As anybody who has walked down any drugstore lotion and cream aisle, there is an awful lot of aloe being thrown about – aloe in body wash, aloe in skin care products, aloe in healing ointments, aloe in lip balm, and the list goes on. So what is aloe, why is it special, and should I care? I know aloe is a succulent plant native to Africa. I also know that it tastes good in the Chinese bottled drinks I get from the grocery store and that my mom believes creams containing aloe helps cuts to heal without leaving a scar. However, it is quite obvious that aloe’s popularity reaches much further than just Chinese culture considering I can find aloe-containing products across the globe. What’s the scoop?
Aloe vera (a.k.a. “true” aloe), the most commonly used plant from which aloe additives are derived, is actually an extinct species in the wild. All the aloe used for cosmeceutical additives or jelly in drinks is cultivated. However, before the plant became extinct, historical uses of aloe included wound poultices, laxative (unprocessed aloe contains aloin, a really effective purgative), relief of indigestion, and decoration as house plants. Actually, really not much has changed in the use of aloe since the time of the ancient Greeks, except that the FDA has banned aloin in over-the-counter laxatives. We still use aloe as a decorative house plant, we drink aloe juice to relieve indigestion (these processed juices do not contain aloin), and we still use aloe as a topical treatment for skin! Since this is a skin blog, I think I’ll forgo discussing aloe’s attributes as a stunning ornamental plant or purgative, and focus on why aloe is good for our skin.
Aloe, first and foremost, is used to soothe dry, flaky, irritated skin. Recent studies have shown topical aloe creams show promise in treating skin conditions such as psoriasis and dermatitis. The plant contains many compounds that act as anti-inflammatories, such as C-glucosyl chromone and bradykinase, reducing redness, swelling and itch. In addition, the gelatinous center of the aloe leaf is high in polysaccharides. When applied to the skin, the sugars act as a protective layer over the skin and suck up moisture to keep skin hydrated. And if soothing dry, cracked skin was not enough, aloe contains many compounds to help fight aging. For instance, the plant hormone gibberellin combined with the plant sugar glucomannan helps to increase new collagen production, producing tighter, firmer and younger looking skin. Also the plethora of antioxidants in aloe, including beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E, fight free radicals that damage our skin.
But what about the old wives’ tale my mom believes — can aloe treat wounds and burns? Aloe contains the plant hormones auxin and gibberellin which act as growth hormones to promote healthy recovery of skin by inducing skin cell growth and division. In addition to faster healing times, these hormones also act as anti-inflammatories reducing irritating symptoms that accompany skin wounds. Allowing wounds to heal in a moisture-rich environment, without further irritation, is key to decreasing scar formation.
There you have it, aloe is a miracle, all-in-one healing, anti-aging, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-indigestion, good-looking plant. In fact, the Egyptian nickname, “Plant of Immortality,” seems rather fitting. So, I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll just head over to my local store right now to stock up on some aloe juice and aloe cream. And maybe I’ll go by the nursery to pick up an aloe plant as well . . . it couldn’t hurt.
Margit Lai Wun Juhasz
Mount Sinai Medical Student