From creams and gels to juice and pills, aloe vera is everywhere.
It is supposed to purify the body, strengthen the immune system and improve well-being.
Some people even say it helps prevent cancer.
But is any of this scientifically true?
Not much, in fact. Aloe vera is a succulent, which means it retains a lot of water.
Such plants can be recognised by their thick, fleshy leaves. And it is inside those leaves that we can find the transparent aloe gel.
From the outer part of the leaves comes the bitter, yellow aloe latex, also known as aloe juice.
The gel and juice are used for different purposes.
Aloe juice, for example, is a laxative that helps fight constipation.
However, the German Institute for Medicine and Medical Products notes that it should only be used short-term.
“Given its side effects, the juice has now been driven out of the market by less risky substances,” says Wilhelm Brodschelm, who is in charge of the pharmacy at St Josef Hospital in Braunau, Austria.
Using aloe vera gel is somewhat more harmless.
It can be applied externally on all sorts of wounds and burns, on irritated skin and on psoriasis lesions.
Some people claim that taking aloe vera can help regulate diabetes, and even that it can help prevent cancer and HIV infections.
But we should be careful with such recommendations.
Be careful of big health claims
“Those are exaggerated promises,” says Bernhard Uehleke a phytotherapy expert who works in Berlin’s Immanuel Hospital.
Taking aloe vera to prevent cancer is nonsense, he stresses.
So can we dismiss the plant as completely useless?
A study has shown that it helps combat seborrheic dermatitis, a form of eczema where scaly patches form on the skin.
In one study, treatment with aloe vera gel led to improvements in about 60% of patients, compared with just 20% in a control group.
For the sexually transmitted disease genital herpes, the skin also heals faster with an aloe vera cream.
The verdict is less consistent when it comes to sunburnt skin, however.
That is where aloe vera is supposed to unleash its full force, but Brodschelm notes that it fails to substantially reduce skin irritation from sunburn.
In fact, he says, aloe vera is no better than a regular oil-in-water cream.
And yet Ulrike Bauschke, a member of the German Association of Non-Medical Practitioners, has had good experiences with aloe vera.
She thinks aloe gel is good for burns.
“It moisturises the skin and promotes wound healing and the formation of collagen,” she says.
Aloe vera gel also alleviates itching and inflammation, and it regenerates and rejuvenates the skin, Bauschke says.
The German Association of Consumer Organizations has tested aloe vera as a food supplement and posted the results on its website.
This kind of aloe vera is sold in capsules, as juice or as a gel, and these are said to contain carbohydrates, enzymes, amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
However, these aloe products in fact contain mostly water – about 99% in the case of gels.
“Many of these substances are also found in regular fruit and vegetables,” the consumer advice association notes.
Uehleke offers this advice: if you eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, you do not need to pin your hopes on aloe vera. – dpa