A Botanist in the Bathroom. Part 1 Aloe Vera

Just been out to buy some coffee and loo paper.  The coffee’s ok, but the paper claims it’s dosed with Aloe vera.  Huh.  Damnable plant. It’s getting everywhere – washing powders, washing-up liquids, deodorants and endless cosmetics… it’s getting in our foods too, with drinks, yogurts, and more all or less made from it. It’s also supposed to be an almost universal panacea – curing everything from mild burns, acne, constipation, herpes and psoriasis, diabetes, to terrifying maladies like cancer and AIDS. The Aloe vera industry, replete with councils, research committees, and vast acreages of plants to supply demand, is doing very very well.

Aloe vera‘s use is very ancient indeed. A North African plant, the ancient Egyptians used it as a medicine as well as a cosmetic. Their enthusiasm spread around the eastern Mediterranean. It was in use in Mesopotamian at least by 2100 BC, was taken up by the Greeks and, later, by the Romans. Eastwards, it found enthusiasts in Arabia and India.

For all that marvellous history, does the plant really have any benefit to offer? And if it does, which part of the plant does what, and as the ancients seem mostly to have used fresh plant, does any supposed benefit survive the rigours of modern extraction techniques, and modern trade. Indeed, does it actually make it into any of the products that proclaim its presence?

The plant produces two basic products: latex and gel. The green skin of the leaf, when torn or cut, oozes a very bitter yellow liquid. This latex can be dried, and is what is smeared on childrens’ thumbs when their parent get fed up with the sucking. Apart from being disgustingly sour, it s also a very powerful laxative (though many other plants produce the same baleful effect). If used for this purpose, take great care too. There is some evidence that it is a cancer risk to humans, even when used as directed by a pharmacist. It can also cause a dependency of the gut, and side effects can include abdominal pain, diarrhea, and, at high doses, dangerous electrolyte imbalances.  So there.

The succulent interior of the fleshy leaf is made up of water storage cells, and the water is stored as a clear, thick, jelly or mucilage. As well as water, it contains a rich mix of chemicals, particularly carbohydrate polymers, such as glucomannans or pectic acid, plus various other organic and inorganic compounds. It is the gel that is most often used as a cosmetic, or for burns or spots.  As it is fairly tricky to skin the leaves, most Aloe ‘gel’ also contain at least some of the bitter skin sap. That makes inadvisable to to take the gel internally. Worse, once the leaves have been crushed, the sticky juice is hard to keep for not only do the plant’s chemicals begin to react with each other, but bacteria and yeasts also begin to attack. As all these processes rapidly affect the composition of the gel, producers stabilise the gel by adding preservatives like benzoic acid.

But, in this unregulated market, when you buy an Aloe vera product, can you be certain that there is any of it there at all? In 1995, one of the major trade organisations concerned with the promotion of Aloe vera developed a test to assay the amount of plant in commercially available products. They got a shock. Many products contained virtually no Aloe at all, and some Aloe vera powders contained 90% of the sugar maltodextrin. Gels were often rather better, but still very variable.

Assuming your product contains Aloe vera extract, does it do any good? That isn’t at all clear. In spite of its long and popular usage, there is very little in the way of properly designed experimentation, using double blinds, with tests using sufficiently large numbers of guinea pig humans, and undertaken by independent and unbiased researchers unattached to either the Aloe vera industry, or to companies who might be keen to show that the plant doesn’t work.

Ok, so Aloe vera is often used on minor burns and scalds. However, a large, modern, properly designed trial did not find Aloe effective for treating minor burns. It is also probably ineffective on the radiation burns produced during cancer treatment. For acne, one rather badly designed experiment suggested that the gel (it is not clear if the experiment used juice from fresh leaves, or from a commercial source), did speed up the disappearance of the spots. Another study showed that, for major surgical wounds, the gel actually got in the way of the healing process.

For psoriasis and genital herpes, there are properly randomised and double blind trials, though with rather few patients, that suggest that Aloe vera does shorten the length and severity of the attack, though does nothing to get rid of the basic cause of either condition. One trial compared a 0.5% hydrophilic Aloe vera cream to a placebo cream. For the 60 patients with mild to moderate plaque-type psoriasis, the rate of ‘cure’ was significantly better with Aloe vera (83% ) than with placebo (7%). 10% suffered on unimproved.

Some recent research from the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine has shown that Aloe vera fluids can prolong life after a major blood-loss, though so far the work has only been done on laboratory animals. It seems that it is the mucilage that is the important substance, but the experiment didn’t compare Aloe mucilage with that of any of the multitude of other plants that are also mucilaginous.

As for the used of Aloe vera in heart disease and diabetes, there’s only one study for the first. Using 5,000 subjects, there was a marked reduction in total lipids, total serum cholesterol, serum triglycerides, but Aloe vera was used in conjunction with another substance, and there was no way to attribute the reductions to either material. There is a small amount of research showing that feeding Aloe vera gel to diabetic animals improves their lot. No work seems to have been done on humans.

And so to the loo paper, well, cosmetic things in general There is no work on the effectiveness of Aloe skin-care products, so it’s up to you to decide. My local herbalist advertises a deodorant using lavender and Aloe vera; some of the substances in both plants are bactericidal, so could indeed reduce bacterial growth in armpits and other sweaty places. Putting Aloe vera into washing powder is simply a marketing ploy.

The poor old plants has been used in some major ‘scams’. The idea of it as a heal-all has led to its use against cancer. From 1996 to 1997, a company based in Maryland began producing and selling T-UP, a concentrated form of Aloe, to be used orally and by injection for the treatment of cancer, AIDS, herpes, and other autoimmune disorders. Several died, and the physician concerned had his license revoked. Such injections are now illegal in the United States. Many people with HIV infection, both in America and Europe, bought Aloe vera to combat the virus, but it had no effect on their life expectancy. Finally, in the summer of 1999, the US Attorney’s Office and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), indicted the makers of T-UP on 20 different charges including various forms of fraud, promoting and selling an unapproved drug, and conspiracy

After the romance of ancient Egypt, it’s all rather a shame. It’s an attractive plant, and if it gets plenty of sun, tolerant of neglect. Grow it on the windowsill, and if you do get a small burn or scald during the rush of cooking dinner, take a slice from a leaf and see what you think. At least you will know you have the right plant, fresh contents and have had some horticultural fun as well.




About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! www.david-stuart.co.uk or, more fun, have a look at www.pinterest.com/davidcstuart
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