Do Your Aloe Vera Gel Really Contain Aloe?

Cynthia Bailey, MD|December 22, 2016

Bloomberg News did some interesting investigative journalism recently. They hired a lab to test for aloe in the most popular, mass produced aloe vera gel products -- including those sold by Wal-Mart, Target and CVS. Apparently, aloe vera gel products are a growing big business with over $146 million in sales last year and growing by 11% annually. The lab hired by Bloomberg found NO aloe markers in these products in spite of aloe vera leaf juice being listed as the very first ingredient! Instead they found ingredients used to fake aloe vera.

The Bloomberg article stated that the supplier used in these products sources their aloe from an organic and fair trade farm in Guatemala. It’s complicated knowing who to trust and where the break-down in integrity may be. It’s a wakeup call for consumers, and a great example of how complicated consumer products are. Of course, class action lawsuits are being filed. 

One of the really fascinating aspects of this is the size of the aloe business, and that there is fake aloe being made and sold. A quote from the article says,

Jeff Barrie, a Keene, New Hampshire-based sales manager at AloeCorp, one of the biggest suppliers of raw aloe powder, said he’s seen competitors beat his lowest prices by half. That means they’re not selling aloe, he said. Aloe powder can cost as much as $240 a kilogram, he said, while the same amount of maltodextrin (used to imitate aloe) can cost a few dollars.

Making just 1 kilogram of aloe powder, the ingredient used in finished goods like gels and drinks, requires 400 kilos (882 pounds) of aloe leaves, Barrie said. The process involves removing rinds from the leaves and dehydrating the remaining aloe into a powder form.

“Aloe is all harvested by hand,” Barrie said. “It’s an involved process and it’s not cheap.”

Why is aloe vera gel so popular as a skin care remedy?

Aloe vera gel has been used as a home remedy for skin problems for years. Scientific study didn’t support the evidence for folk remedy claims until more recently, however. Back in the 1980s, when I began my dermatology training in San Diego, many patients had aloe vera plants and used them as a cure-all. Back then, I did a scientific literature search out of curiosity and could only find concrete scientific evidence for aloe in healing burn wounds. Since then, science has caught up with folk medicine, and there are now a number of solid scientific studies showing that aloe helps heal a number of skin conditions. These skin problems include wounds, burns and inflammatory rashes such as eczema. Aloe may even help prevent skin's sun damage, though it is not a sunscreen and does not appear to protect skin as an antioxidant. It means that the science is complicated and we can expect more interesting information in the future. 


I also know that this sort of misleading 'fairy dusting' shenanigans is unfortunately common in skin care. Faking an ingredient is another story all together. If the analytic lab did indeed use the best testing for detecting aloe vera gel and found none, that is shocking. Green tea is an excellent example of this sort of ‘fairy dusting’ for market appeal. “Green tea” is added to many products that will claim to capture the antioxidant properties of this popular ingredient yet insignificant amounts and/or fractions were included instead of highly purified polyphenol actives. I know how great purified green tea polyphenols are and that is what's in my Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy.  It looks like aloe is joining green tea, vitamin C and a host of other actives in the marketing shenanigans of the skin care business. Like all commercial skin care products, 'the devil is in the details' and 'buyer beware'! 

Labels commonly mislead consumers, but the back label of ingredients shouldn’t lie. Label 'fantasy-fiction' is one of my personal pet-peeves - and it's why I'm so picky about skin care products. It is not uncommon for commercial products to boldly boast trendy ingredients, yet fall short when it comes to efficacy. So many popular products contain only minute amounts and/or poorly sourced and adulterated celebrity ingredients. These ingredients are included to benefit product marketability only, and not skin care routine. I have many lovely skin care products that are formulated with aloe vera. The aloe is used in these products because it is a natural botanical that helps hydrates skin and/or create an elegant feel to a cream. The aloe is part of the formulation, but to truly caputre the wound healing efficacy of aloe vera, I believe that you need pure gel with nothing else.

If you want guaranteed pure aloe gel to treat wounds, burns or a specific skin condition, why not buy a plant?

The studies showing the medicinal benefit of aloe are done on pure gel. If you want to reap those benefits, why not make your own gel? Aloe vera is a succulent plant and it's easy to grow. There are many species of Aloe vera. The one used medicinally is Aloe barbadensis miller. Naturalhealers.com has a good guide to aloe vera juice and gel. The inner clear gel is what you should be looking for. Wikihow.com gives you good instructions for making your own aloe vera juice. The greener, yellowish gel near the leaves contain ingredients that can be allergens, laxitives and cause other troubles. It's best to avoid that, in my opinion. 

In my 30 years of medical practice, my patients have brought me dubious aloe vera products that they were using as a home remedy to heal a skin rash, wound or burn. When we read the label together, we find that the product lists other ingredients that are probably responsible for any relief they have felt and/or side effects they were experiencing. For example, aloe gel burn relief products often contain topical anesthetics such as benzocaine that numb discomfort. These ingredients are also potent allergens that will create lifelong allergies to many related and common ingredients such as PABA sunscreens, sulfa drugs, thiazide diuretics and permanent hair dye. Other products, such as the Target Aloe Vera gel implicated in the Bloomberg article contain glycerin, which is a nice skin hydrator that will soothe many skin problems. 

The four gels that were analyzed in this new study also contained other ingredients that are not so wholesome in your skin care products. These include the formaldehyde releasing preservatives: dmdm hydantoin and diazolidinyl urea. They also contain “fragrance” which is a common allergen and may potentially contain known hormone disrupters. 

The bottom line is that consumers need to exercise caution when buying products that they use often and that are important to them. I always recommend reading ingredient labels and doing some research when you are unsure. That said, We should all be able to trust that the ingredients are truthfully stated. I personally have always been a little paranoid about ingredients. I do my homework and personally know the people at the labs that make my products. My priority is to weed out shenanigans like this. It’s why I have a small collection of products, and they are all products I trust. It’s why I didn't build one of those a huge middle-man/woman site, selling every skin care product under the sun from snake oil to fake aloe vera gel. This Bloomberg news on aloe vera is indeed disturbing. I'm going to work even harder 'to have our backs'.

To learn more, here are some related posts:

 

References:

Beneficial Effects of the Genus Aloe on Wound Healing, Cell Proliferation, and Differentiation of Epidermal Keratinocytes, PLoS One. 2016; 11(10): e0164799. Mariko Moriyama,, Hiroyuki Moriyama, Junki Uda, Hirokazu Kubo, Yuka Nakajima, Arisa Goto, Junji Akaki, Ikuyo Yoshida, Nobuya Matsuoka, and Takao Hayakawa. Published online 2016 Oct 13. 

Transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β) activation in cutaneous wounds after topical application of aloe vera gel. Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 2016 Dec;94(12):1285-1290. Epub 2016 Jul 14. Takzaree N, Hadjiakhondi A, Hassanzadeh G, Rouini MR3, Manayi A, Zolbin MM.

Mechanism of Aloe Vera extract protection against UVA: shelter of lysosomal membrane avoids photodamage. Photochem Photobiol Sci. 2016 Mar;15(3):334-50. doi: 10.1039/c5pp00409h. Rodrigues D, Viotto AC, Checchia R, Gomide A, Severino D, Itri R, Baptista MS, Martins WK.

A comparison of the leaf gel extracts of Aloe ferox and Aloe vera in the topical treatment of atopic dermatitis in Balb/c mice. Inflammopharmacology. 2015 Dec;23(6):337-41. doi: 10.1007/s10787-015-0251-2.Finberg MJ, Muntingh GL, van Rensburg CE.

Aloe Vera: A Short Review, Indian J Dermatol. 2008; 53(4): 163–166.doi:  Amar Surjushe, Resham Vasani, and D G Saple10.4103/0019-5154.44785PMCID: PMC2763764

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