After an around the world trip with husband and kids (lucky me), I find myself sitting behind the computer once again. I couldn’t forget my work altogether on holiday though. Whether it was somewhere in the Jungle of Indonesia, the Australian Outback or a forgotten island in the South Pacific; there was nothing nicer than to quiz the locals about which ointments and plants they used to look after their skin. Just like Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I came home with piles of information but unfortunately, unlike Willy Wonka, I still haven’t found that “miracle remedy”! My children felt that they had. As after one of the locals had shown our children how to use the sap from the leaf of an Aloe Vera on a wound, no plant in the area was safe! If the Aloe Vera suddenly becomes an endangered plant I know nothing about it okay…
Although you won’t see Aloe Vera on the side of the road here in Holland, we often do see it on the shelves in the Pharmacy or on the Cosmetics counter. And naturally, with the most wonderful promises on the packaging. But is Aloe Vera really such a magical plant?
Aloe Vera belongs to the Lily family, but in terms of appearance it is more like a cactus. It is made up of 95% water and 5% active substances (including various vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants). The plant grows in warm, dry, rocky habitats such as Azia, America and the Mediterranean countries. It is used in cosmetics a lot: e.g. you’ll see this ingredient regularly in after sun products. The innermost part of the Aloe Vera leaf is used for cosmetic products, and this slimy tissue is known as Aloe Vera gel.
What does it do?
Aloe Vera has for a long time been well renowned for its medicinal and healing purposes. There are more than 400 species from which only a few contain healing properties. Aloe Barbadensis Miller is considered to be one of the most effective species and is the most widely researched. This species is also used in cosmetics. Many positive properties are attributed to Aloe Vera. These are:
• Relieving skin problems such as acne, eczema and psoriasis.
• Possessing anti-ageing properties.
• Helping insect bites, minor burns and sun damage to heal.
• Soothing and improving skin irritations.
• Possessing anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.
A wonder plant
So I can understand that Aloe Vera is also called “Miracle Plant” and “The Healing Plant”. As I’ve already said, there are just 5% of active ingredients in the Aloe Vera plant. The following substances are very beneficial for the skin:
The Vitamin A, C and E in this plant are responsible for the anti-ageing benefits and repairing damaged skin. Vitamin A, C, and E are anti-oxidants and neutralise free radicals, read more about this in the blogs ‘Antioxidants in a Cream‘ and about ‘The Combination of Vitamin C and E’.
The gel of the Aloe Vera plant contains a small concentration of Anthraquinone. This is a painkiller, anti-bacterial and kills fungus. Anthraquinone is toxic in high concentrations.
The sterols (lupeol, campesterol and â-sitosterol) and polysaccharides (pectin, hemicellulose, glucomannan, acemannan and mannose derivatives) in this plant have an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin. These substances can soothe the skin and help improve irritations. Molecules and compounds such as amino acids, lipids, tannins and various enzymes contribute to the action of Aloe Vera.
In an investigation into the treatment of mild to moderate acne, Aloe Vera (in a concentration of 50%) combined with Tretinoin 0.05% (Vitamin A Acid) was comparable to Tretinoin cream on its own. The treatment with both ingredients was shown to be the most effective. Another investigation clearly showed that when Aloe Vera was the only ingredient used on the skin there was no improvement in the acne.
Although more thorough placebo controlled tests are necessary in order to be able to prove that Aloe Vera really works, everything seems to point towards it. And thankfully, apart from the occasional allergic reaction, it causes little harm too!
It all sounds very positive, but the Aloe Vera available in shops is most probably not as effective as those used in the investigations above. In fact, research has suggested that you may as well throw most of the commercially available products straight in the bin (Quality and authenticity of commercial aloe vera gel powders; A. Bozzi 2007). Many manufacturers use poor or very diluted raw materials (and that is again, of course, related to the cost). Even if good fresh Aloe Vera gel is used, it is still debateable as to whether it is still effective by the time it arrives in your shopping basket. The active substances in Aloe Vera gel are very sensitive and quickly lose their strength. If you still want to try it then choose a pure gel and not the extracts. In fact it is the fresh Aloe Vera gel which is always used in scientific investigations. I think I would, in case of an emergency, just put a plant on the window sill; when one of my kids next cuts a knee I just need to break of a leaf and that’s it done!
(Research Physician Cosmetic Dermatology)
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