Living in Hawaii, I have become accustomed to the sight of bright red people. They aren’t from Mars or anything like that; they have bad cases of sunburn. There are lots of articles on how to prevent this, but that is no consolation if you are already burnt to a crisp. You want to know about treatments for sunburn. So I’m going to tell you about our local remedy: Aloe vera.
The Aloe gelly is most commonly known for its topical (on the skin) uses. It appears as an ingredient in some sun creams and cosmetics (lotions, shampoos), and the bitter-tasting gel can be applied to fingernails as an aid for nail-biters trying to quit. It is credited with accelerated healing of the skin in cases of burns (sunburns included), cuts, scrapes, warts (for shrinking), minor wounds and abrasions, shingles, psoriasis, and other skin irritations.
It is believed that the active ingredients in the Aloe vera gel help relieve pain and inflammation, reduce swelling, and soothe itching by sealing the damaged flesh with a protective coat. A compound known as aloectin B may contribute to the process by stimulating the body’s immune (infection and bacteria fighting) system. (Anti-bacterial, along with anti-viral and anti-fungal properties are suggested but not proven by current research.)
The best source of the soothing gel is a live Aloe vera plant. It is easy to grow, and in some cultures a plant in the backyard or window sill is simply an extension of the household first-aid kit. Select a plump (juicy) leaf, cut it off, and clean it with soap and water. Then slit it lengthwise and squeeze out the clear gel from the middle. Gently spread the gel on to the pre-cleaned surface of the area to be treated and let it dry. Repeat as necessary.
If the real thing is unavailable and you are using a commercially produced product, remember that it may be diluted and much less potent than pure (over 98%) Aloe vera. Check the ingredients. For commercially produced sunburn relief, the highest level you can acquire should be used, but do not settle for any product in which Aloe vera makes up less than 20% of the ingredients.
Topical Aloe vera products are sold as cream, gel, spray, and lotion. An alternative treatment for sunburn is to purchase it in liquid form and soak in a lukewarm bath with 1-2 cups of Aloe vera in the water.
The Plant and its History
The Aloe vera plant is often thought of as a cactus because of its appearance. Tiny prickles cover the long, green leaves and like the cactus, it is a succulent plant, able to store large quantities of water in its root system and leaves. The Aloe vera is actually a lily. It appears as a large rosette of thick, fleshy fingers that are sometimes mottled or striped, and varies in color from shades of gray to bright green. It flowers in dense clusters of little tube-shaped red and yellow blossoms. They are not ugly to look at and because of their hardy nature are often used in public gardens and buildings as ornamental plants.
The scientific classification (grouping of organisms according to shared characteristics) of the Aloe vera follows:
Within the genus Aloe, there are about 400 different species. The plant Agave americana, also kown as American aloe actually belongs to a different family, Agaraceae. There are three other species used medicinally, Aloe ferox, Aloe perryi, and Zanzibar Aloe, but the legendary reputation of Aloe vera sets it in a class of its own.
The Aloe is also known as the medicine plant, the burn plant, and the first-aid plant. The word itself is believed to be derived from “Alloeh”, which means “shining bitter substance” in Arabic. The term “vera” is Latin for “true,” and was later added to this particular species to distinguish it as the one referred to throughout history as “the true Aloe.”
There is no doubt that the Aloe plants originated in Africa, where related species are used as antidotes for poison arrow wounds. It is now cultivated in many places around the world, including Asia, Europe, the Caribbean islands, Mexico, and the United States. It is often found as a houseplant, but is commercially produced in America in Texas, Southern California, and Florida.
Aloe vera has been used over thousands of years and in many cultures. The first historical record of the plant appears in clay tablets of the Sumerians that date back to 2200 B.C. It is also known that in Ancient Egypt the Aloe vera was used for skin care by Cleopatra, whose soft flesh was so spectacular that historians saw fit to mention it. Greece, China, and India were also using the prickly plant.
The first detailed description of its medical uses in the ancient world come from a Roman called Dioscorides, a pharmacologist who traveled with the army. He makes note of the whole leaf being pulverized and the mush being used to stop the bleeding of wounds. He also records that Aloe vera was used as salve on boils, bruises, and hemorrhoids, and that it was taken internally to cleanse the stomach and induce sleep. The modern claims are similar.
Grow Your Own Aloe Vera
The Aloe vera is a very tolerant plant that can be grown in a garden or a pot with fast-draining, moderately fertile soil. They need to be placed in an area with light shade or full sun. Aloe plants can tough it out in warmer climates and withstand periods of drought, but are very sensitive to freezing temperatures.
Aloe may be grown from seed, purchased at a garden shop or nursery, or propagated from another plant. For propagation, look for offsets (that are at least a few inches tall) around the base of the mature plant. When it is time to transplant, width should play a greater role than depth in the choosing of a larger pot. The root system of the Aloe stays rather shallow but spreads out. Be sure the planter has a drainage hole or else layer the bottom of the pot with gravel (1½ – 2 inches deep).