When we came back from a day at the lake cooked to a painful red, Mom would pinch a leaf off one of her few houseplants, split it open with a nail, and smear the slightly sticky/slimy but clear and cooling gel on the burns. It was one of the few plants that got to live in the house because 1) it was hardy enough to survive (Mom had many admirable qualities; talent with houseplants wasn’t any of them) and 2) it was useful. Bonus: It doesn’t get much more stealthy a prep than growing one of the most common house plants in your house.
I have a complicated relationship with herbal remedies. I know there’s help for a lot of human problems just waiting to be picked, and I love the self-sufficient groove of problem solving that way. On the other hand, there’s a whole lot of hyperbole on just what herbal remedies can do, and many of the claims can’t be substantiated when carefully checked. So I come down in the middle, looking for the evidence before I put much stock in the claims. Yeah, Mom, sorry, but even yours.
Today I spent some time exploring the evidence related to Mom’s old friend Aloe vera.
Aloe vera helps with burns … probably.
This is what Aloe is known for, and what my Mom used it for. In fact, there are hundreds of skin products that include aloe on the idea that it helps soothe and heal burns. Does it? I read a bunch of studies and meta-analyses. A couple were inconclusive, but the majority found that yes, aloe-treated burns did heal more quickly than those treated with placebo; in some cases just as well as those treated with commercial burn creams. That was true not only for sunburn but also radiation burns (guess my radiologist knew what he was doing when he gave me those samples) and first and second degree thermal burns.
But that’s not all!
So there I was searching for studies on aloe and burns…what was up with all the Dentistry journals? Hmm, looks like people are making mouthwashes of the stuff. (Who decides to rinse with pulverized desert plant one morning, anyway?) Better yet, it works. There’s less plaque formation and less gum disease when using aloe mouthwashes compared to a placebo. And where there’s less gum disease, there’s less heart attack and stroke. (Yes, seriously. Not flossing promotes heart attacks. I couldn’t *make* this stuff up; it’s the inflammation from the gum disease that promotes atherosclerosis building up plaques in one’s arteries.)
And for your $19.99 you also get…
Antifungal activity? Well, yeah, that too. I saw a studies on a couple of different varieties of fungus-caused skin wounds that cleared up faster when aloe was smeared on it.
So where can you get this cool plant?
Everywhere they sell houseplants, pretty much. Or from a friend with a green thumb, most likely. It’s a very common and hardy plant, and easy to propagate. Sadly, I can’t grow it outside in Missouri though.
How do you use it?
Although some of the researchers did more elaborate chemical purifications, many just used the straight gel – just as my Mom did. Maybe they even split the leaves open with a fingernail, I don’t know. At any rate, you can just pinch off a leaf or part of a leaf, open it up, and the entire interior of the thick leaves is filled with a clear jelly-like substance called aloe vera gel. Rub that on something and you’re golden. The people making the mouthwash didn’t specify how they made it, but based on my chem lab experience, if I need it I’ll just grind up some leaf, put it in water, shake to mix, and use it.
Honestly folks, I was surprised. I’ve read research on a lot of herbal remedies, and over all, Aloe vera has by far the most positive set of papers I’ve seen.
Mom was smart.
Here’s a sampling of some of the papers I consulted, so you know I’m not just making this stuff up:
Maenthaisong, Ratree; Chaiyakunapruk, Nathorn; Niruntraporn, Surachet; Kongkaew, Chuenjid. The efficacy of aloe vera used for burn wound healing: a systematic review. Burns. 2007: 33:713.
Evidence for more rapid healing with 1st and 2nd degree burns.
Chandrahas, Bathini, et al. “A randomized, double‑blind clinical study to assess the antiplaque and antigingivitis efficacy of Aloe vera mouth rinse.” Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology, vol. 16, no. 4, 2012, p. 543.
Reduces plaque accumulation when used as a mouth rinse
Cuttle, Leila; Kempf, Margit; Kravchuk, Olena. The efficacy of Aloe vera, tea tree oil and saliva as first aid treatment for partial thickness burn injuries
Made burns less inflamed but didn’t improve healing.
Rajar, Uzma D M; Majeed, Rehana; Parveen, Naheed, et al. Efficacy of aloe vera gel in the treatment of vulval lichen planus
Improves healing of fungal infection wounds.
Atiba, A., Wasfy, T., Abdo, W., Ghoneim, A., Kamal, T., & Shukry, M. (2015). Aloe vera gel facilitates re-epithelialization of corneal alkali burn in normal and diabetic rats. Clinical Ophthalmology (Auckland, N.Z.), 9, 2019–2026. http://doi.org/10.2147/OPTH.S90778
“Effectiveness of Aloe Vera Gel compared with 1% silver sulphadiazine cream as burn wound dressing in second degree burns.” Journal of Pakistan Medical Association, 28 Feb. 2013.
Worked better than the silver cream
Li-Xin Lin, Peng Wang, Yu-Ting Wang, Yong Huang, Lei Jiang, and Xue-Ming Wang. Aloe vera and Vitis vinifera improve wound healing in an in vivo rat burn wound model
Molecular Medicine Reports. 13.2 (Feb. 2016) p1070.
*By Pava (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 it (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/it/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
**Forest & Kim Starr [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons