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Aloe vera is a tropical medicinal plant that has been used for thousands of years to treat skin conditions, such as wounds and burns. Aloe vera is so effective at soothing burns that it’s sometimes referred to as the “burn plant.”

There’s a fair amount of research to show that the clear gel that fills the thick leaves of an aloe vera plant can be used to help with the healing process of a sunburn.

A few older peer-reviewed studies have shown evidence that aloe vera is beneficial in healing first- to second-degree burns, which include mild to moderate sunburns.

In a more recent study, a compound in aloe called aloin was found to be responsible for the plant’s anti-inflammatory benefits. Aloe vera can also help to moisturize the skin and prevent the peeling that sometimes happens with sunburns.

To treat a sunburn, spread a layer of pure gel extracted from the inside of an aloe vera leaf over the burnt skin. You can grow your own aloe vera plants at home, or you can buy aloe vera extracts in a store or online.

Aloe vera is best used when it’s in 100 percent aloe vera gel form and when it’s kept chilled. If you have a sunburn, apply aloe vera a few times a day to the sunburnt area. If you have a severe burn, also known as sun poisoning, see a doctor before applying aloe.

You should not attempt to treat third- and fourth-degree burns or severe sunburns with aloe vera at home. These burns are considered a medical emergency and should be treated in a hospital.

Aloe vera can be used in a few different ways:

Raw from the plant

If you have access to an aloe vera plant, break off a chunk of it. You’ll see a gel emerging from the inside. Apply the gel directly to the skin for relief from a minor sunburn.

Shop for aloe vera plants.

Gel

If you can’t get your hands on a plant, look for a 100 percent aloe vera gel sold online or in a local pharmacy. Apply a layer of the gel directly to the burn.

Shop for aloe vera gel.

Lotion

Lotions containing aloe vera are available in stores and online. Avoid products that have additives like colors and perfumes. Choose a lotion with the highest percent of aloe vera possible.

However, one small 2005 study found no benefit to using a 70 percent aloe vera lotion on sunburns so it may be best to stick with the pure gel.

Shop for aloe vera lotion.

Ingesting raw aloe

You can also eat raw aloe vera gel straight from the plant. The gel may offer several health benefits, including reducing inflammation in the body, but it won’t soothe the pain and skin irritation from the sunburn.

If you choose to ingest aloe vera, make sure to wash the gel or skin thoroughly to remove all traces of latex. The latex has an unpleasant bitter taste and may cause harmful side effects.

Don’t eat aloe vera lotions and gels sold as skin care products. They aren’t meant to be ingested and may contain other ingredients that aren’t safe to eat.

Shop for aloe vera plants.

Sunburns occur when the ultraviolet (UV) radiation, either from the sun or artificial sources like tanning beds, damages the DNA inside skin cells. The cells die in a process known as apoptosis.

The rapid cell death activates the immune system to release inflammatory proteins. Blood vessels dilate to increase blood flow in order to carry immune cells to the damaged skin. This inflammatory process makes the skin turn red, irritated, and painful.

Burns, including sunburns, can be classified by their severity:

  • First-degree burn only involves the outer layer of skin and causes mild pain, redness, and swelling.
  • Second-degree burn results in damage to the deeper layers of the skin and cause blisters and white, shiny-looking skin.
  • Third-degree burn causes harm to all layers of the skin.
  • Fourth-degree burn damages the skin and may involve the joints and bones.

Third- and fourth-degree burns are medical emergencies and need to be treated in a hospital. Do not attempt to treat third- and fourth-degree burns with aloe vera at home.

To help heal a sunburn, the first step is to take a cold shower or apply a cool compress to the burned area. For pain, take an over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen or aspirin. If blisters appear, try not to pop them as this can cause an infection.

Shop for pain relievers.

You can apply a moisturizer or aloe vera gel to the burned area to keep the area moisturized and to minimize inflammation as the burn heals. Make sure to drink plenty of water as sunburns can leave you dehydrated.

Applying aloe vera gel on the skin is not likely to cause any harmful side effects, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

If you ingest aloe vera, it could lead to abdominal cramps, diarrhea, or worsening of constipation. Aloe vera is known to have a laxative effect when ingested. This can lead to electrolyte imbalances.

There’s a small chance of having an allergic reaction to aloe vera or any other ingredients used in aloe vera lotions or gels. In general, you’re at a higher risk of having an allergic reaction to aloe if you’re also allergic to garlic, onions, or tulips.

Before you cover a large area with aloe vera, do a patch test on a small, area of your skin and wait an hour or two to see if you have a reaction. If you do have an allergic reaction to the aloe vera, discontinue use right away.

Aloe vera may have several other benefits when applied to the skin or ingested. These include:

  • keeping skin clear and moisturized
  • relieving constipation (when ingested)
  • reliving heartburn (when ingested)
  • lowering blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes (when ingested)
  • as an alternative to mouthwash; when swished inside the mouth, it may block plaque and provide relief from bleeding or swollen gums
  • promoting healing of anal fissures when applied topically to the affected area
  • improving damaged, dry hair when applied to the scalp

If you’ve had a bad sunburn, applying aloe vera is a great way to promote healing and get respite from the pain and swelling.

There’s no definitive evidence from clinical studies to prove that aloe vera helps heal a sunburn, but research does show that compounds in aloe vera have an anti-inflammatory effect when applied to damaged skin.

Even if you use aloe to help with the pain and redness, you should still keep an eye out for signs of dehydration or heat exhaustion. This includes extreme thirst, no urine output, and nausea and vomiting.

Call a doctor right away if you get a fever along with your sunburn or if blisters cover a large portion of your body.

While aloe vera can help once you’ve already been burned, keep in mind that sunburns cause major damage to your skin and DNA. Preventing sunburns is still very important.

When you go outside, remember to protect your skin with sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, and clothing, and stay in the shade when possible.