When reading about all of aloe vera’s purported uses, I’m reminded of a line from the 2002 comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “Just put some Windex on it,” repeats Gus Portokalos whenever someone complains of a skin ailment. Have a pimple? Put some Windex on it. Rash? Put some Windex on it. Sunburn? You can Windex that too.
In the same way, if we believed every claim out there about aloe vera, we probably wouldn’t need to visit the doctor again. Advertisers have bolstered aloe vera’s image to almost mythical proportions. According to the internet, aloe vera can do just about anything, from curing liver cancer to fighting bacterial infection. With so much misinformation abounding, it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t. Does aloe vera really help heal skin? Can it really improve digestion?
In answering this question, it’s important to note that aloe vera isn’t a new medicine. The aloe plant has been used by humans for medicinal purposes for at least 6,000 years. The Greeks and Romans used it to treat wounds. Europeans in the Middle Ages believed it had the qualities of a laxative. And as you may know, we believe pretty much the same things today.
In the United States, aloe vera is labeled a “dietary supplement” by the FDA and can be applied topically to the skin or ingested orally. Aloe gel is commonly considered a soothing agent and is used to heal burns, cold sores, minor wounds and bed sores. It is made from the inner part of the aloe leaf and can be found on almost any drugstore shelf. The oral forms of aloe vera are a bit less common. Coming from the yellowish layer under the plant’s skin, aloe latex is thought to help with constipation and overall digestion.
However, aloe vera isn’t free of controversy. The scientific evidence backing up medicinal use of aloe is scant and scattered. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database ranks medicinal effectiveness of products on the scale: Effective, Likely Effective, Possibly Effective, Possibly Ineffective, Likely Ineffective, Ineffective and Insufficient Evidence to Rate. Aloe got a “Possibly Effective” ranking as a treatment for psoriasis and constipation. As for everything else, however, it only scored “Insufficient Evidence to Rate.” While that isn’t exactly heartening news for avid aloe users, it really only means that there aren’t enough scientific aloe vera studies out there. A worse ranking would put aloe in the “Ineffective” categories.
In keeping with these findings, the FDA has forbidden aloe vera to be sold as a “treatment” for anything since there is not enough scientific evidence to back up the claim. Rather all aloe vera products sold in the States are simply “dietary supplements.”
While this may seem a pretty harsh sentence for a drug with 6,000 years of use, it isn’t entirely without reason. In 1996, a Maryland company began marketing a concentrated form of aloe called T-UP as a treatment for cancer, AIDS, herpes, and other autoimmune disorders. The scam was so virile that in 1999, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FDA indicted the makers of T-UP on charges of fraud, promoting and selling an unapproved drug, and conspiracy.
So what’s the conclusion on aloe? Is it a dietary supplement? A miracle? A scam?
It’s probably safe to say that aloe vera is useful for minor wound healing and digestive issues. These conclusions need further testing, of course, but for the time being it can’t hurt to keep a bottle of aloe gel around the house. Got a rash? Put some aloe on it. A pimple? Put some aloe on it. A cut? Add some aloe to that too. After all, it’s got to be better than Windex.
Dr. Scott Darling practices dermatology in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a certified phlebologist (vein surgery and disorders) and boarded by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography for Vascular Ultrasound.