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Medicinal aloe is a plant in the genus Aloe which has been cultivated for use in medicine for thousands of years. Known formally as Aloe vera and often simply called “aloe,” medicinal aloe appears to be native to Africa. The plant is widely grown both indoors and outdoors all over the world, and a number of commercial products prepared with aloe are sold in drug stores, health food stores, and some grocery stores.
Medicinal aloe is a succulent plant, with a very high drought tolerance. It produces fleshy spear-shaped leaves which grow in a rosette, periodically producing offshots which can be separated from the parent plant and cultivated on their own. The leaves are green to gray, and are often mildly flecked with a variegated pattern, with serrated teeth along the sides of the leaves. The reddish flowers grow on tall stalks.
In nature, Aloe vera prefers warm, dry climates. It grows outdoors in USDA zones nine through 11, and is commonly cultivated as a houseplant in areas where it is too cold to grow aloe outside. Medicinal aloe is well suited to container gardening, and it is highly tolerant of neglect. It is often used in landscaping schemes which are designed to cut down on water use, and in medicinal gardens.
The medicinal part of this plant is a clear gel produced inside the leaves. The gel can be applied topically to treat burns, eczema, and other skin problems, although some patients may experience skin irritation. It can also be mixed with moisturizers and cosmetics, and it has historically been used to treat wounds. Some cultures also ingest the gel, usually after processing, to treat digestive problems.
Medicinal aloe is a widely used burn treatment and sunburn remedy, and several organizations recommend it for use in treating other skin conditions as well. Several scientific organizations have also recommended that more study be performed on aloe to learn about the active compounds in the plant, how these compounds work, and how effective aloe really is for medical treatment.
People who do choose to use aloe for burn treatment should be aware that deep burns need to be treated by a physician. If the skin is broken by the burn, a doctor will need to flush it to reduce the risk of infection, and treatment such as skin grafts may also be required. While aloe is soothing and it may be able to prevent infection, it should not be applied to deep or dirty wounds, or to chemical burns, which require medical treatment regardless of their depth.