Aloe is something of a wonder plant: The insides of its spiny leaves act as a moisturizer, help repair damaged skin, calm an upset stomach, and—on the other end of the scale—act as a powerful laxative. And for those who manage to kill most houseplants, aloe's a dream; a pot will thrive on a bright patio or in a sunny window with minimal watering.
Getting the most out of an aloe plant is slightly more complicated than hacking off a leaf and plopping it onto sunburned skin. Here, seven cool insights and hacks from Koos Veel, M.D., director of operations of Aruba Aloe, the oldest aloe company in the world.
1. The leaf's insides are like buttah …
Just what makes the sticky stuff so soothing? It's largely made of long, connected sugar molecules that keep moisture in, Veel explains. "It's also full of vitamins and minerals, which help burned or damaged skin recuperate," he adds.
2. … but they also contain an irritant.
An orangy liquid runs in long vessels just under the skin of the leaf. It smells a little like chicken soup, and it's an irritant; a few drops of the stuff makes a powerful (and unpredictable) laxative, since it inflames the intestines. (Note that we don't recommend using it that way.) It can irritate skin, too, so you'll want to get rid of the stuff before applying aloe gel at home. Here's how: Chop off a leaf at the base and let it rest on the counter for a few minutes, tipped downward, so the irritant drips out. Then slice off the "seam" where the spines are, carefully slice the leaf open, and use a spoon to scoop out the gel. Voilà: pure aloe!
3. You can drink your aloe vera, too.
Just as the stuff is soothing to skin, it can coat your intestines and settle an upset stomach from the inside. Combine some fresh aloe gel (as noted above) with a little sugar or (if you're feeling frisky) booze in a blender, and drink it like a shot. "The drink has a protective effect on the stomach," Veel says. "Some people do that every day … although you shouldn't mix it with alcohol every day!"
4. The gel can help heal a sprained ankle.
Aloe's anti-inflammatory effects make it a smart natural salve for bruises, sprains, and wounds—not just burns. "To help bring down swelling, put the aloe gel in the fridge first to cool it," Veel suggests. "Then apply it to the affected area and put a bandage on top to keep it in place."
5. Which leaf you cut really matters.
New aloe leaves spring out of the plant's center, so if you cut out the inner fronds, you could kill off the plant. Leave the inner five or so alone, and cut off the outermost leaves right at the stem. In under the year, those baby fronds in the middle will become fat, gel-filled outer leaves.
6. Aloe doesn't play nice with alcohol.
Pick up a bright green bottle of after-sun gel from the drugstore, and nine times out of ten, one of the top ingredients in it will be alcohol. This is bad news, not just because alcohol is drying. "Chemically, alcohol causes the long sugar chains—the important, moisturizing part of aloe—to break down and become ineffective," Veel says. "Essentially, alcohol takes away the good effect of the aloe."
7. The fresher, the better.
Which is tastier: a fresh-picked tomato at the farmers market, or a grocery store tomato that's been carted hundreds of miles away from the field? Similarly, aloe that travels far and wide before it's incorporated into a product won't be as high quality as fresh stuff, Veel points out. "We grow and harvest our own aloe in the fields inside our cosmetic plant, and that's the best approach," says Veel (who is obviously biased). "Many companies buy aloes from faraway sources, so it has to be preserved heavily before it's put into products, which makes it less effective." Houseplant aloe is still our favorite, but if you're buying an aloe skin care product, consider finding a brand that grows its own.