Is Aloe a Sham?
Some evidence suggests it might help soothe a sunburn, but the research is thin, and there’s not always a guarantee that what you’re buying is real.
By Emily Sohn
As ongoing heat waves extend beach weather for many in the United States, you may find yourself sporting a bad sunburn. And perhaps, you might head to your local drugstore to pick up a bottle of aloe to soothe it.
The aloe vera plant (also called Aloe barbadensis) is a cactus-like succulent that grows in hot, dry places. For thousands of years, people have been extracting the gel from its long, spiky leaves and using it as a salve for a variety of ailments, such as burns, abrasions, skin sores and more. The gel, which is mainly water, contains dozens of vitamins, enzymes, amino acids and other compounds that may have various medicinal effects.
But while the global aloe vera gel market reached about $625 million in 2020 and is expected to grow in the coming years, the potions found in drugstores have had their fair share of controversy. In July, testing revealed that some CVS-brand aloe products were contaminated with benzene, a carcinogenic substance. And earlier testing found that some aloe products, found in retail stores and online, didn’t contain any aloe at all. That, paired with little solid data on how well aloe works to soothe a bad burn, as well as limited federal regulation on what’s in over-the-counter products, has led some to wonder if they should seek it out.
Here’s what we know.
Will aloe help a sunburn?
It might, but the evidence is spotty. In 2012, Oliver Grundmann, a pharmaceutical chemist at the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy, conducted a review of 18 clinical trials on the use of aloe for a variety of conditions — burns, genital herpes, dandruff, psoriasis — and found some evidence that it might have anti-inflammatory effects when used on a sunburn.
In one randomized trial of 40 people published in 2008, for example, researchers exposed the lower backs of participants with ultraviolet rays and treated the resulting redness with four different substances — a 97.5-percent aloe vera gel, a 1-percent hydrocortisone gel, a 1-percent hydrocortisone cream and a placebo gel (with nothing in it). After 48 hours under a bandage, the aloe gel seemed to be more effective at reducing skin redness than the hydrocortisone gel, but less effective than the hydrocortisone cream (which stays on the skin longer and is easier to absorb than a gel).
Other studies have found that people with first- and second-degree burns may heal faster with aloe than they would with other types of treatments like topical antibiotics. And though animals aren’t humans, some rodent studies have found promising results. In one published in June, researchers used a hot iron bar to induce second-degree burns on a small area on the backs of anesthetized rats and found that, compared with stem-cell injections, aloe gel shortened the time it took for the burns to heal. Another rat study from 2014 showed reduced inflammation with aloe treatment on induced UV burns.
Not all studies have shown benefits, though. One small one from 2005, for example, found that applying aloe vera cream to the UV-induced burns of 20 people twice a day for three weeks was not effective at healing the burn.
Aloe falls into the category of treatments that has some evidence to back it up, but not a ton, said Dr. Laura Ferris, a dermatologist at the University of Pittsburgh and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. “I think it is fair to recommend with the caveat that it will help cool the skin and there is a chance it may expedite healing,” she said. “But we don’t have the type of large, rigorous studies we rely upon in medicine to be able to quantify the benefit or to recommend a specific product.”
What does this mean for the aloe products I find in drugstores?
In research studies, scientists typically use gels and creams that have precise concentrations of aloe, Dr. Ferris said. But because over-the-counter aloe products are considered cosmetics, they aren’t strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not standardized in this way. So the quality of what you get can vary, and the benefits found in research studies may not directly apply to the aloe products you can find online or in drugstores.
And, the products you buy are not guaranteed to contain any aloe at all. In 2016, for instance, Bloomberg published the findings of an investigation into four store-brand aloe gels sold by Walmart, Target, CVS and Walgreens. After laboratory tests looked for three chemical markers of aloe — acemannan, malic acid and glucose — they found that three of the four products tested (from Walmart, Target and CVS) contained no evidence of aloe. One product, sold by Walgreens, had a single marker for aloe, malic acid, but experts said it wasn’t enough to prove aloe’s presence. The testing did identify an ingredient called maltodextrin, a moisturizing plant-based sugar that is sometimes used as a cheaper alternative to aloe, in the Walmart, Target and CVS products.
Similarly, a 2015 study commissioned by ConsumerLab.com, found aloe in only half of 10 aloe pills, gels and drinks that it tested (You can find the full list of products tested here). “Some were very good, and some had virtually none of the aloe compounds,” said Dr. Tod Cooperman, the president and founder of ConsumerLab.com.
Recent testing has also found that some aloe products were contaminated with harmful substances. In July, CVS paused the sale of two aloe vera products (the CVS Health After Sun Aloe Vera and the CVS Health After Sun Aloe Vera Spray) after testing revealed low levels of benzene, a known carcinogen that has recently also been found in some spray sunscreens. When inhaled, benzene has been found to cause leukemia and other types of cancers, though few studies have examined exactly how harmful it is when applied to the skin.
“We are committed to ensuring the products we offer are safe, work as intended, comply with regulations and satisfy customers,” a spokesman for CVS said via email.
Is This A Scam?
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