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Aloe Vera Is a Lie

Everything you’ve been told about its sunburn-healing properties is propaganda

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Hello! Welcome to the Fourth of July. It is sunny, and you’re at a barbecue, and you’re probably not wearing enough sunscreen. You are going to get a sunburn. And when you stagger indoors at last, puffy and tender and feverish, maybe someone you love — who loves you and your poor, puffy flesh — will say, “Hon, let me get the aloe vera for you.”

That person is a charlatan and a liar.

I know, I know: You don’t think it’s true. That blue-green goop you’ve been buying all these years — it helps! Heals burns faster; makes pain hurt less. It’s a pillar of your summer routine.

Friends, I am here to tell you that everything you’ve been told about aloe vera is a lie.

Let’s start with the basics. Do the after-sun aloe vera gels sold in stores heal burns faster? No, they do not! Aloe vera has traditionally been used to treat a whole slew of things — constipation, funguses, worms, diabetes, psoriasis, herpes — and I’m addressing its use only as a commercial gel to treat first- and second-degree burns (e.g., sunburns). But let’s just say you’d be within your rights to have doubts about some of aloe’s other properties, too, even if its components come directly from the plant.

So, fine, you may be thinking: Aloe vera may not heal burned skin. But surely it dulls the pain. In some cases you’d be correct, but not because of the aloe; many gels are coupled with lidocaine, which does, in fact, treat pain. But the rest? They do nothing! You’d be better off just taking a pain treatment outright.

Most of the studies of aloe vera’s efficacy boil down to: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. According to a paper published in the British Journal of General Practice in October 1999, “Whether [aloe vera] promotes wound healing is unclear.” Per a passage in the second edition of Herbal Medicine (subtitle: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects), there is “a lack of consistent scientific evidence to support many of the therapeutic claims for Aloe vera.” And according to the British Journal of Dermatology, “Oral and topical aloe vera is promoted for a variety of conditions but the evidence to support its use is not compelling.” The few studies that cite the possibility of beneficial effects are even riddled with caveats. For every study that says, hey, maybe there’s something here to this plant, there are several more that find diddly-squat.

Why does any of this matter, you might ask, if aloe vera makes me feel good? Who cares what the nerds say?

Listen, you antiscience monster: These people who sell aloe vera are stealing from you. As of 2004, the market for finished aloe products was worth $110 billion. The aloe barons are taking your money and building gigantic aloe palaces and not helping your sunburn at all. They are probably taking long soaks in great big hot tubs for which you helped pay. And they’re probably wearing lots of sunscreen, too, because they know nothing in their cabinets can heal sunburn.

Still, let’s say you decide to go the optimistic route and choose to believe — in what a less charitable person might call a rejection of the scientific method that our entire system of medicine is based on, but lol, who cares, I’m sure it’s fine — the studies that say aloe vera gels can really help heal minor burns. OK! Free country, etc. Then your problem becomes an entirely different question: Is there even aloe vera in aloe vera gel?

Very possibly not! One study of 18 commercial aloe vera products found only nine contained “quantifiable amounts of … Acemannan polysaccharide,” the active, theoretically restorative ingredient in the plant. A second study found “satisfactory amounts” of Acemannan in just a third of sampled products. Even if some aloe is included, beware of what else may be: Common fillers — maltodextrin, glucose, glycerin, malic acid — often degrade what little Acemannan there is.

Organizations like the International Aloe Science Council have tried to put a stop to this madness; since the ’80s the IASC has offered a process for companies to certify that their products contain high-quality aloe (and, well, aloe at all). But how much does a seal of approval from some council you’ve never heard of (tough break, Big Aloe) mean when you’re shuffling through your local drugstore, the outline of novelty flag glasses seared on your face?

So, sorry, sunburned patriots of the world, I have to be the bearer of bad snake oil. But say it with me: Aloe vera is bullshit.