Does Aloe vera really work? Will that green slimy gel help heal my sunburn?
As clever product marking will tell us, Aloe Vera Gel is good for sunburns. Aloe vera is more than an ancient remedy. She is a plant superstar, with proven skin benefits.
[Want to watch more? Check out our Aloe vera YouTube Video on the Tres Keikis Channel]
Aloe vera who was once known as a skin healer of all kinds fell out of favor with us westerners over the past 100 years. When skin care found its way from outside in the garden and inside to tubes and jars. After all, aloe vera works best straight from the plant, and that seems weird to many of us conditioned 21st century people. Because of this, many regard aloe vera’s healing properties as old wives tales. I wanted to see if modern science has done any work to help reverse these feelings, because I know that aloe vera does live up to all her hype.
Unfortunately, when it comes to recent scientific evidence on sunburn treatment, there isn’t much out there. I would imagine it would be difficult to find patients and enroll them in a sunburn study, after-all, most people don’t schedule their sunburns let alone enter clinical trials after they get one. No, they do what most twenty first century people do. They search the internet for a cure they don’t need to leave home to find. Well, if you have an aloe plant in your back yard, you are in luck!
There is some research that looked into the efficacy of aloe for the treatment of sunburns. The only credible article I could search out for treatment of first and second degree burns (which sunburns are classified as) was a peer-review article published in 2005 (read here for the full review). 1
What this means, is that a group of researchers sought out several previous clinical trials, analyzed the several trials, then looked at the broader picture as a whole. Meanwhile taking into account all the trials they analyzed, they did see a clear pattern that Aloe Vera Gel was advantageous for first and second degree burns or just placebo1.
The researchers concluded that it does appear that applying Aloe vera gel to first and second degree burns did speed up the healing process, on average eight days faster than the control groups.1 However, the authors of this study cautioned though that they thought the evidence was weak, at best.
Weak evidence is okay though, because we can extrapolate here with Aloe Vera’s skin healing properties. We can extrapolate her potential sunburn healing properties by using something that is planned and highly monitored by doctors is cancer radiation treatment. Radiation treatment. Sadly, 95% of cancer patients who received radiation will experience some type of skin reaction, and not many hospitals make an effort to minimize this side effect.3
Thankfully, there was one hospital cancer treatment department that conducted a telling study. They provided 60 study participants with a commercially available moisturizer containing aloe vera, and instructed patients to apply the product to only HALF of the skin surface area that will be radiated. They did this at the start of their therapy, twice daily during treatment AND for two weeks following completion. The researchers graded their level of skin irritation on an accepted standardized dermatitis evaluation scale. (For the full study, click here) 3
What They found was that during the first three weeks of radiation, there was no difference in the skin of the Aloe vera Treated side or the control side. However, at week 4 and until the end of the average 12 week therapy, the aloe vera treated side had a very significant reduction in skin irritation compared to the skin that did not receive aloe vera treatment.3 The medical team at this treatment cancer center found aloe vera did provide protective dermatitis effects for patients undergoing radiation.3 The results were more pronounced in patients with larger fields of radiation and at higher doses of radiation.3 Pretty cool. They even now regularly use aloe vera products in their whole patient cancer treatment approach.
So what is aloe vera doing in the skin to achieve these protective properties?
Well…for starters aloe vera contains 75 bio active molecules! Some of these include vitamins, enzymes, minerals, terpenes, flavonoids, sugars and amino acids.2 You can’t manufacture something as complex as this. As I always say, plants do it better.
There is one well conducted study that set out to figure out how aloe vera was changing the body’s cellular behavior to help the skin. These researchers found out some really cool stuff. First of all, they found that when skin is exposed to ultra violet radiation, our damaged skin cells release chemicals called cytokines, that actually suppress the very immune system component that is meant to help them out.4 These UV radiated skin cells decrease the amount of an immune protein called IL-10. Our body uses IL-10 to help regenerate new skin cells and reduce inflammation.
Next, These researchers found that one particular groups of compounds in aloe vera, called oligosaccharides, these help to increase the production of IL-10 from UV damaged cells.4 They work by increasing IL-10 which help the skin cells become quick to recover and IL-10 also reduces overall inflammation in the skin.4 The oligosaccharides are the proposed mechanism for how Aloe vera is helping the skin recover so quickly after a sunburn. (To read about that in depth, click here)
What other tricks does aloe vera have?
You know how I love those ancient Romans, they were a fascinating bunch of people. Aloe vera was also a staple for the Roman army, but there was one problem. Aloe vera didn’t grow well in most of the Roman Empire. Aloe vera preferred hot dry climates such as further south on the Arabian peninsula.
While it can’t be entirely proven, many scholars believe that Alexander the Great captured several southern islands just because they contained large amounts of aloe plants and he wanted a steady supply for their army.5 What makes this evidence more telling is that these aloe covered islands were recovery bases for wounded soldiers. Why else would they have travel to a small island to recover?
What modern evidence to we have for aloe vera and its wound healing properties?
There is quite a bit of scientific evidence actually. The main body of evidence points to an isolated molecule called glucomman, which is behaves like a growth hormone in our body.2 When applied to our skin, it interacts with the growth receptors on our skin cells and tells them to multiply and increase collagen production.2
Both more collagen and more skin cells are needed to close a wound. Not only did glucomman cause more cellular production, it also changed the concentration of a certain type of collagen that was being produced. Not only does skin treated with aloe vera have increased amounts of collagen type 3 (the kind found in scars) it also increased the cross linking of the collagen. 5 Thus, making the newly formed scars stronger, and less likely to break open again. This is great news for ancient soldiers looking to get back in the action again.
For us modern humans, a strong-fast-healing-wounds translates to a big-thick-scars. These days, we typically want to slow down the scar forming phase of a wound in order to allow more normal skin cells to populate the injured area and reduce the scar size. After all, hopefully most of us are not trying to return to battle quickly. Non-the-less, this is about aloe, and I can see why capturing islands full of her wound healing magic would be worth the effort in the world of antiquity.
There are many other topical applications of aloe vera that have strong scientific evidence to back it up. Leading the list are anti-aging properties through its high anti-oxidant abilities along with its collagen boosting powers.2 It also has been proven to retain moisture in the skin for people with dry skin or eczema.2
And When ingested…Aloe vera has many herbal medicinal claims as well. However most of these are unproven or very weak studies. With the exception of ONE. There is one very well known and documented effect when you ingest the fresh leaves, not the gel in side the leaves, but the actual leaves. The pulp of the leaves contains over 12 different types of molecules belonging to the anthroquinones group of chemicals.2
Anthroquinones are very powerful laxatives.2
So, be careful when you see aloe juice or smoothies that are advertising their ‘cleansing’ powers. Now you know what they are planning on doing to you.
Aloe vera is a plant that keeps on giving, she is strong, and portable, and I can see why she the earliest human explorers took her along with them everywhere they went. Purposefully cultivating her across the globe long before humans even knew the world was round. You should feel so lucky if you can cultivate such an ancient healer.
Dr. Chantelle Davidson, Pharm.D
Maenthaisong R, Chaiyakunapruk N, Niruntraporn S, Kongkaew C. The efficacy of aloe vera used for burn wound healing: a systematic review. Burns. 2007 Sep;33(6):713-8. doi: 10.1016/j.burns.2006.10.384. Epub 2007 May 17. PMID: 17499928.
Luo, X., Zhang, H., Wei, X., Shi, M., Fan, P., Xie, W., Zhang, Y., & Xu, N. (2018). Aloin Suppresses Lipopolysaccharide-Induced Inflammatory Response and Apoptosis by Inhibiting the Activation of NF-κB. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 23(3), 517. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23030517
Haddad, P., Amouzgar-Hashemi, F., Samsami, S., Chinichian, S., & Oghabian, M. A. (2013). Aloe vera for prevention of radiation-induced dermatitis: a self-controlled clinical trial. Current oncology (Toronto, Ont.), 20(4), e345–e348. https://doi.org/10.3747/co.20.1356
Byeon SW, Pelley RP, Ullrich SE, Waller TA, Bucana CD, Strickland FM. Aloe barbadensis extracts reduce the production of interleukin-10 after exposure to ultraviolet radiation. J Invest Dermatol. 1998 May;110(5):811-7. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1747.1998.00181.x. PMID: 9579551.