the gel, which is found in the succulent leaves. Tinged pale green, the clear gel of the aloe plant may be rubbed directly on the skin from the cut leaf. Principally composed of water, the gel also contains compounds called polysaccharides and glycoproteins. It is believed that these substances may have anti-inflammatory properties and may aid in the reconstruction of skin cells after an injury, thus contributing to the healing process. Recent research suggests that one such compound found in aloe vera, called acemannan, may have the ability to stimulate the immune system.
The skin-soothing merits of aloe vera gel are believed to be useful in relieving symptoms of dry skin. To this end, aloe vera gel is often added to body lotions, hand creams, shaving creams, and other cosmetic balms as an emollient. Eczematous rashes and some forms of acne may benefit from the application of aloe vera gel.
Aloe vera may be grown quite successfully as a houseplant, providing a ready source of the gel. The aloe vera plant will grow happily in light soil with good drainage, provided it has access to full sun. A sunny windowsill is an ideal location. To use, simply cut off a section of leaf, cut the leaf in half lengthwise, and rub the cut halves directly on the affected area. Make sure to cleanse the area well prior to applying the aloe vera gel.
In the past, aloe latex and aloe juice—substances derived from the leaves of the plant—were widely used to treat constipation. Although they are considered effective, they may produce side effects such as intense cramping and diarrhea, and so have fallen out of favor. Pregnant women and nursing mothers especially should not consume aloe latex or aloe juice.
There is some evidence that aloe vera gel applied to deep or surgical wounds may actually inhibit healing, so the gel should be applied only to injuries on the surface of the skin, such as minor burns and sunburn, rashes, insect bites, and abrasions. Further scientific study is under way in the exploration of the potential benefits of aloe vera in treating a host of additional ailments, including genital herpes, dermatitis, psoriasis, and type 2 diabetes.
Although the use of aloe vera gel topically is considered to be safe, people who are sensitive to plants in the lily family may be allergic to it. If a rash develops on contact, use should be discontinued. It should be noted that all herbs and plants contain substances that may cause undesirable side effects or interact with medications. Anyone interested in using aloe vera orally should do so only with a physician’s consent and under the supervision of a knowledgeable and reputable practitioner of homeopathic medicine.