Whether you've encountered it in an after-sun gel, as a houseplant, or even drunk it as a juice, chances are you've heard of Aloe Vera. It should come as no surprise, then, that it's the best-known species of the plant genus Aloe, which includes more than 500 different varieties.
This succulent, flowering plant (that is also known as the "lily of the desert") grows naturally across much of the Arabian Peninsula and northern Africa, and has been used in herbal remedies for thousands of years. In fact, according to the ancient Egyptian medical text known as Ebers Papyrus, from the 16th century, aloe vera was even known to the pharaohs and their doctors as ‘the plant of immortality’, and word of its health-giving properties spread as far as China and Mexico.
Today, Aloe Vera is cultivated mainly for the gel that can be extracted from the interior tissue of the aloe leaf, and the juice from the green skin beneath. The former is more often used for herbal remedies and alternative medical therapies, and the latter for cosmetic and beauty treatments, such as moisturising creams, shampoo and leave-in hair conditioner - although there is a degree of crossover. Demand for Aloe Vera products is still thriving in the modern day - the market is currently valued at US $13bn per year - and continues to grow, as researchers keep finding new ways to use this wonder-plant. Read on to discover the myriad of ways in which it can help you.
It's an antioxidant and antibacterial agent
The gel of the aloe plant contains various bioactive compounds, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants. Scientists have been especially interested in the high concentration of polyphenols, which are known to inhibit the growth of bacteria that can cause infections and other disorders in humans. The gel has long been known to deliver excellent results when applied to burns and wounds, reducing healing times. However, the jury is still out about what the effects might be when taking aloe gel or juice orally for detox purposes.
It can be used as a dental treatment
Recent studies have shown that pure aloe juice, when used as a mouth rinse, is at least as effective as chlorhexidine, the active ingredient in standard mouthwash. Since tooth decay is caused by plaque, and plaque is caused by a build-up of bacterial biofilm, it makes sense that aloe vera can fight the good fight in terms of dental hygiene.
It makes a great after-sun and skin salve
The American Food & Drug Administration (FDA) first approved aloe vera as an over-the-counter hydrating treatment for sunburn way back in 1959, and no sensible sunbather has gone without it since. More recently, researchers at South Korea’s Kyung Hee University found evidence that young aloe vera shoot extracts mitigated the irradiating damage of ultraviolet light, reducing the ageing effect on the skin. Studies also show that aloe-based gels can help to minimise skin damage from radiation treatments for breast cancer. Meanwhile, as a beauty treatment, aloe has been solidly proven to increase collagen production and improve skin elasticity, making it indispensable to the cosmetics industry.
It can be used as a metabolic aid
The ‘latex’ part of the aloe plant – the sticky yellow residue on the underside of the leaf – contains a compound called aloin (or barbaloin), which is known to have a laxative effect. Hence its use as a treatment for constipation, although different countries have different rules concerning its availability for that purpose. At the same time, there are definite signs that ingesting aloe products can enhance insulin sensitivity and improve blood-sugar management, making it a possible treatment for type-2 diabetes, although more testing is required at this stage. The journal Nutritional Neuroscience has also reported encouraging results for aloe vera in reducing depression and improving memory in laboratory mice, but it remains to be seen whether these effects can be replicated in humans.
It can be applied to various home-made remedies
It’s easy to cultivate your own supply of aloe gel from home-grown plants. Using a sharp knife, simply cut off the prickly sides of the leaf and use a vegetable peeler to trim the outer layer. Then slide a knife beneath the gel layer to separate it from the leaf, and dice it into smaller pieces. Use one filleted leaf in your morning smoothie mix, pop a dollop of aloe gel onto a cotton bud and use it to remove makeup, or treat small cuts and minor skin irritations with the gel. You can blend the gel and refrigerate any that is leftover for up to a week.
Spinneys is proud to source our speciality aloe vera from Al Rawafed Agriculture Organic Farm in Abu Dhabi. Succulents grow easily in the UAE, and you can either transplant them when their roots are well matured, or re-pot the offshoots (called ‘pups’), which grow from the parent plant – these should be removed when they are about two inches long. Just be sure not to over-water your aloe vera plant – once a week is enough – and fertilise it twice a year, in September and March. Remember to keep it in light conditions, but not in direct sunlight.