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Aloe Vera

Since the reign of Cleopatra, the cool, soothing gel from inside the leaf of the

aloe vera plant has been gently applied to the skin to treat burns and minor wounds. This clear gel is also the basis of aloe vera juice, which can calm digestive complaints.

  Common Uses   Forms   Warnings   What It Is   What It Does   Shopping Hints   How to Take It   Possible Side Effects

Common Uses

Applied topically
  • Heals minor burns (including sunburn), cuts and abrasions, insect bites and stings, welts, small skin ulcers, and frostbite
  • Relieves the itch of shingles (herpes zoster).
  • May help clear up warts.

Taken internally

  • Soothes ulcers, heartburn, and other digestive complaints.


  • Cream/ointment
  • Fresh herb/gel
  • Liquid
  • Capsule
  • Softgel


  • Don't confuse aloe vera with the bitter yellow aloe latex, which is sold as a laxative and can cause severe cramping and diarrhea. Pregnant or breast-feeding women in particular should avoid aloe latex.
  • Overuse or misuse of aloe vera juice can cause loss of potassium (necessary for proper heart function), and may lead to toxicity when taken with the heart/blood pressure drugs digitoxin and digoxin or steroids such as beclomethasone, methylprednisolone, and prednisone. It also may intensify the potassium-depleting effects of diuretics such as chlorothiazide, hydrocholorothiazide, and indapamide.
  • Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.

What It Is

A succulent in the Lily family, aloe vera has fleshy leaves that provide a gel widely used as a topical treatment for skin problems -- a practice dating back to at least 1500 B.C., when Egyptian healers described it in their treatises. The plant is native to the Cape of Good Hope and grows wild in much of Africa and Madagascar; commercial growers cultivate it in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Japan, and the United States.

What It Does

Scientists aren't exactly sure how aloe vera works, but they have identified many of its active ingredients. Rich in anti-inflammatory substances, the gel contains a gummy material that acts as a soothing emollient, as well as bradykininase, a compound that helps treat pain and reduce swelling, and magnesium lactate, which quells itching. Aloe vera also dilates the tiny blood vessels known as capillaries, allowing more blood to get to an injury and thus speeding up the healing process. In addition, some studies show that it destroys, or at least inhibits, a number of bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Major benefits: Aloe vera gel is particularly helpful when applied to damaged skin. It aids in the healing of first-degree burns, sunburn, minor skin wounds, and even painful shingles by relieving pain and reducing itching. The gel also provides an airproof moisturizing barrier, so that wounds do not dry out. Furthermore, aloe vera's capillary-dilating properties increase blood circulation, speeding the regeneration of skin and relieving mild cases of frostbite. The gel's antiviral effects may promote the healing of warts as well.

Though effective against minor cuts and abrasions, aloe vera may not be a good choice for more serious, infected wounds. In a study of 21 women in a Los Angeles hospital whose cesarean-section wounds had become infected, applying aloe vera gel actually increased the length of time -- from 53 to 83 days -- it took for the wounds to heal.

Additional benefits: Aloe vera gel is also used to make a juice that may be taken internally for inflammatory digestive disorders, including ulcers and heartburn. However, there's very little research on its internal use. In Japan, purified aloe vera compounds have been found to inhibit stomach secretions and lesions. In one study, aloe vera juice cured 17 of 18 patients with peptic ulcers, but, unfortunately, there was no comparison group taking a placebo. A U.S. commercial lab is currently conducting trials with an aloe-derived compound as a treatment for people with ulcerative colitis -- a common type of inflammatory bowel disease.

Other studies are exploring aloe vera's effectiveness as a possible antiviral and immune-boosting agent for people with AIDS; as a treatment for leukemia and other types of cancer; as a therapy to help those with diabetes manage the demands of their disease; and as a treatment for psoriasis. A study of 60 people with long-standing psoriasis found that applying aloe to skin lesions three times a day for eight months led to significant improvement in 83% of the patients, versus only 6% in those who used a placebo.

Shopping Hints

  • When buying aloe products, be sure aloe vera is near the top of the ingredients list. Creams and ointments should contain at least 20% aloe vera. For internal use, look for juice that contains at least 98% aloe vera and no aloin or aloe-emodin.
  • The International Aloe Science Council, a voluntary certification program, provides the "IASC-certified" seal to products that use certified raw ingredients and process them according to standard guidelines. Look for this seal, especially when you are purchasing aloe vera juice.

How to Take It

Dosage: For external use: Liberally apply aloe vera gel or cream to the injured skin as needed or desired. For internal use: Take one-half to three-quarters of a cup of aloe vera juice three times a day; or take one or two capsules as directed on the label.

Guidelines for use: Topically, aloe vera gel can be applied repeatedly, especially in the case of burns. Just rub it on the affected area, let it dry, and reapply when needed. Fresh gel from a live leaf is the most potent -- and economical -- form of the herb. If you have an aloe vera plant, cut off several inches from a leaf, then slice the cutting lengthwise. Spread the gel found in the center onto the affected area. For internal use, take aloe vera juice between meals. Another form of aloe, called aloe latex, a yellow extract from the inner leaf, is a powerful laxative and should be used only sparingly under a doctor's care.

Possible Side Effects
Topical aloe vera is very safe. In rare cases, some people get a mild, allergic skin reaction with itching or rash; simply discontinue use. Aloe vera juice, however, may contain small amounts of the laxative ingredient in aloe latex because of poor processing. If you experience cramping, diarrhea, or loose stools, stop taking the juice immediately and replace it with a new supply. Never take aloe vera juice if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.

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