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Aloe vera is not the magical summertime elixir we thought it was

Meagan Morris is an entertainment and lifestyle journalist living in New York City. In addition to SheKnows, Morris contributes to many publications including The New York Times, Yahoo! News, PopEater, NBC New York and Spinner. Follow he...

Is aloe vera good for sunburns or is it summertime snake oil?

Sunburns happen.

They're something we typically want to prevent, given the skin cancer risk, but things happen — you forget, it gets washed off... etc., etc., etc.

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There's no mistaking the feeling that comes from too much time in the sun — you know, the one where your skin feels like you just got got back from a three-day vacay on the face of the sun. Remedies vary, but there's about a 99 percent chance that the first thing you grab is some aloe vera gel, either in a store-bought version or directly from an aloe vera plant.

Aloe vera has been used for centuries as a remedy for everything from sunburns to constipation — but is it backed by science or is it just another pile of "woo" that should be placed next to detoxes and cleanses on "the list of shit that doesn't work"?

"Listen, you antiscience monster: These people who sell aloe vera are stealing from you," writer Claire McNear wrote in a post on The Ringer. "As of 2004, the market for finished aloe products was worth $110 billion. The aloe barons are taking your money and building gigantic aloe palaces and not helping your sunburn at all. They are probably taking long soaks in great big hot tubs for which you helped pay. And they’re probably wearing lots of sunscreen, too, because they know nothing in their cabinets can heal sunburn."

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Can't put it anymore bluntly than that, but it might not actually be the all-out robbery McNear makes it seem. Most of the studies on the efficacy of the green gel can't really seem to come to a clear conclusion. "Oral and topical aloe vera is promoted for a variety of conditions but the evidence to support its use is not compelling," reads one study published in the British Journal of Dermatology. "Whether [aloe vera] promotes wound healing is unclear," reads another published in 1999 in the British Journal of General Practice.

Here's the thing: It might just be the products that claim to be made of aloe vera that don't really work. Acemannan polysaccharide — the active ingredient in aloe believed to help relieve pain — isn't often found in commercial aloe vera gels sold on the market. One study even showed that only a third of these products actually contain any measurable levels of the compound.

So, should you give it up? Much of the science seems to show that using pure aloe vera on minor sunburns won't do any more damage to the skin, at the very least, so it's not dangerous to try and see if it brings you relief.

Just be sure it's the real thing, not a chemical concoction.

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