In this series, “Herbal First Aid Kit,” we look at natural alternatives to modern first aid kits, which usually consist of medications made from synthetic chemicals. If you are looking for natural solutions for acute conditions, these herbs are safe, effective, and easily obtainable.
The first time I used aloe vera was to treat a bad sunburn that left my skin red, hot, and in pain. I collected aloe vera gel from the leaf of an aloe plant and applied it liberally to the affected area several times throughout the day.
Upon waking the next morning, I was amazed to discover the heat and pain had disappeared and the redness was replaced with tan-colored skin.
The results seemed unbelievable, so I repeated the experiment with a subsequent sunburn and with a thermal burn I got by accidentally grabbing a hot pan. In both situations, the aloe vera gel quickly healed the wound and remedied the pain. Since then, I have always kept an Aloe plant in my home.
Aloe vera (aloe barbadensis miller) is a perennial succulent with thick, fleshy, long, pea-green leaves.
It has been used medicinally for millennia. Clay tablets dated 1750 B.C. reveal that aloe vera was used as medicine in Mesopotamia.
The Egyptians referred to aloe vera as “the plant of immortality.” The Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra used aloe as part of their daily beauty routines. Egyptian books from 550 B.C. recorded that skin infections were cured using aloe.
Greek scientists hailed Aloe vera as the “universal panacea.” In A.D. 74, a Greek physician, Discordes, wrote a book titled De Materia Medica, which listed aloe vera as a treatment for wounds, infections, chapping, hair loss, and hemorrhoids.
Today, scientific studies have demonstrated that aloe vera has numerous healing properties, including being anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anti-aging, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, antiseptic, and skin protective.
Aloe vera also helps treat a variety of wounds, including post-operative wounds, psoriasis, skin ulcers, genital herpes, bedsores, and burns.
Because of its ability to heal wounds, aloe vera gel can replace some man-made medications commonly found in a modern first aid kit.
When experiencing a thermal burn, I reach for aloe vera gel instead of petroleum jelly or a topical antibiotic.
While aloe vera was used in traditional medicine to heal burns from fire, today, the go-to remedy is petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline), which is derived from crude oil.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the standard treatment for first-degree burns includes applying petroleum jelly and covering it with a sterile bandage. However, aloe vera gel may be a better choice, according to modern science.
Aloe vera also accelerates wound healing and improves the strength of the resulting scar tissue by changing the collagen composition and increasing the amount of collagen cross-linking.
A 1995 study compared aloe vera with Vaseline on 27 patients with burn wounds. The researchers wrote, “Aloe vera gel treated lesion[s] healed faster than the Vaseline gauze area.” Aloe vera healed the wounds in 11.89 days, and Vaseline gauze treated wounds healed in 18.19 days.
Aloe vera gel stimulated the “rapid growth” of skin cells, as well as collagen tissue. According to the researchers, “These findings were not seen in the Vaseline gauze treated area.”
A second commonly recommended treatment for thermal burns is a topical antibiotic. However, according to a comparative study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 1996, Aloe vera is more effective at wound healing. The authors concluded that aloe “significantly accelerated wound contraction.” In contrast, mafenide acetate, a topical antibiotic, “retarded wound healing.”
A 2013 study concurred that aloe vera gel was more effective at treating thermal burns than an antibiotic.
“Thermal burn patients dressed with aloe vera gel showed advantage compared to those dressed with SSD [silver sulfadiazine cream],” according to the researchers. Wounds healed faster and pain relief was felt sooner using aloe vera gel than when using the antibiotic.
When I have a sunburn, I reach for aloe vera gel instead of an over-the-counter first-aid remedy such as hydrocortisone cream, Dermoplast, or Solarcaine.
A 2008 study published in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology exposed 40 volunteers to UVB radiation. Following two days of treatment with aloe vera gel, the researchers concluded that aloe vera gel “displayed some anti-inflammatory effects” and “might be useful in the topical treatment of inflammatory skin conditions such as UV-induced erythema [redness].”
Treatment with aloe vera gel also better-mitigated effects of UV radiation than treatment with hydrocortisone in placebo gel.
A 1996 study concluded that a compound in aloe vera contains anti-inflammatory activity that is “equivalent” to hydrocortisone when topically treating wounds on mice.
Hydrocortisone treatment “resulted in a 50 percent decrease in thymus weight,” while treatment with the aloe compound showed no negative effect on the thymus.
Modern drug companies recognize the effectiveness of aloe vera; it’s an ingredient in two of the leading first-aid remedies for sunburn: Dermoplast and Solarcaine.
However, Dermoplast also contains several synthetic ingredients, such as polysorbate 85, PEG-400 monolaurate, hydrofluorocarbon 152a, and butane.
Solarcaine also contains several synthetic ingredients, including propane, propylene glycol, isobutane, methylparaben, carbomer, and propylparaben.
You can avoid man-made chemicals and still receive relief from sun and thermal burns by choosing aloe vera gel.
When to Use Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera gel can be used for the following acute skin conditions:
- Thermal burn
- Post-operative wounds
- Skin ulcers
- Skin itching
Aloe Vera Gel Quality
The best options for a first aid kit are aloe vera plant, which is easy to grow at home, and aloe vera gel.
When it comes to gel, you do need to be mindful of quality, as adulteration of aloe vera gel has been reported. Aloe vera gel is rich in polysaccharides, including pectins and acemannan. These polysaccharides have been substituted or diluted with lower-cost carbohydrates, such as maltodextrin or sucrose.
“Many experts in the herb industry have known for a long time that some aloe materials are adulterated. Because many aloe materials are in liquid or gel form, it is relatively easy for unethical aloe producers to ‘stretch’ the aloe material by adding low-cost liquids and various types of sugars to the ingredients to increase profits,” Mark Blumenthal, founder of the American Botanical Council, warned in a bulletin in the council’s journal.
Synthetic preservatives and fillers are also commonly added to aloe vera gel, even if the label claims that the product is “100% Pure Aloe.”
If purchasing aloe gel, choose organic and read the ingredient label to make sure it doesn’t contain synthetic chemicals.
How to Harvest From an Aloe Vera Plant
The aloe vera plant needs to be mature–at least a few years old–to ensure higher concentrations of the active ingredients.
To harvest aloe directly from the plant:
- Choose a thick leaf from the outer section of the plant. Make sure the leaf is free of mold and damage.
- Cut the leaf close to the stem, avoiding the roots.
- Slit the leaf lengthwise using a knife or your fingers to expose the gel.
- Using your finger, apply the aloe vera gel liberally to the skin. Aloe can be applied several times throughout the day. Don’t apply to open skin.
Precautions and Possible Interactions
Although cautions exist for oral use, topical application rarely results in complications. Although rare, aloe vera gel can lead to burning and itching of the skin. Consult a health care provider before use if pregnant or lactating or if suffering from an inflammatory skin condition.
Find the previous articles in the series here.
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