For this little ginger boy, pale as the day is long, the radioactive ball of fire in the sky was an ever-present reminder of pain and death. That level in Super Mario Bros. 3 with the angry sun is basically my life. Yet despite being the kid who wore a shirt in the pool (SPF 70 was no match for just wearing clothes, I thought), I still managed to fry. “You burned with a T-shirt on going out at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” my mom tells me today. “So you practically lived immersed in aloe.”
Yep, real aloe, straight from the plant. I can still remember the distinct smell of my mom’s all-natural sunburn cocktail. I found myself in a whirlwind of milk and oatmeal baths, Campho Phenique (a brand of antiseptic used to relieve the pain from burns) and, of utmost importance, a fat vine from the family aloe plant, cut, flayed and gooped all over my shoulders, ears, face and back.
Now, as a pasty adult, I say hell yeah. Slather me in that sticky tendril juice.
“I never trusted anything that was in a jar that was made,” my mom says. “I don’t think any of that is any good. I always cut it from the leaves and put it on your sunburns, mosquito and bug bites or even acne.”
Many people swear by growing aloe for the sole purpose of treating sunburns. From garden enthusiasts to botanists, there’s a vocal, dedicated following for the plant. People love their hardiness; the plants last years, even decades. My mom’s original, for instance, is from the 1970s; its first owner watered it from the cup in which he’d put out his cigarettes. “They live forever,” she raves, “especially if you snap it so that a little bit of that base is there and it can reproduce.”
Alex Lasheen, a 28-year-old in Arizona, got his plant 19 years ago from a neighbor. “He grew them and told me to use it as an aftershave,” Lasheen says. “It was just a little pup that I grew in my yard, and ever since I’ve been hooked.”
Aloe Feels Good. What Does the Science Say?
Despite what the die-hards say, the science behind the plant is somewhat unresolved — which isn’t to say the stuff doesn’t work. Dermatologist Dr. Fayne Frey points me to a double-blind study of only 20 patients, which concluded that “aloe had no benefit to the healing of sunburn compared to the placebo.” Although, she adds, “I do not know what the placebo was.” In addition, Frey explains, a review of studies involving 371 patients found the benefits of aloe on burn-wound healing “inconclusive” but stated that “aloe might be beneficial for first- and second-degree burns.”
But! In 2009 — two years after that 371-patient review — another review of aloe vera in dermatological settings found that while it is not effective as a sunburn preventative, it is effective in healing sunburns, wounds, frostbite, herpes and more. In 2019, a study published in Molecules found that aloe “effectively suppresses the inflammatory response,” which aids in sunburn relief.
Based on aloe’s widespread historical use, there must be something to it — but it’s not 100 percent clear what. It just needs more research, Frey says.
At minimum, the aloe plant feels good on a sunburn. And if it works, Frey says, go for it. “The American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying lotions that contain aloe to help soothe the skin, [and] often sunburn victims do say that the application of aloe feels soothing and cooling,” the doctor tells MEL.
I asked if aloe’s goopy texture helped, adding beneficial moisture to combat the sunburn’s dehydrating effect. “I do not know exactly how beneficial aloe is as a moisturizer,” Frey tells MEL. “There’s no science” proving it’s beneficial.
It Just Works
But aloe growers like my mom could care less. They’ve seen and felt its benefits. “Remember the terrible burns you got?” she asks me. “The red was vanquished by the next day.” She warns, however, that some people are more sensitive to it, so “be sure to do a little skin test before you start swabbing it all over.”
Nicole, 21, recalls being a little girl in the kitchen with her mom, trying to help by stirring pots and getting things from the toaster oven — and, naturally, burning herself. “I would often accidentally tap my wrists against the edge of the pot or pan … and my mom would always have me run it under cold water while she went to the back porch for the aloe,” Nicole remembers. “[She’d] bandage up my burned wrists and we would go back to cooking.”
Now, Nicole swears by real aloe vera. “I find that [wounds] heal faster and don’t scar as badly when I use it,” she says. “Also, it feels nice when I apply it. It’s a bit sticky, but if you let it dry completely, then gently wipe off excess with a damp cloth, it doesn’t matter. For smaller burns, just put a big glob on and cover with a Band-Aid.”
Just Don’t Drink the Yellow Stuff
Oh yeah, what is that smell? If you get a whiff of something funky, it’s probably the yellow sap, a liquid called aloe latex, which is also a laxative. Alex Lasheen likes to avoid it by removing the green skin, “soaking the gel in water about 30 minutes to get rid of any of the sap and then pureeing it to make an easier-to-administrate gel.” Of course, if you don’t have time, don’t sweat it. “That yellow layer is sticky and icky, but it isn’t as imperative to remove so long as you’re not ingesting it,” my mom says. “Don’t eat or drink the yellow stuff because that’ll give you diarrhea. Unless that’s what you want to do…”
If you glob it on straight from the leaf, make sure it’s “not too mushy,” my mom says. “It needs to be supple, and you need the leaves to be kind of erect but not too stiff. You want not-too-old, not-too-young leaves. The young leaves are small, so you don’t get much out of them, and the spikes are so bad. Getting scratched by a spike on a bad sunburn isn’t fun, I know you remember that.” (Sadly, I do.)
There are a lot of aloe varieties, but the one you want is the “aloe barbadensis miller variety.” According to the website Desert Succulents, this type of aloe is considered the “most medicinal,” and it’s often called “true aloe” and “first-aid plant.” “You can usually tell your aloe is one of these if it blooms yellow flowers and has a solid green-grayish color,” Lasheen adds.
Lastly, Screw Big Pharma
If the aloe die-hards are right about one thing, it’s to trust the plant itself over the Frankenstein’s Aloe Monster created by capitalism. In an article denouncing commercial aloe lotions, the Ringer explains how the market for “finished aloe products” — that is, lotions and gels purportedly containing aloe — was worth $110 billion in 2004. That number seems high on its own, but now take into consideration that a study of 18 commercially available products found that only half actually contained “acemannan,” the “theoretically active ingredient in the plant.” Further, the Ringer adds, “common fillers [in the lotions] … often degrade what little acemannan there is.”
“In my mind, the lotions are just a way for them to take a good thing, dilute it and market it,” my mom explains. “Plus, they’re made with chemicals that are not good for your skin, even though they swear they are.” Why spend $5 on a jar of lotion whose first ingredient is probably water? “The aloe is probably just spritzed on like vermouth over a martini,” my mom jokes.
“I prefer trying natural methods first,” says Lasheen. “Lotions usually have a bunch of additives and alcohol which can irritate sensitive skin.”
“It could be because the aloe part is more concentrated or just because I have crazy sensitive skin,” Nicole says. “But the plant just works better.”
So save your money and buy a regenerating aloe plant instead of pouring more money into Big Lotion. Traveling on vacation? Snap off a chunk and pack it. One day you can pass down the plant to your kids, and maybe by then the government research funded by President Marianne Williamson will conclude that the bountiful aloe plant of our Mother Earth is definitely beneficial, and not snake oil.