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For thousands of years, people have used the gel from aloe vera leaves for healing and softening the skin. Aloe has also long been a folk treatment for constipation.

Why do people use aloe vera?

Research backs up the ancient use of topical aloe vera as a skin treatment, at least for specific conditions. Studies have shown that aloe gel might be effective in treating psoriasis, seborrhea, dandruff, and minor burns and skin abrasions, as well as radiation-induced skin injuries. Aloe gel also seems helpful in treating the sores caused by genital herpes in men.

There’s also strong evidence that aloe juice (also called latex) taken by mouth is a powerful laxative. In fact, aloe juice was once sold in over-the-counter constipation drugs. But because aloe’s safety was not well-established, the FDA required that aloe be removed from all medications in 2002.

Other uses of oral and topical aloe vera have been studied, ranging from cancer prevention to diabetes to easing the side effects of radiation therapy. For example, aloe vera gel taken orally seems to help people with diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels. It may also help to lower cholesterol. The results for other medical conditions have been less clear.

How much aloe vera should you use?

Creams and gels with aloe vera vary in dosage. Some creams for minor burns have just 0.5% aloe vera. Others used for psoriasis may contain as much as 70% aloe vera. As an oral supplement, aloe has no set dose. For constipation, some use 100-200 milligrams of aloe juice -- or 50 milligrams of aloe extract -- daily as needed. For diabetes, 1 tablespoon of the gel has been used daily. High oral doses of aloe or aloe latex are dangerous. Ask your doctor for advice on how to use aloe.

Can you get aloe vera naturally from foods?

There are no food sources of aloe vera.

What are the risks of using aloe vera?

  • Side effects. Topical aloe vera might cause skin irritation. Oral aloe, which has a laxative effect, can cause cramping and diarrhea. This may cause electrolyte imbalances in the blood of people who ingest aloe for more than a few days. It can also stain the colon, thus making it difficult to visualize the colon during a colonoscopy. So avoid it for a month prior. Aloe gel, for topical or oral use, should be free of athroquinones (primarily the compound aloin). These are the compounds that can be irritating to the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Risks. Do not apply topical aloe vera to deep cuts or severe burns. People allergic to garlic, onions, and tulips are more likely to be allergic to aloe. High doses of oral aloe are dangerous. Long-term use may increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Don’t take oral aloe if you have intestinal problems, heart disease, hemorrhoids, kidney problems, diabetes, or electrolyte imbalances.
  • Interactions. If you take any drugs regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using aloe supplements. They could interact with medicines and supplements like diabetes drugs, heart drugs, laxatives, steroids, and licorice root.

Given the lack of evidence about its safety, aloe vera supplements should not be used by children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

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