For thousands of years, aloe vera has been hailed as a wonder plant by civilizations such as the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamian people. But it continues to feature in a number of cosmetics to this day, and given the health benefits associated with aloe vera, it’s not hard to see why.
Aloe vera is a kind of succulent that originally comes from the Arabian Peninsula. However, it can also now be found in arid and tropical climates across the globe. It has many uses in medicine and agriculture, though many green-fingered individuals use the species simply as decoration because it grows well as a house plant.
Many of us will already be familiar with aloe vera; after all, extracts of the plant are used in a number of everyday products. These include tissues, soaps, makeup, moisturizers and sunscreens. However, what is less known about the plant is its unique composition and how that has been harnessed over the centuries.
Aloe vera is around 95 percent water, though the other five percent of the plant contains large amounts of healthy enzymes. Furthermore, it has 200 so-called bioactive compounds: including vitamins, amino acids, minerals and polysaccharides. And these components help the body absorb nutrients.
Aloe vera is also rich in magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese, zinc, calcium, and iron. The plant has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that can reportedly aid the immune system and remove toxins from the body. As a result, it has been used as a health supplement for thousands of years.
The ancient Egyptians called aloe vera “the plant of immortality” and it was used by the civilization 6,000 years ago. It’s believed that they valued the juices of the plant for its nourishing qualities. Aloe was considered sacred by the Egyptians, who thought its “blood” was the elixir of health and beauty.
Ancient Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra are thought to have made use of aloe vera in their daily skincare regimes. At the time, the plant was inextricably linked to beauty. Furthermore, the anti-inflammatory and soothing qualities of aloe were recorded by the Egyptians in 1,550 BC.
However, the ancient Egyptians regarded aloe not only for its cosmetic uses but for its spiritual ones as well. They apparently made further use of the anti-fungal and anti-bacterial qualities of aloe vera by using the plant to embalm the dead – believing that stopping physical decomposition would lead to eternal life.
So prized was aloe vera in ancient Egypt that people would present dead pharaohs with the plant at their funerals. The offering was so valuable that a person’s wealth and regard for the king were displayed in the amount of aloe that he gave. So no doubt, the more plant a man presented, the better he was deemed to be.
For the Mahometans of Egypt, aloe vera was symbolic of religion. They would hang motifs of the plant above their doors in a bid to protect them from evil influences and slander. Similarly, the ancient Mesopotamians believed that aloe had the power to expel demons.
In fact, it was the Mesopotamian people who were responsible for one of the earliest recorded uses of aloe vera – which dates from approximately 2,200 BC. They had documented the plant on clay boards found in the ancient city of Nippur. In Mesopotamia, aloe vera was known for its cleansing effect on the intestines. But it was also said to possess the power to exorcise illness-causing demons.
For his part, Alexander the Great was said to have traveled through Asia with carts of planted aloe vera in tow. The plant was valued for its apparent medicinal qualities at the time, and the ancient King of Macedon relied on aloe juice to treat the wounds his soldiers sustained in battle. Apparently, Aristotle persuaded Alexander to invade the island of Socotra in modern-day Yemen just so he could gain possession of the aloe groves there.
Elsewhere, aloe vera has been used in Chinese medicine for nearly 800 years. The plant is believed to have the ability to drain downwards in the body and is therefore used as a treatment for constipation. Furthermore, practitioners of Chinese medicine also believe that aloe has the ability to detoxify the liver.
So as we’ve seen, aloe vera’s detoxifying powers have long made the plant a much-used natural remedy. Sebastian Pole is a herbalism expert and co-founder of the supplement company Pukka Herbs. And in March 2019 he explained the purifying properties of aloe vera to Marie Claire.
During Pole’s interview with the magazine, he explained the science behind the plant’s powers. The expert said, “Aloe vera juice is crammed full of amino acids, vitamins and minerals – making it one of nature’s most effective cleansers. It can help strengthen digestion and rid the body of any nasty waste, thus detoxifying the body naturally.”
Pole then revealed some more of aloe vera’s many reported benefits. He said, “Its main property is to be soothing, cooling and moistening. [This] helps to clear inflammatory and irritating heat, such as in menopause, plus inflammatory skin and digestive problems – such as acne, rosacea and IBS.”
Aloe vera is cited by some as a wonder plant with the ability to aid all kinds of ailments even to this day. Throughout the centuries, it has been used to treat over 50 medical conditions: including dermatitis, burns, acne, obesity, diabetes, ulcers and asthma. Moreover, the plant has even been used to medicate leprosy.
While aloe vera has been used in cosmetic and health treatments for millennia, there is still little clinical evidence to attest to the plant’s effectiveness or safety. Though with a number of possible benefits, people continue to use aloe in their everyday lives. Nevertheless, you may wish to consult a doctor before use.
So despite a lack of solid evidence to its effectiveness, aloe vera continues to be one of the most popular natural remedies on the planet. It is used as a juice which is cold-pressed from the rind of the plant. Alternatively, aloe vera can come as a gel, which comes from the innermost layer of the plant’s distinctive triangular leaves.
Aloe vera gel is often applied topically to the skin to help with various issues. One of the most common uses of the plant is perhaps the treatment of sunburn. Aloe gel can be used to cool burned skin and even help to heal the affected area thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties.
And there’s some science to back up the claim that aloe vera can help to treat sunburn. The plant’s gel contains polysaccharides, which are compounds that promote skin repair and skin cell renewal. Furthermore, the pain reliever carboxypeptidase is found in aloe vera gel – which could explain its ability to soothe the skin.
But the benefits that aloe vera may have on the skin go beyond the treatment of sunburn. In fact, some dermatologists have advised incorporating extracts of the plant into our daily skincare regimes for our faces. That’s because the minerals and vitamins within the plant can be used as a natural remedy to acne, aging and dark spots.
Cosmetic surgeon and dermatologist Joel Schlessinger explained how the plant treats the skin in a January 2019 interview with Prevention magazine. He said, “Aloe vera is a cactus-like plant known for its healing and medicinal properties. Its stems store water, creating a clear, gel-like substance in the leaves, which contains vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and amino acids.”
And while the benefits of aloe vera are yet to be proven, Schlessinger insisted that there’s some evidence that the plant can help certain ailments. He told Prevention, “… The biochemistry of aloe vera does have some anti-viral, anti-fungal, and cell-regenerative properties. So, applying it to the skin in addition to other medications or remedies may prove to be helpful.”
Some dermatologists believe that aloe vera gel is effective in relieving inflammation, which can exacerbate many skin conditions – including eczema and psoriasis. The compound acemannan is found in the plant and is known to prevent inflammation. As a result, aloe could help to relieve irritation, though a patch test is advisable before applying the gel to inflamed skin.
Given that aloe vera gel is largely made up of water, it also makes an excellent moisturizer. The plant extract has the ability to retain moisture, without making the skin feel greasy. In addition, it also helps the top layer of skin bind together – leading to a soft and smooth finish.
Not only can aloe vera gel moisturize skin, but it can also apparently help to fight acne. As well as having antibacterial properties, the plant also contains the exfoliant salicylic acid. This keeps pores clear and prevents spots and blackheads from forming. Moreover, aloe vera’s anti-inflammatory qualities work on the pesky oil glands that are responsible for acne.
Elsewhere, aloe vera can also be used to reduce the signs of aging. That’s because the plant encourages fibroblast activity, which in turn leads to increased collagen production and elastin fibers. Apparently, this can help to smooth out skin and make it more elastic. Aloe also contains zinc – which tightens pores – and antioxidants that combat the formation of free radicals.
Perhaps surprisingly, aloe vera is also used as a treatment for cold sores. Dermatologist David Lortscher explained to Prevention, “Aloe vera is an antiseptic, containing six agents known to help inhibit fungi, bacteria, and viruses, including salicylic acid, phenols, and sulfur.” The plant can also boost the immune system’s antibodies, and this helps the body to fight off the cold sore virus.
Given the soothing qualities of aloe vera, extracts of the plant are used in both homemade and shop-bought shaving creams. DIY recipes combine aloe gel with coconut oil to make for a more environmentally friendly formula, which is devoid of some of the toxic chemicals that are sometimes found in big-name shaving creams.
Another way that people have incorporated aloe vera into their beauty regimes is as a makeup remover. In one simple homemade recipe, aloe gel is combined with olive oil to create a gentle formula that is good for the skin but still has the power to remove stubborn cosmetics like mascara.
Maybe one of the more unexpected uses of aloe vera gel is in the treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – a digestive disorder which can cause heartburn. According to a review from 2010, the consumption of one to three ounces of gel with meals could help lower the severity of the condition. And given the low toxicity of aloe, it is a useful remedy for heartburn in general.
Aloe vera gel is said to be an effective natural alternative to mouthwash, too. A 2014 study in the Ethiopian Journal of Health Sciences found that the plant’s ingredients – including vitamin C – created an effective barrier for plaque. Meanwhile, aloe vera gel can also alleviate swollen or bleeding gums.
However, it’s not just aloe vera gel that has benefits when it comes to health. The juice of the plant is also said to be advantageous – particularly to the immune system. As pole explained to Marie Claire, “Aloe vera is packed full of immune-boosting polysaccharides which help the immune system to behave properly.”
Pole added, “Too much inflammation in the body can cause problems within the immune system and can cause conditions like asthma, eczema and Crohn’s disease. Soothing herbs like aloe vera juice can slow the inflammatory cascade and help reorder the immune response to prevent these conditions.”
Furthermore, just one small spoonful of aloe vera juice could help to lower blood sugar quickly. Pole revealed to Marie Claire, “There is some evidence to suggest aloe vera lowers cholesterol and has a positive effect on blood sugar levels, meaning it can be useful for treating diabetes and obesity.”
According to Pole, aloe vera juice might also aid digestion. As a result, the herbalist advised people with stomach issues to bare the plant in mind, adding, “It’s worth trying for anyone who suffers with digestion problems like IBS. Its healing and soothing properties can help with the painful symptoms.”
In his interview with Marie Claire, Pole continued, “Aloe vera juice is packed with vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12 and folic acid. It’s also rich in minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, selenium and potassium.” In addition, he also revealed that some of the plant’s enzymes and vitamins contributed to healthy hair.
How much aloe vera to consume in order to experience all the aforementioned advantages depends on the potency of the product. However, Pole recommends ingesting three to six tablespoons of his company’s aloe vera once or twice every day. And while the plant’s powers are yet to be proven, there’s little risk in drinking aloe juice.
Pole told Marie Claire, “There are no negative side effects if you use a pure aloe vera inner leaf juice.” But the plant extract can lead to one unpleasant reaction. Pole explained, “If you use an aloe vera leaf product it may have high aloin levels, and aloin is a laxative which can cause diarrhea if too much is used.”