|Aloe vera plant with flower detail inset.|
Aloe vera is a succulent plant species that probably originated in northern Africa. The species does not have any naturally occurring populations, although closely related aloes do occur in northern Africa. The species is frequently cited as being used in herbal medicine since the beginning of the first century AD. Extracts from A. vera are widely used in the cosmetics and alternative medicine industries, being marketed as variously having rejuvenating, healing or soothing properties. There is, however, little scientific evidence of the effectiveness or safety of A. vera extracts for either cosmetic or medicinal purposes, and what positive evidence is available is frequently contradicted by other studies.
Aloe vera is a stemless or very short-stemmed succulent plant growing to 60–100 cm (24–39 in) tall, spreading by offsets. The leaves are thick and fleshy, green to grey-green, with some varieties showing white flecks on the upper and lower stem surfaces. The margin of the leaf is serrated and has small white teeth. The flowers are produced in summer on a spike up to 90 cm (35 in) tall, each flower being pendulous, with a yellow tubular corolla 2–3 cm (0.8–1.2 in) long. Like other Aloe species, Aloe vera forms arbuscular mycorrhiza, a symbiosis that allows the plant better access to mineral nutrients in soil.
Taxonomy and etymology 
The species has a number of synonyms: A. barbadensis Mill., Aloe indica Royle, Aloe perfoliata L. var. vera and A. vulgaris Lam. Common names include Chinese Aloe, Indian Aloe, True Aloe, Barbados Aloe, Burn Aloe, First Aid Plant. The species epithet vera means "true" or "genuine". Some literature identifies the white spotted form of Aloe vera as Aloe vera var. chinensis; however, the species varies widely with regard to leaf spots and it has been suggested that the spotted form of Aloe vera may be conspecific with A. massawana. The species was first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753 as Aloe perfoliata var. vera, and was described again in 1768 by Nicolaas Laurens Burman as Aloe vera in Flora Indica on 6 April and by Philip Miller as Aloe barbadensis some ten days after Burman in the Gardener's Dictionary.
Techniques based on DNA comparison suggest that Aloe vera is relatively closely related to Aloe perryi, a species that is endemic to Yemen. Similar techniques, using chloroplast DNA sequence comparison and ISSR profiling have also suggested that Aloe vera is closely related to Aloe forbesii, Aloe inermis, Aloe scobinifolia, Aloe sinkatana, and Aloe striata. With the exception of the South African species A. striata, these Aloe species are native to Socotra (Yemen), Somalia, and Sudan. The lack of obvious natural populations of the species have led some authors to suggest that Aloe vera may be of hybrid origin.
The natural range of Aloe vera is unclear, as the species has been widely cultivated throughout the world. Naturalised stands of the species occur in the southern half of the Arabian peninsula, through North Africa (Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt) as well as Sudan and neighbouring countries, along with the Canary, Cape Verde, and Madeira Islands. This distribution is somewhat similar to the one of Euphorbia balsamifera, Pistacia atlantica, and a few others, suggesting that a dry sclerophyl forest once covered large areas, but has been dramatically reduced due to desertification in the Sahara, leaving these few patches isolated. Several closely related (or sometimes identical) species can be found on the two extreme sides of the Sahara: Dragon trees (Dracaena) and Aeonium being two of the most representative examples.
The species was introduced to China and various parts of southern Europe in the 17th century. The species is widely naturalised elsewhere, occurring in temperate and tropical regions of Australia, Barbados, Belize, Nigeria, Paraguay and the United States It has been suggested that the actual species' distribution is the result of human cultivation.
Aloe vera has been widely grown as an ornamental plant. The species is popular with modern gardeners as a putatively medicinal plant and due to its interesting flowers, form, and succulence. This succulence enables the species to survive in areas of low natural rainfall, making it ideal for rockeries and other low-water use gardens. The species is hardy in zones 8–11, although it is intolerant of very heavy frost or snow. The species is relatively resistant to most insect pests, though spider mites, mealy bugs, scale insects, and aphid species may cause a decline in plant health. In pots, the species requires well-drained sandy potting soil and bright sunny conditions; however, aloe plants can burn under too much sun or shrivel when the pot does not drain the rain. The use of a good-quality commercial propagation mix or pre-packaged "cacti and succulent mix" is recommended, as they allow good drainage. Terracotta pots are preferable as they are porous. Potted plants should be allowed to completely dry prior to re-watering. When potted aloes become crowded with "pups" growing from the sides of the "mother plant," they should be divided and re-potted to allow room for further growth and help prevent pest infestations. During winter, Aloe vera may become dormant, during which little moisture is required. In areas that receive frost or snow, the species is best kept indoors or in heated glasshouses. Large scale agricultural production of Aloe vera is undertaken in Australia, Bangladesh, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, China, Mexico, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, along with the USA to supply the cosmetics industry with Aloe vera gel.
Preparations made from the plant Aloe vera are often referred to as "aloe vera". Scientific evidence for the cosmetic and therapeutic effectiveness of aloe vera is limited and when present is frequently contradictory. Despite this, the cosmetic and alternative medicine industries regularly make claims regarding the soothing, moisturizing, and healing properties of aloe vera. Aloe vera gel is used as an ingredient in commercially available lotions, yogurt, beverages, and some desserts, although at certain doses, it has toxic properties when used either for ingested or topical applications.
Folk medicine 
Early records of Aloe vera use appear in the Ebers Papyrus from 16th century BC, in both Dioscorides' De Materia Medica and Pliny the Elder's Natural History written in the mid-first century AD along with the Juliana Anicia Codex produced in 512 AD. The species is used widely in the traditional herbal medicine of many countries. Aloe vera, called kathalai in Ayurvedic medicine, is used as a multipurpose skin treatment. This may be partly due to the presence of saponin, a chemical compound that acts as an anti-microbial agent.
Dietary supplement 
Aloin, a compound found in the exudate of some Aloe species, was the common ingredient in over-the-counter (OTC) laxative products in the United States prior to 2003, when the Food and Drug Administration ruled that aloin was a class III ingredient, thereby banning its use. Aloe vera has potential toxicity, with side-effects occurring at some dose levels both when ingested or applied topically. Although toxicity may be less when aloin is removed by processing, aloe vera that contains aloin in excess amounts may induce side-effects. A 2-year National Toxicology Program (NTP) study on oral consumption of non-decolorized whole leaf extract of Aloe vera found evidence of carcinogenic activity in male and female rats. The NTP says more information is needed to determine the potential risks to humans.
Aloe vera juice is marketed to support the health of the digestive system, but there is neither scientific evidence nor regulatory approval to support this claim. The extracts and quantities typically used for such purposes appear to be dose-dependent for toxic effects.
Aloe vera leaves contain phytochemicals under study for possible bioactivity, such as acetylated mannans, polymannans, anthraquinone C-glycosides, anthrones, anthraquinones, such as emodin, and various lectins. Emodin (although not obtained from Aloe vera) has been shown to have insecticidal properties.
Aloe vera is now used on facial tissues, where it is promoted as a moisturiser and/or anti-irritant to reduce chafing of the nose of users suffering hay-fever or cold. It is common practice for cosmetic companies to add sap or other derivatives from Aloe vera to products such as makeup, tissues, moisturizers, soaps, sunscreens, incense, shaving cream or shampoos. Other uses for extracts of aloe vera include the dilution of semen for the artificial fertilization of sheep, as a fresh food preservative, or for water conservation in small farms. It has also been suggested that biofuels could be obtained from Aloe vera seeds. Aloe is also used as a food substance, possibly for its gelling properties (see image above).
Preliminary research 
Aloe vera may be effective in the treatment of wounds. Evidence on the effects of its sap on wound healing, however, is limited and contradictory. Some studies, for example, show that aloe vera promotes the rates of healing, while, in contrast, other studies show that wounds to which aloe vera gel was applied were significantly slower to heal than those treated with conventional medical preparations. A 2007 review concluded that the cumulative evidence supports the use of aloe vera for the healing of first to second degree burns. Topical application of aloe vera may also be effective for genital herpes and psoriasis. However, it is not effective for the prevention of radiation-induced injuries.
Gels from Aloe vera have been compared to those derived from other aloe species and with other plants belonging to the family Asphodelaceae. Bulbine frutescens, for example, is used widely for burns and a host of skin afflictions. Aloe vera extracts might have antibacterial and antifungal activities, which possibly could help treat minor skin infections, such as boils and benign skin cysts and may inhibit growth of fungi causing tinea. For bacteria, inner-leaf gel from aloe vera was shown in one study to inhibit growth of Streptococcus and Shigella species in vitro. In contrast, aloe vera extracts failed to show antibiotic properties against Xanthomonas species (plant pathogens).
Although claimed to be effective, Aloe vera has not been proven to offer protection for humans from sunburn, suntan, or other damage from the sun. In studies on mice, aloe vera polysaccharides preserved the number and morphology of immunosuppressive and dendritic cells in skin damaged by ultraviolet exposure.
In a double-blind clinical trial, both the group using an aloe vera containing dentifrice and another using a fluoridated dentifrice had a reduction of gingivitis and plaque, but no statistically significant difference was found between the two.
Preliminary research has assessed whether aloe vera extracts affect blood glucose or blood lipids, and in acute hepatitis, effects that may be associated with compounds such as mannans, anthraquinones or lectins.
Ingestion of aloe vera may be associated with diarrhea, electrolyte imbalance, kidney dysfunction, or drug interactions, while topical application may induce contact dermatitis, erythema, or phototoxicity.
See also 
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- Herbal medicine
- Medicinal plants
- Museo de Aloe de Lanzarote, Aloe vera museum in the Canary Islands, Spain
- Succulent plants
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