The aloe vera plant has long been associated with healing, but do clinical studies show any proof of its effectiveness?
About the Plant
Aloe vera (Aloe barbadenis) is a stemless, succulent plant that can grow 60 cm to 100 cm (24 to 39 inches) tall.1 Aloe vera grows in arid climates and is widely distributed in Africa, India and other arid areas.1 The species is frequently used in traditional herbal medicine in China, Japan, India, Russia and South Africa and its use is popular in the United States as well. The gel from this plant contains 75 potentially active constituents: vitamins, enzymes, minerals, sugars, lignin, saponins, salicylic acids and amino acids.2 It can be found in many products from pure 100% Aloe vera gel to personal care products such as cleansers, soaps, shaving gels and lip balm. It is even found infused into facial tissues. Many swear by it for sunburns, scrapes, cuts, bug bites, minor infections and any other skin ailment that needs a soothing salve.
What the Research Shows
Scientific evidence for the therapeutic effectiveness of Aloe vera is limited and contradictory.2,3 Despite this, the cosmetic and alternative medicine industries regularly make claims regarding the soothing, moisturizing and healing properties of Aloe vera. Probably one of the most familiar roles that people associate with Aloe vera is that of wound healing. Various animal models have been used to study the promotion of wound healing by topical Aloe vera preparations; however, studies have largely been conflicting. Some studies show that Aloe vera promotes the rate of healing,4,5 while other studies show that wounds to which Aloe vera gel was applied were significantly slower to heal than those treated with conventional medical preparations.6,7 A systematic review of four randomized controlled trials (total of 371 patients) concluded that cumulative evidence supports the use of Aloe vera for the healing of first- to second-degree burns.8 There are a handful of randomized controlled (double-blind, placebo- controlled) studies that looked at psoriasis, genital herpes and radiation dermatitis. These studies concluded that topical application of Aloe vera may be effective for genital herpes (first episode) and mild-to-moderate plaque-type psoriasis.2 However, it is not effective for the prevention of radiation-induced injuries.2 Additionally, anecdotal reports abound regarding the usefulness of Aloe vera in healing a sunburn, but this has not been proven to date.2 Aloe vera extracts have antibacterial and antifungal activities in vitro;9,10 however, studies have yet to be performed on human skin infections.
What to Tell Your Patients
The benefits of Aloe vera on skin are probably secondary to the refreshing sensation it provides. Key points to keep in mind regarding this very popular herbal remedy are as follows: • Evidence regarding wound healing and topical Aloe vera is contradictory. • Aloe vera gel may help with healing of first- and second-degree burns. • Topical application of Aloe vera does not seem to prevent radiation-induced skin damage. • Aloe vera gel might be useful as a treatment for first-episode genital herpes and mild-moderate plaque- type psoriasis. • Sunburns will not heal faster if Aloe vera gel is applied to them. Dr. Taylor, a Resident in the Department of Dermatology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, is board-certified in Family Medicine.