All About Aloe Vera
Anyone who has had the misfortune of staying out in the sun too long in the summer understands the instant relief of aloe vera gel. It’s cool, soothing, and the fresh scent has been a staple in many first aid kits for generations. But what is this strange gel, and where exactly does it come from?
Aloe vera has been used as a medical treatment around the world for thousands of years. A tropical native, the plant has become more commonly used as a skincare item in recent years. It’s relatively easy to maintain at home and can make a great natural addition to your healthcare routine.
Here’s everything you need to know about the aloe plant and its tried and true medicinal properties.
An Overview of The Aloe Vera Plant
Aloe plants – whose scientific names include Aloe africana, Aloe arborescens, and Aloe barbadensis – is a small plant that resembles a cactus. Though there are over 200 species of the aloe plant, aloe vera is the most common. It has long, thick spines or arms that extend from a central hub. It’s usually a light green but can also be tinged with yellow or red.
The plant is native to hot, dry, subtropical climates around the world. It’s believed to have originated in the Arabian Peninsula (which is why its name derives from the Arabic word “alloeh,” meaning “shining bitter substance”) but is now grown all over the world. In the United States, it’s typically grown in the Southwest, in states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Aloe vera can grow quickly and grow to be quite large, up to 50 centimeters tall, with arms up to seven centimeters thick. These arms are full of a thick, sticky, clear sap and a thinner, yellow wax-like substance called aloe latex. The sap, or gel, is what aloe is usually harvested for.
How Aloe Vera is Used
The use of aloe vera dates back to ancient Egypt, where it was touted as a “plant of immortality” for its soothing and therapeutic properties. In fact, the plant was given as a funeral gift to Pharaohs. The sap can be directly applied to the skin, making it extremely easy to use, or mixed into various products to add its benefits. It has been available commercially since the 1800s.
Cultures around the world have used aloe for a wide variety of health benefits, including:
Treatment for hemorrhoids
A hair loss treatment (though the effectiveness of this is debatable)
Digestive regulation and management (such as a natural laxative)
Managing blood sugar
Skin treatments including anti-acne, anti-aging, and the treatment of psoriasis
Daily skincare products such as moisturizers, face washes, and masks
An oral hygiene tool (usually as a mouthwash)
By far, the most common use of aloe vera, though, is in sunburn relief. Aloe is a natural anti-inflammatory substance that contains vitamins A and C. It’s also naturally cooling. Because of this, it’s been proven to help reduce the healing time for sunburns by up to nine days. Its antiseptic and antifungal properties make it great for small cuts and abrasions, too.
It should never be applied to open wounds, though, as the gel can actually inhibit deeper healing and might even lead to infection. In rare cases, aloe can cause a minor allergic reaction in the form of a small rash. If that happens, you should stop using it immediately. The rash will usually resolve itself in a few days without further medical treatment being necessary.
Aloe is safe for adults to consume and has a light, herbal taste. Because it does have laxative properties, most doctors do not recommend ingesting it too regularly nor in children. Ingesting aloe vera too frequently can upset your digestive system’s natural rhythm. It’s also generally seen as unsafe to take excess amounts of aloe latex, as this can cause kidney damage with regular use.
Growing Aloe Vera
Aloe is technically classified as a succulent because, as previously mentioned, it thrives in cactus-friendly conditions and has a similar growth pattern. Aloe should be planted in a loose, well-drained soil mixture. The best soils for aloe are mixed with a looser material, such as perlite or sand.
If you’re planning to purchase an aloe plant, you can find them at most major retailers. Pot your aloe plant in a porous planter (such as one made from terra cotta) with plenty of drainage. The pot should be about 5-10% larger than the plant’s current size, leaving an inch or two of room for the roots to expand. Any larger, and you may end up with a fragile plant.
Aloe thrives in full sunlight and warm weather. They only require watering every 2-3 weeks in hotter months (the spring and summer) and every four weeks in colder months (fall and winter). The soil should be relatively dry before watering again, as too much water can lead to root rot.
Aloe gel can be harvested by entirely removing an arm from the plant. Done sparingly, this won’t harm the plant, as it will naturally heal over and produce a new arm. To collect the gel, cut the arm lengthwise, and squeeze the gel directly onto an injury. Alternatively, scrape out the gel into a container. The gel can then be sealed and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to a year.
Though some skincare fads out there do more harm than good, there’s very little that can go wrong with aloe vera. Even its exfoliating properties aren’t particularly hazardous unless you’re using a massive excess of the product. It’s a tried and true botanical health care essential.
Keeping an aloe vera plant in your own home can be a great way to have easy access to a self-replenishing first aid kit. As long as you know how to grow it and how to use it, aloe vera is an excellent natural remedy that anyone can take advantage of.