Aloe Vera 101: What It’s Good for, Its Proposed Benefits, and Its Possible Side Effects

Medically Reviewed
aloe vera plant
Although aloe vera is often touted as a sunburn treatment, research on this potential benefit is limited.Stocksy

There are more than 300 species of aloe plant, but Aloe barbadensis (aka aloe vera) is the best known and most prized in the health and beauty worlds for its healing properties, according to an article in Journal of Pharmacy and BioAllied Sciences.

The spiky succulent plant grows naturally in dry, tropical climates in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the southern and western parts of the United States.

Many centuries ago, people realized the plant had more to offer than its good looks. The gel and juice found inside aloe vera became a popular herbal remedy, used to treat everything from skin issues to digestive problems, according to an article in SAGE Open Medicine published in September 2019.

Let’s take a look at the history of aloe vera and its potential benefits.

What Is Aloe Vera, and Where Does It Come From?

Aloe vera has been known for its healing properties for at least 6,000 years. In the early days, it was considered a “plant of immortality” and was presented to Egyptian pharaohs as a funeral gift, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

Over time, groups from many geographical areas have used aloe vera, including Indians, Chinese, Mexicans, and North Americans, too, per a chapter in Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects.

Aloe, variously known as “burn plant,” “lily of the desert,” and “elephant’s gall” — has been used traditionally to treat wounds, hair loss, hemorrhoids, and digestive issues.

These days, aloe has an entire industry behind it. Its juices are used in cosmetics and personal-care products such as moisturizer, soap, shaving cream, and suntan lotion. The aloe vera product that probably comes readily to mind is the bright green gel that’s stocked on drugstore shelves. You’ve probably used it to soothe a nasty sunburn.

Aloe vera is also available in supplement form, which is purported to offer the same benefits to the skin and digestive system as other preparations of the plant.

What Types of Aloe Vera Do People Use?

There are two medicinally useful parts of the aloe vera plant: aloe leaf and aloe latex, per the NCCIH.

Aloe Leaf

The leaves are filled with a clear gel, which is extracted from the plant and usually used:

  • As a topical gel on the skin to treat burns and various skin conditions
  • In liquid or capsule form to be taken orally

The latest in aloe vera trends is aloe-based drinks, such as aloe vera juice, which is made simply by extracting the aloe vera gel from the leaves and mixing it with water, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Aloe vera on its own can have a bitter taste, so some brands will add flavor or sweeteners to the bottle. Take a look at the bottle’s ingredients to make sure it’s not loaded with added sugar.

Aloe Latex

This is the yellow pulp that’s found just under the outer surface of the plant leaf. Mayo Clinic writes that aloe latex has been shown to have laxative properties, and it’s usually taken orally to treat constipation.

What Are the Potential Health Benefits of Aloe Vera?

According to the NCCIH, there’s not enough evidence to prove aloe vera can treat all the health issues it’s said to help with. Some of the many and varied claims include the following.

Better Digestion

Aloe latex contains aloin, an anthraquinone that gives the plant its laxative properties, and which may relieve constipation, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Constipation is a symptom commonly seen in primary care patients and also occurs with chronic digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

A study published in JNM in October 2018 suggestedthat aloe vera may be useful for individuals with constipation, including those dealing with this symptom in IBS. This is because of aloe vera’s laxative effect and its ability to increase water in the intestinal lumen.

Treatment of Skin Conditions Such as Psoriasis and Acne

Aloe creams have a calming effect on the skin and have been shown to reduce itchiness and inflammation, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In a past review of aloe vera, researchers found the plant had the ability to inhibit prostaglandin E2 production. These are lipids that not only play a role in the inflammatory process but are also active in the sebaceous glands, possibly contributing to inflammatory skin conditions, other research noted.

In addition to being anti-inflammatory, aloe has antibacterial properties and promotes wound healing, which makes it a potential complementary approach to treat acne, according to a study published in May 2021 in Frontiers in Medicine. The study found that a new treatment combining aloe vera gel, a soft mask, and ultrasound led to significant improvements for patients dealing with moderate acne. A separate study from 2014 found that adding aloe vera gel to the common topical acne treatment tretinoin had a positive effect on acne compared with tretinoin alone.

Sunburn Relief 

Some people swear by aloe to calm a sunburn, but you may be surprised to learn this traditional remedy lacks concrete research results demonstrating its ability to soothe symptoms and speed recovery, as a review notes.

One study, for instance, found aloe vera applied topically after laboratory-induced sunburn didn’t have an effect on reducing redness compared with a placebo. And yet this study was small and included only 20 healthy volunteers.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, though. Indeed, you have likely experienced the gel’s cooling effect yourself, and according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, aloe vera is generally safe to use for soothing mild sunburns.

Wound Healing

Although aloe vera may not be effective for treating sunburns, it may provide some relief after a first- or second-degree burn. In a review of four controlled clinical trials consisting of 371 burn patients, researchers found that healing times for patients who applied aloe vera to their burns was about nine days shorter than in the control group. That said, these studies differed from one another in terms of products involved and conclusions measured, so more studies on the potential effects of aloe vera on wound healing are needed. Talk to your healthcare team about proper treatment for severe burns before turning to over-the-counter options like aloe vera.

Less Heartburn 

In one trial, researchers found that a standardized aloe vera extract in a syrup helped lessen several symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), including heartburn, belching, and vomiting, over a four-week period.

This may be due to GERD’s link to inflammation. Aloe vera has anti-inflammatory properties, as well as antioxidant and anti-ulcer properties that have been studied in animals and patients with IBD (irritable bowel disease), as past research notes.

Lower Blood Sugar 

past clinical trial found that two tablespoons of aloe vera juice every day for two weeks lowered blood sugar levels among people with type 2 diabetes. Triglyceride levels of the study participants also improved — which could be an additional benefit for those with diabetes: They're at an increased risk of developing heart disease, which is linked to triglyceride and cholesterol abnormalities. A more recent study suggests people with prediabetes may see similar effects on their blood sugar and lipids from aloe vera.

Some of the Ways You Can Use Aloe Vera

By now you may want to explore some of the potential benefits outlined above. It's best to do so in consultation with your primary doctor, nutritionist, or another healthcare provider who knows how to safely use aloe, especially if you want to try it internally. The plant has been shown to have a few other surprising uses, such as the following.

A Way to Keep Produce Fresh

One study found aloe vera gel applied on the outsides of tomatoes helped delay ripening, aided in maintaining their quality and freshness, and prevented certain bacteria from growing.

A Simple Mouthwash

Research has shown that aloe vera mouthwash reduces plaque formation on teeth in the short term. In the study, 300 subjects were assigned to rinse their mouths with either aloe vera mouthwash, normal saline, or chlorhexidine gluconate mouthwash. Researchers found that after four days, aloe vera was just as effective at reducing plaque as chlorhexidine and caused no side effects. More studies are needed to assess longer-term effectiveness and safety.

A Pain Reliever 

Salicylic acid, found naturally in aloe vera, is a compound that gives aspirin its anti-inflammatory effects, per research. More studies are needed to explore the effectiveness of aloe vera in treating pain, but one past paper suggests that oral aloe vera may help reduce chronic pain that is not related to cancer, such as osteoarthritis pain. Meanwhile, other past research in mice found that a small amount of aloe vera applied topically may inhibit inflammation from mild irritants, though more studies in humans are needed.

A Closer Look at the Possible Beauty Benefits of Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is an “it” ingredient in the beauty and cosmetics space as well. You’ll find it in everything from moisturizers and toners to shampoos and deep conditioners. There’s even an entire line of products called Aloe Vesta, which are designed to protect sensitive skin.

What’s the reason for the hype? The plant is known for supporting skin hydration and clarity. It’s rich in antioxidants such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E, and it contains seven of the eight essential amino acids, according to a previous article. It’s known for its anti-inflammatory properties, though some critics say more research is needed before we can say that for sure.

past uncontrolled study found aloe has anti-aging potential: The researchers gave 30 women doses of aloe vera gel orally twice a day for three months. The women saw significant improvements in their wrinkles and the elasticity of their skin. Researchers posited that this effect was from an increase in collagen production.

You’ll also find hair-care products containing aloe vera. According to the website Byrdie, some beauty pros apply the gel found inside the leaves directly to their hair and use it as a deep conditioner. It can leave a residue behind though, so be sure to rinse it out thoroughly, and if you have skin conditions its best to seek help from a dermatologist before putting raw plant products on your skin.

Side Effects and Health Risks of Aloe Vera

Aloe gel (the part of the plant that’s commonly found in creams and moisturizers) is generally safe to use and can be helpful in healing the skin when it’s applied topically.

Aloe latex, however, can be dangerous. Taking aloe latex orally can lead to cramps and diarrhea, and it could make other oral medications you’re taking less effective, according to the NCCIH.

Aloe latex can lead to more serious problems, too. Taking even just 1 gram (g) orally per day for several days could end up causing kidney damage and may even be fatal, per the Mayo Clinic. It also can lower blood glucose levels, so people with type 2 diabetes need to be careful and talk to their doctor before incorporating aloe latex into their care regimen.

Another potential negative for aloe latex: It could have cancer-promoting effects. A study from the National Toxicology Program found that whole-leaf aloe vera extract created cancerous tumors within the large intestines of rats. But don’t be alarmed: The study didn’t involve humans, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says there’s nothing currently in the literature that suggests researchers would find the same results in humans.

The good news is the rats in the study drank water containing 60 parts per million (ppm) of aloin every day. That’s much higher than the 10 ppm that the industry tends to set as their limit, so it’s not likely that you’d reach unsafe levels, per the NIEHS.

How to Select and Store Aloe Vera for the Best Quality

Consult the label on your aloe vera product to learn about the best storage method. Generally, it’s best to store aloe vera gel and aloe vera juice in a cool, not-too-humid environment, such as at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Humidity and temperature can affect the shelf-life of the product. That’s why you’ll likely find aloe vera juice in amber-colored bottles. The dark bottle, according to past research, is designed to keep light from affecting the active ingredients.

Aloe vera is considered a supplement, and supplements are not regulated fully by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means there’s no way to know for sure whether the quality, safety or claims on the product are valid. And there are loads of products that claim to be rich in aloe vera, but many of them contain no or hardly any active ingredients.

There is one thing to look for, however, when buying your product: the seal from the International Aloe Science Council, which is an organization that’s been active since the 1980s. Their seal on a product means the product’s aloe vera quality and purity has been tested and confirmed.

Tips for How to Grow Aloe Vera at Home

Good news for nongreen thumbs: Aloe vera is a cinch to grow as a houseplant at home.

Aloe vera is a succulent plant that prefers dry, warm climates, so it doesn’t need to be watered every day. A little neglect in watering isn’t going to hurt it — in fact, it may actually help, because this drought-loving plant lives best in dry conditions, per the Missouri Botanical Garden. You should be careful not to overwater the plant, and if you keep the plant outdoors, be sure to cover it when it rains.

Aloe vera plants grow to be one to two feet high and up to one foot wide, and prefer tropical climates. Unless you live in Hawaii, Southern California, or southern Florida, you won’t be able to leave it outdoors all year. But you can easily leave it in a pot and bring it inside when the temperature drops (ideally anytime it gets close to 50 degrees F or cooler). Sunlight is key to a healthy aloe vera plant, so position it outside in a sunny spot or inside on a windowsill, advises the site One Green Planet.

When planting your aloe vera plant in a pot, choose a shallow, wide bowl so the roots have room to move and spread as they grow. New seeds will grow around the base of the plant, which you can then take and plant in a new pot.

That said, to make the most of aloe's potential health benefits, turn to those premade over-the-counter options, like supplements, drinks, lotions, and shaving gel, once you get the green light from your healthcare team.

Additional reporting by Valencia Higuera.

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