Plants and the chemicals they make. What do we know about Aloe vera?

Aloe vera has been used for centuries in traditional medicine in many cultures. This, however, is not enough. We should be more demanding of our skin care ingredients; we can’t accept, at face value, what traditional medicine has been saying, even for centuries. After all, it was not so long ago that a very sick person was further weakened, using bloodletting, by “doctors”.  Bloodletting may look romantic in Sense and Sensibility, but this does not make it OK nor remotely reasonable.

Nowadays, we have the scientific method to examine the evidence. So, what does the evidence say about Aloe vera extract?

Aloe vera, leaves, like many plant extracts, contain many chemicals products of the secondary metabolism, meaning chemicals that are not “essential” for plant life.  They are often made in response to stress or attack by predators.

What can these chemicals do? In the case of the plant, they fulfill important roles, otherwise the extra expense of energy would be wasteful. There is a whole branch of biochemistry dedicated to the study of the ecological functions of secondary metabolites.  We may love the smell of roses, but we know that roses don’t make these chemicals for our benefit.

Then there is “our” side/ What can these chemicals do for us (or against us!).

In Aloe vera the “chemical soup”includes acetylated mannans, polymannans, anthraquinone C-glycosides, anthrones, emodin and several lectins. Anthraquinones and anthrones have laxative properties.

Applied topically, aloe vera gel improves skin hydration, has anti-inflammatory activity and helps healing of cuts, grazes, burns and insect bites. It may also prevent immune suppression caused by UVB by repairing damage to epidermal Langerhans cells. Special polysaccharides, including acetylated mannans, contribute the immunostimulant properties of Aloe vera. On the other hand, emodin may have some antitumor activity but in certain conditions it can be phototoxic.  In short, aloe vera extract contains a variety of chemicals, some of them beneficial and others not so much.

Please remember that claims made by companies selling products containing Aloe vera extract should always be taken with a pinch of salt. That includes us, at Skin Actives, except that we make very conscious efforts to follow independent research when it comes to choosing actives and, once a beneficial chemical is identified in an extract, we do our best to obtain extracts standardized for the beneficial chemical.

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