I have been chatting to a friend who works at CANSA so this post is a part-collaboration, in that she has provided some of the research they have gathered. CANSA has a branch within the organisation which reviews cosmetic ingredient lists to see if any ingredients have the potential for carcinogenic exposure. Products with their stamp on it (“Seal of Recognition”), passed the scrutiny. You can read more here. I will be focusing on aloe vera in skincare and ignoring the ingest-able products and benefits for now.
Soothing, calming and all loving aloe vera gel, the age old go-to for inflamed skin. The gel and juice is from the plant called aloe barbadensis, with a few different variations within that species. Its originally indigenous to South Africa but it grows in many other countries. We’re still the OG though.
Fun useless pub-quiz-type fact: The Arabic word “alloeh” means shining and bitter, and likely refers to the bitter-tasting Aloe latex.From a review I read
How safe is it for use in skincare and is it effective? Let’s take a look.
Compounds in Aloe vera extracts
Firstly lets define the gel and the juice. The gel is the transparent jelly like substance in the middle. The juice is usually the stuff that oozes out when you cut the leaf. This comes from the layer just beneath the outer green layer. Its usually green or yellow in colour. It is sometimes called the latex.
Tons of interesting compounds are found in the gel and juice of the aloe vera plant. Including vitamins, saccharides, minerals and enzymes. Just like any plant to be honest.
The gel contains 98.5% water… hmmm what could be left that is beneficial? It does have a low pH of 4.4-4.7 which is attributed to the presence of organic acids like malic acid. The second most abundant type of compounds, after water, are long chain sugar – polysaccharides. These long chains are what make the gel viscous and not runny even though it is mostly water. Acemannan is the most commonly found storage sugar (plants store their sugar in long chain branched polysaccharides).
The bitter latex seems to be a defense mechanism the plant uses to deter animals from eating it – except us humans, we’re rebellious like that. Or dumb. I’ll get back to you on that. The latex has many compounds still to be identified but one of the most studied is aloin, also known as barbaloin. It actually has a few forms but lets keep it simple. There is also a mixture of anthraquinones and anthrones – they have those three rings in the structure (see bottom) line.
Firstly does it even work – are the claims true?
So from what I have read, it seems the studies haven’t yet found one compound that is the “active ingredient” but rather that there may be a few that work together. Although some claim the acemannan compound I metnioned earlier is the money maker. Let’s break down the beneficial claims and try find some studies that support this:
- Hydrating – Haven’t seen any definitive studies supporting this claim although its used a lot in the cosmetic industry as a hydrating agent. I did see an article suggesting it is a good vehicle for other ingredients.
- Anti-inflammatory – This has mostly been studied using ingest-able doses so I won’t go into this one.
- Anti-oxidant benefits – The anthraquinones in the latex actually has the opposite effect, it can cause oxidative stress. (Unsure what that is? – check out my quick explanation here.)
- Anti-microbial properties – None from the gel (that I found) but the latex does seem to have some due to the anthraquinones.
- Wound-healing acceleration (including burns) – Some conflicting results but based on the WHO website (with references), there is evidence that the acemannan and other sugar compounds are linked to wound healing. They seem to increase the collagen content during the healing process.
Please note that I am focusing on the claims about the benefits for the skin and steering clear of ingestion and how it can help you poop, among other things.
Secondly is it safe?
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel has evaluated the safety of the ingredients found in the Aloe Barbadensis plant and concluded that they were safe for use in cosmetics. However, the cells just below the surface of the aloe leaf, those that produce the bitter yellow latex I mentioned earlier, contain a number of anthraquinones which have shown some possible carcinogenicity (meaning it could cause cancer). This is only a concern at levels higher than the industry limit of 50ppm. Remember dose is one of the most important considerations when deciding on toxicity of an ingredient! These anthraquinone compounds are what are responsible for the laxative effect – the pooping action I mentioned earlier but we’ll move on from that.
The best option is to decolourise the ingredient which is as simple as filtering it through activated charcoal.
So is it worth the hype?
Honestly, I’m still unsure if all the claims are proven or if some of it is folk lore but the one that has the most evidence (from my search) is the wound-healing properties. So I think, use it for the sunburn and the cuts but I’m not going to rely on it as a everyday staple in my skincare routine. In my opinion, better studies are needed to really hone in on the active compounds.
I’ve seen lots of big brands use it as a calming or hydrating ingredient in some of their more aggressive products so you may be using it without even knowing.