About Aloe Vera Benefits, Facts and Uses

Fresh-cut aloe vera leaves with a jar of aloe vera juice.

Introduction

Aloe vera is a succulent plant that has been cultivated and used for first aid and skin care since ancient times. Today the aloe vera plant is often grown in homes for basic first aid purposes and DIY natural skincare routines. Commercially, aloe vera is typically cultivated for use in beauty and cosmetic products.

In this article you will find an in-depth overview of the aloe vera plant, interesting aloe vera historical facts, information on growing aloe, aloe vera gel benefits and how to use aloe vera gel for face and hair. You will also find several useful DIY aloe vera recipes which include aloe sunburn relief, aloe face masks and the perfect recipe for aloe vera for hair care.

What is Aloe Vera?

Aloe is a genus of evergreen shrubs whose many species mostly originate in Africa, although this useful plant is cultivated all over the world in modern times. (1) The most common type of aloe plant used for health, wellness and beauty applications is commonly called the aloe vera plant, which translates from Latin as “true aloe.” This same species is also alternately called Aloe vulgaris (common aloe) and Aloe barbadensis (Barbados aloe).

Well-known for its common household uses, aloe vera has migrated to arid climates all over the world. Being such a world traveler, the plant has picked up many nicknames along the way. Some common aloe vera names take their cue from the typical uses of the plant such as medicinal aloe, burn plant, miracle plant, or unguentine cactus. However, other common aloe vera names are derived from locations famous for aloe vera cultivation like Indian aloe, Mediterranean aloe and coastal aloe. Others are far more poetic like lily of the desert, elephant’s gall, flower of the desert and star cactus. (2)

The aloe vera plant is considered a herbaceous perennial plant. (3) Herbaceous because it lacks a woody stem and perennial because it lives longer than two years. Aloe vera is also an evergreen plant because it retains its green leaves all year long. In fact, aloe vera plants generally live up to 12 years. (4)

As a type of succulent, aloe vera has fleshy thick leaves specially adapted to water storage. All plants have small structures called stomata that cover the leaf and/or stem surfaces. The stomata of most plants open during the day and close at night so they take in CO2 (carbon dioxide) and in turn release H2O (water) and O2(oxygen) into their surroundings. As a succulent, aloe vera plants do the exact opposite, staying closed during the hottest driest hours, which in turn means they lose less water. (5)

Aloe vera leaves grow up to 18” from a stemless center, spiraling out in a rosette formation. The long fleshy leaves have serrated edges and smooth waxy gray-green skin, sometimes with white spots. Clusters of yellow flowers on stalks bloom from the center of the leaves and can grow up to 3 feet tall. The main part of the aloe plant (i.e. the leaves) is generally 1 to 2 feet with a spread of about 1 foot. (6)

Each individual aloe vera leaf has three layers: the clear gel inside, a middle layer of yellow sap called aloe latex and the fleshy green part (or rind). Aloe vera gel is mostly water with complex sugar compounds called glucomannans, amino acids, lipids, sterols and vitamins. (7)

How to Grow Aloe Vera

Regarded by many as a general panacea for minor cuts, burns and scrapes, aloe vera is a popular household plant for home remedies.

Like most succulents, the aloe plant is equipped to retain moisture so it can survive long periods of drought. Aloe vera grows best in full sun and dry soil making it a popular choice for natural landscaping in dry arid desert climates especially with its evergreen leaves and seasonally blooming yellow flowers. (8) Its hardy nature also makes aloe vera a great low-maintenance indoor plant.

Indoors, aloe plants thrive in a dry potting soil mix, with their planters placed to receive plenty of bright indirect sunlight. (9) As a drought resistant succulent, aloe vera simply doesn’t require as much watering as flowers or leafy plants. The soil in a pot containing aloe should feel damp after watering— not soaked. If you have a hard time figuring out how much to water your aloe plant, all you have to do is feel the leaves. The leaves of a hydrated aloe vera plant will feel cool and/or moist. If the leaves feel dry, then you need to add more water. Aloe vera plants should generally not be watered until the soil is fully dry. (10)

For outdoor aloe plants in regions that are not arid, the same rules as indoor cultivation generally apply. However, special attention should be paid to your plant as aloe vera is very sensitive to cold conditions and over watering. (11) Heavy or constant rainfall can overwater your aloe plant. In a very wet climate or season, your aloe plant may benefit from either placing the pot in a sunny covered spot or simply covering it when it rains. If local temperatures drop to freezing, bringing your plant indoors may be necessary to keep it from freezing. Whether grown outdoors or indoors, aloe plants will require much less water in cooler months. (12)

In addition to being a popular household plant, aloe vera crops are also becoming increasingly popular with the rise of farmer markets, the demand for natural ingredients, and farm-to-table culture. Aloe vera as a crop is appealing to farmers because it’s just so easy to grow. Due the fact that aloe grows best in dry soil, it can be grown in rocky dry soil that may not be suitable for other crops. Aloe plant crops also need very little irrigation beyond natural rainfall and best of all, aloe plants are pest resistant so they are easy to grow organically. (13)

Aloe Vera Benefits

High Water Content: Aloe vera is referred to by some as the “miracle plant,” and with good reason when its many benefits are considered. First, and foremost, the clear viscous substance inside the leaves is an excellent carrier for water. In fact, aloe vera gel is 99% water. (14) This is mainly due to the molecular structure of aloe vera cells which are made from a matrix of polysaccharides that binds 200 times its weight in water. (15)

Hydrates: Loss of moisture is associated with visible signs of aging in skin. (16) The high water content, yet viscous nature of aloe vera gel, make it a convenient way to deliver moisture directly to skin. Mucopolysaccharides in aloe vera also help bind water in the skin to retain the moisture. (17)

For moisturizing, ideally aloe vera gel would be used in combination with a natural emollient such as jojoba oil, which is non-occlusive, but still helps prevent additional water loss. (18) While natural occlusive agents can be beneficial because they coat the skin (slowing water loss) the layer of oil left on the skin may be unpleasant to some. (19) Chemical occlusives (like petroleum) may be especially unpleasant.

Soothing and Antiseptic: The water content of aloe vera may be why it provides such a cool soothing sensation that can offer comfort for a number of minor issues including dry or burned skin. (20) The gel also also includes 6 antiseptic agents which may help reduce fungi, bacteria and viruses. Antiseptic agents in aloe vera include: cinnamic acid, lupeol, phenols, salicylic acid, sulfur and urea nitrogen. (21)

Inflammation Relief: Inflammation is the body’s response to injured tissue. Certain polypeptides known as proinflammatory cytokines are responsible for the uncomfortable redness and swelling associated with inflammation. (22) Aloe vera has been shown to help reduce the inflammatory cytokine IL-1β. (23) Taking this information into consideration, aloe vera may provide temporary relief from symptoms associated with minor topical inflammation.

Summary of Aloe Vera Benefits

  1. High water content: aloe vera gel is 99% water
  2. Hydrates: Delivers water to skin & helps skin retain water
  3. Soothing & antiseptic: Cooling sensation and 6 antiseptic agents
  4. Inflammation relief: Provides temporary relief from minor inflammation symptoms.

History of Aloe Vera

It is widely believed that the aloe genus originated specifically in northern Africa and was carried throughout the Middle East along the trade routes of antiquity. Several 6000 year old Egyptian cave carvings of the aloe plant (circa 8000 BCE) lead some to believe ancient Egyptians were using aloe remedies at least since that time. However, the first written account where medicinal aloe vera uses are recorded are on a Sumerian stone tablet from circa 2100 BCE. The famous Egyptian medical text, Papyrus Ebers (circa 1550 BCE) contains a detailed discussion of the medicinal benefits of aloe vera. This is the first time medicinal aloe vera uses were discussed in detail within the written record. (24)

Legendary beauty, Queen Nefertiti, who ruled Egypt from 1353-1336 BCE, reputedly used aloe vera in her beauty routine. (25) Roughly 500 years later, aloe is referred to in the Bible’s Old Testament, chiefly in the Song of Solomon 4:14 where it is included in a list of prized herbs, spices and plants. Just 200 years after that, Alexander the Great is believed to have conquered an island in 333 BCE for aloe vera plants to treat wounds acquired by his soldiers. One of the most famously (or infamously) beautiful women of all time, Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt from 51-30 BCE. like Queen Nefertiti before her, is also rumored to have used aloe vera in her beauty routine. (26)

Roughly 80 years later, ancient Greek and Romans were recording aloe vera benefits in prominent medical texts. In his 77 CE text, Natural History, Roman scholar Pliny the Elder extolled the use of aloe vera for healing wounds, saying “the leaves are applied fresh to wounds; indeed, these leaves, as well as the juice, are glutinous to a marvellous degree.” (27) Circa 50-70 CE Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides also discusses the benefits of aloe vera in his book De Materia Media.

It is believed that aloe vera plants were being grown for export on the island of Socotra (the one Alexander the Great supposedly conquered for the plant) as early as 500 BCE. The plants produced there would have been traded in Asia and eastern Europe. It is evident from the names given to aloe vera in these regions that people of the east also valued the plant for its healing properties. The Chinese call aloe vera the “harmonic remedy,” Hindu people referred to the plant as the “silent healer,” and in Russia aloe vera juice was called the “Elixir of Longevity.“ (28)

Throughout the Middle Ages, medieval healers continued consult the classical medical texts of antiquity. In general, there are less new medical texts from Europe during this era of history and more references to the works of ancient Greece and Rome. However, there is record of aloe vera benefits by one of the few prominent women in medieval church history. Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine nun who lived in the 1100s and wrote two treatises on medicine and natural history. (29) She describes aloe vera as a cure for migraines, gastric infections, jaundice, saniouse ulcers. (30)

A bottle of artnaturals aloe vera gel.

Aloe Vera Uses in Modern History

From the 1400s (or 15th century) up to the Industrial Revolution, aloe vera plants continued to be carried by travelers to new lands for use medicinal and beauty practices. One of the most famous world travelers, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), also played a key role in the spread of aloe vera plants.

It is known that Columbus’ sailing vessels carried pots of aloe vera for medicinal use, and aloe is referenced many times in Columbus’ journal of his voyage to the Americas. (31) Keeping aloe vera handy makes a lot of sense for a life at sea. Well known for its sunburn relief, it’s easy to imagine 15th century sailors applying the cooling aloe vera gel from the leaves to sunburned faces. A famous quote from Christopher Columbus includes aloe vera as one of four vital plants. (32)

“Four vegetables are indispensable for the well being of man;
Wheat, the grape, the olive and aloe.
The fist nourishes him, the second raises his spirit,
The third brings him harmony, the fourth cures him.”
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

By the 1500s (16th century) there were reports of wild aloe plants growing on the American continents that were likely left behind by early explorers. At this time, Jesuit monks from Spain had also journeyed to the Americas on religious missions and spread aloe vera plants with them as they traveled. From the Jesuits and other European settlers, Native Americans were also introduced to the benefits of aloe vera. The Mayans called aloe vera juice the “Fountain of Youth” (33)

Around the same time, but cross the Atlantic, Swedish physician Dr. Philippus Paracelsus was thought to have created perhaps the most famous aloe vera medicine of all time. Known today as Swedish Bitters, the original formulation of the elixir features 7 key ingredients with aloe at the forefront: ale, rhubarb, saffron, myrrh, gentian, zedoary and agarikon. These ingredients are then mixed with alcohol and a theriac. (34)

Although Paracelsus is believed to have created the original mixture, it wasn’t until the 1600s (17th century) that the elixir was formally branded as Swedish Bitters by Dr. Claus Samst and Dr. Urban Hjärne. Swedish Bitters is still a popular aloe vera tonic today and is available for purchase from many retailers.

In the 1800s (19th century) Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) was a Bavarian physician and priest famous for treating thousands with natural remedies. (35) In his practice, Father Kneipp used both aloe vera gel and aloe made into powder form to purify and detoxify the digestive system. (36) Today Father Kneipp is considered a pillar of the naturopathic profession and his works are still being referenced by natural healers and holistic health practitioners.

How to Use Aloe Vera for Face

Relieve minor facial blemishes: For minor wounds (e.g. scrapes, cuts, razor bumps, etc.) and sunburns, you can cut open an aloe vera plant and place the thick clear aloe vera gel directly on the affected area for immediate relief. To help ease the symptoms of these types of minor afflictions you can also apply aloe gel all over your face, let it dry and then wash off. An all-natural pure aloe vera gel is the most convenient way to do a full face application. (41)

Acne spot treatment: In addition to the 5 antiseptic agents previously listed in this article (cinnamic acid, lupeol, phenols, sulfur and urea nitrogen), aloe vera gel also includes salicylic acid. The antiseptics and salicylic acids in aloe vera reduce bacteria on the skin and can provide immediate temporary relief for symptoms associated with inflamed acne spots. (42)

Toner for oily skin: Cleansing, toning and moisturizing your face is an important part of a good daily skincare routine. Toner is the step between cleaning your face and moisturizing. (43) Typical astringents like alcohol, cider vinegar and witch hazel can often cause excessive drying when used undiluted. (44)

Oily skin in particular can be difficult to tone because you want to reduce the oil, but not completely strip your skin of all moisture. Using aloe vera gel as a toner can reduce oil while still delivering moisture to your face. The antiseptic compounds in aloe vera clarify skin (i.e. help reduce bacteria), amino acids help soften skin and zinc helps tighten pores. (45)

Natural makeup remover: The high water content and antiseptic properties of aloe vera gel make it an ideal choice for natural makeup remover. Simply applying pure aloe vera gel to a clean washcloth and wiping off your makeup allows you to cleanse and moisturize at the same time.

Base for DIY face masks: In addition to the antiseptic properties of aloe vera and its high water content, the cooling sensation from applying aloe vera gel to the face is particularly pleasant and refreshing. Making your own DIY aloe face mask is a particularly soothing way to relax if you are suffering from dry or sunburned skin.

Summary of Aloe Vera Uses for Face

  1. Relieve Minor Facial Blemishes
  2. Acne Spot Treatment
  3. Toner for Oily Skin
  4. Natural Makeup Remover
  5. Base for DIY Face Masks

Ways to Use Aloe Vera for Hair

Itchy scalp relief: Psoriasis, eczema and seborrheic dermatitis are all common skin conditions that can cause redness itching and flaking, all of which result in unsightly dandruff. Applying aloe vera gel to your scalp may help hydration and soothe the discomfort associated with these conditions. (46), (47)

Balance hair pH level: A dry flaky scalp that itches may also be a sign that your hair has been stripped of its natural acidity which means the pH level is high. (48) Human hair looks and feels its best when it is slightly acidic. (49) In this case, using a product with a low pH level (which means it contains more acid) will help balance the pH level of your scalp.

Aloe vera has a pH level of 6.10. (50) On the pH scale (which ranges from 0-14) 7 is considered neutral, 0-6 is acidic and 8-14 is alkaline (less acidic). (51) This means that aloe vera gel is considered a low pH level product with more acidity than neutral.

Clarifying shampoo: Excessive product build up is one cause of dull hair. Aloe vera gel is considered an efficient way to cleanse excess oils and product residue from hair follicles without harsh chemicals. Using aloe vera as a natural clarifying shampoo may help hair appear shinier and feel softer. (52)

Summary of Aloe Vera Uses for Hair

  1. Itchy Scalp Relief
  2. Balance Hair pH Level
  3. Clarifying Shampoo

Aloe Vera Bath & Body Uses

Sunburn Relief: One of the most common ways to use aloe vera gel is to take advantage of the cooling sensation by applying directly to sunburnt skin. The immediate soothing effect can help you feel more comfortable and you can re-apply as often as needed. (53) Aloe vera gel can also help encourage healing sunburns. (54)

Shave Gel: Uncomfortable razor bumps, nicks and cuts left behind by shaving are all minor inflammations of the skin as your body tries to heal. (55) Since aloe has been shown to help reduce the proinflammatory cytokines that are associated with inflammation, using aloe vera gel as a shaving gel may help reduce discomfort after shaving. (56)

Base for DIY Scrubs: As a gentle antiseptic cleanser, aloe vera gel is a good base for creating your own DIY body scrubs. The high water content provides moisture while you scrub and thick viscous texture make aloe scrub recipes easy to apply rough patches like knees, elbows and heels.

Cooling Moisturizer: Aloe vera gel is good to use in recipes to create moisturizers because it has a high water content and complex sugar compounds that help bind water to the skin to invigoration and nourishment. (57)

Summary of Aloe Vera Bath & Body Uses

  1. Sunburn Relief
  2. Shave Gel
  3. Base for DIY Scrubs
  4. Cooling Moisturizer

Aloe Vera Side Effects & Safety Information

Oral Aloe Vera Warning

Pregnant and nursing women as well as children under the age of 12 should not orally consume aloe vera products (clear gel or aloe latex). Taking aloe vera orally may cause uterine contractions in pregnant women and gastrointestinal distress to nursing infants and children. (58)

Aloe Latex Warning: Orally consuming aloe latex (the yellow sap between the clear gel and aloe leaf rind) is considered unsafe, especially in large doses. Just 1 gram of aloe latex per day for several days can cause fatal acute kidney failure and may also have the potential to cause cancer. (59)

Aloe Vera Topical Use Precautions

Whenever using a product of natural substance for the first time it’s always best to apply to a small test patch of skin to test for allergic reaction. Topical use of aloe vera can cause allergic reactions in people sensitive to anthraquinones (a type of hydrocarbon compound). (60) Aloin (also known as babaloin) is a type of anthraquinone compound found in aloe latex. (61) Aloe can also interact negatively with some topical steroids.

Aloe Interactions with Other Substances

The Mayo Clinic lists several potentially harmful interactions that should be avoided when consuming aloe orally including: Anticoagulants and anti-platelet drugs, herbs and supplements; Digoxin (Lanoxin), diabetes drugs, Sevoflurane (Utane), and Warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven). Other oral drugs, stimulant laxatives, and water pills (diuretics) are also cautioned against. The laxative effect of aloe may reduce the effectiveness of other medications. Aloe vera combined with stimulant laxatives and/or water pills (diuretics) may cause dehydration and decrease potassium levels.

When used topically, aloe vera may increase the skin’s ability to absorb hydrocortisone steroid creams. When this happens your skin may absorb higher levels of cortisone than the recommended dosage. (62)

DIY Aloe Vera Recipes

Tropical Getaway Aloe Vera Face Mask

What it does: Deeply moisturizes and nourishes skin with beneficial vitamins and minerals. A delicious, tropical aloe vera face mask for hydrated glowing skin.

What you’ll need:

  • 2 tbsp aloe vera gel
  • A quarter of a ripe mango
  • 1 ripe banana
  • Mixing bowl
  • Fork

Instructions:

  1. Carefully peel your fruit. Note: Mango skin contains an enzyme that can irritate skin so make sure the mango especially is fully peeled.
  2. Add banana and a quarter of a mango to bowl and mash to a pulp.
  3. Add 2 tbsp aloe vera gel and continue mashing until your mix is fully blended and slightly frothy.
  4. Apply mixture to face, avoiding direct contact with eyes.
  5. Relax for 20 minutes letting the delicious scents whisk you away to paradise.
  6. Rinse face and dry.

Breakout-Buster Aloe Vera Mask

What it does: Antiseptic ingredients help control and reduce the bacteria that may cause acne while keeping skin hydrated.

What you’ll need:

Instructions:

  1. Add all ingredients to bowl, mix well.
  2. Apply mixture all over face, avoid eye contact.
  3. Relax for 5-10 minutes.
  4. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry.
  5. Repeat 1-2 times weekly.

Aloe Vera All-Over Exfoliating Scrub

What it does: Brushes away dead skin cells and reduces bacteria to clear out pores. Deeply hydrates without clogging those freshly cleared pores.

What you’ll need:

Instructions:

  1. Add all ingredients to bowl, mix well.
  2. Apply mixture to face, avoiding contact with eyes.
  3. Gently massage mixture all over face using small circular motions.
  4. After applying, rinse well and pat dry.
  5. Use leftover scrub to exfoliate body, avoiding sensitive areas.

Aloe Vera Sunburn Relief

What it does: Provides a cool soothing sensation to dry or burned skin, deeply moisturizes and smells refreshing.

What you’ll need:

*Essential oil mixtures are generally best stored in dark glass containers to preserve the integrity of the oils.

Instructions:

  1. Add all ingredients to blender, food processor or bowl. Blend completely.
  2. Carefully pour the mixture into the spray bottle using a funnel. If operating without a funnel, always pour over the sink.
  3. Spray on sunburned areas as needed.

Pro tip: Spray on after showering and rub into skin for an all-over cooling moisturizer.

Weekly DIY Aloe Hair Mask

What it does: Deeply cleanses scalp and removes excess product build up. Hydrates and moisturizes hair while adding vitamins, minerals, and protein to help smooth strands and enhance volume.

What you’ll need:

  • 3 tbsp aloe vera gel
  • 2 tbsp plain greek yogurt
  • 2 tbsp argan oil
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • Mixing bowl
  • Spoon
  • Shower cap (optional)

Instructions:

  1. Add all ingredients to bowl and mix well.
  2. Apply to hair in small sections until all hair is covered.
  3. Apply any remaining mixture at the roots.
  4. Gently massage into scalp for 3-5 minutes.
  5. Coil hair on top of head and cover with shower cap*
  6. Let sit 25-30 minutes, then rinse well.
  7. Repeat weekly.

* You can also reuse a plastic shopping bag to cover your hair or wrap it in a towel.

Disclaimer

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please confirm any information obtained from or through this web site with other sources, and review all information regarding any medical condition or treatment with your physician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment because of something you have read on this website.

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