Aloe Vera: Why This Ancient Plant Is Still a Modern Skin Care Essential

by Jade Shutes

Introduction

For centuries, people across the globe have turned to the succulent aloe vera plant for its potent healing properties, both inside and out. From ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to modern-day skin care products, this green gem has stood the test of time as one of nature’s most powerful and versatile medicinal plants. So, what makes aloe vera so special? Let’s take a closer look at the fascinating history, botany, and therapeutic uses of this natural wonder.

A Long and Illustrious History

Aloe vera’s use as a medicinal plant dates back thousands of years to early Egypt, where it was called the “plant of immortality” and was treasured by Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra for its beauty-enhancing properties. It is even said that Alexander the Great conquered an island off Africa’s coast to secure aloe plants to heal his wounded soldiers.

In Asia, aloe vera has long been a staple in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. The Chinese hail it as an elixir for longevity, using it to treat everything from dermatitis to digestive issues. In Ayurveda, it is praised as a rejuvenating tonic that balances the body and promotes overall well-being.

Even the ancient Greeks recognized aloe vera’s potent healing powers. Physicians like Dioscorides described using aloe gel to treat wounds, hair loss, genital ulcers and hemorrhoids. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, they brought aloe with them, adding it to the natural healing traditions of the New World.

Meet the Plant

But what exactly is this plant that has captured the imaginations of healers across millennia and continents? Aloe vera is a short-stemmed succulent that originated in the Arabian Peninsula but now grows worldwide in warm, humid climates. Its spiky, fleshy leaves contain a clear gel that is rich in bioactive compounds like vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and polysaccharides.

When an aloe leaf is cut, it exudes a yellow-green latex that contains anthraquinones like aloin and emodin, which have strong laxative properties. But the real magic of aloe lies in the gel, which boasts anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, moisturizing, and wound-healing properties that benefit the skin and body from the inside out. 

A Skin Savior

Aloe’s unique composition makes it a true superfood for the skin. Let’s break down how it works its magic:

    • Moisturizing: Aloe vera gel is incredibly hydrating, consisting of 95-99% water. But what really sets it apart is its ability to penetrate the skin. Aloe increases the water content of the outermost layer of skin, helping to keep it moist and supple. It also improves the skin’s integrity by strengthening the tight junctions between cells and reducing transepidermal water loss. The result? Skin that is soft, smooth, and more resistant to dryness and aging.
    • Anti-aging: As we age, collagen and elastin production declines, leading to fine lines, wrinkles, and sagging. Aloe stimulates fibroblasts which produce these critical proteins, improving skin elasticity. It also inhibits the enzymes that break down collagen. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of compounds like aloin and aloesin also help fight the chronic inflammation and free radical damage that accelerate skin aging.
    • Wound-healing: Aloe is a go-to for wound care, and for good reason. It stimulates the proliferation and migration of fibroblasts and keratinocytes – the cells involved in skin repair and regeneration. Aloe also increases collagen synthesis in wounds and changes the composition of collagen, resulting in stronger, more elastic scars. Polysaccharides in aloe further promote wound healing by increasing blood flow and reducing inflammation. No wonder aloe is used for everything from cuts and scrapes to surgical wounds.

Soothes burns: Whether it’s a sunburn or a burn from the stove, aloe vera gel feels incredibly cooling and soothing when applied to burnt skin. It helps relieve pain by inhibiting bradykinin, a compound that contributes to the pain response. Aloe also fights inflammation in burns and promotes faster healing to minimize scarring and blistering.

    • Fights acne and skin infections: Aloe’s antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties make it useful for treating skin infections. Compounds like lupeol and salicylic acid fight acne-causing bacteria and unclog pores. Aloesin helps fade dark spots from old acne scars. In one study, a topical aloe gel was found to be as effective as prescription antibiotics for acne.
    • Skin conditions: Aloe’s anti-inflammatory properties make it a promising treatment for inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis. It inhibits inflammatory mediators and helps soothe itching, redness, and irritation. Some small studies show aloe can reduce psoriasis symptoms.

References

Radha, M. H., & Laxmipriya, N. P. (2014). Evaluation of biological properties and clinical effectiveness of Aloe vera: A systematic review. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 5(1), 21–26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtcme.2014.10.006

Sánchez, M., González-Burgos, E., Iglesias, I., & Gómez-Serranillos, M. P. (2020). Pharmacological Update Properties of Aloe Vera and its Major Active Constituents. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 25(6), 1324. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25061324