The Healing Plant

Known for thousands of years for its rejuvenative properties, aloe is a rising star among spa treatments

July 31, 2008|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to The Sun

With her smooth, glowing complexion, Lynne Bonner Redd looks younger than her 46 years. Ask her secret, and she'll tell you it's not a nip or tuck.

It's simply aloe.

"Aloe is part of my overall health and beauty philosophy," says the Pikesville resident, who typically keeps an aloe plant handy for cuts and mild burns. She also purchases packaged aloe products at stores such as Whole Foods Market.

"I buy aloe liquid by the gallon, keep it in the fridge and drink a few ounces cold. It tastes like fizzy water," she says. "I've noticed my digestion has improved."

Various plant-based substances, such as botanical dietary supplements and herbal remedies, are a billion-dollar industry in the U.S. Aloe sales totaled $62 million last year, up from $60 million in 2006, according to Nutrition Business Journal, a Colorado-based trade publication.

Aloe is listed as an ingredient on the labels of hundreds of skin care and beauty products, including lotions, sunblocks and cosmetics. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a natural food flavoring, aloe even turns up in beverages and foods, such as aloe yogurt. The International Aloe Science Council in Silver Spring notes newer products, including aloe mattresses. Yet the plant's fabled history dates back thousands of years, long before items like aloe hand-wash lined store shelves. The ancient Egyptians illustrated aloe on stone carvings and placed the plant inside the tombs of pharaohs as burial gifts. Legend has it that Cleopatra bathed in sour milk and the "plant of immortality," as aloe has been called, to enhance her beauty.

Aloe is also mentioned in the New Testament, specifically the book of John 19:39: "And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes."

Aloe is native to Africa and known for its proliferation in places with warm climates, like Texas, India and the Caribbean, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. There are hundreds of species of the plants - flowering succulents typically characterized by thick, fleshy leaves with sharp, pointed tips and spiny edges. Aloe vera is probably the most recognized and most popular.

"Aloe has been around for centuries, and it's multifaceted," says Dr. Lisa R. Ginn, a board-certified dermatologist and licensed aesthetician at Cultura, a Washington medical spa that specializes in treating people of color.

The transparent gel that oozes from the pulp of the aloe vera leaf is used topically to treat minor wounds, mild burns and skin and scalp conditions, such as eczema and ringworm, she says.

Aloe's other uses include post-radiation skin care for cancer patients, treating frostbite and helping slow the aging process.

"Aloe has a certain antioxidant enzyme that can be very effective in the treatment of soft lines and wrinkles," Ginn says.

Aloe is also used to treat sunburns.

"One of aloe's main properties is that it's anti-inflammatory and it has an analgesic or pain-alleviating property, similar to ibuprofen or aspirin," she says. "It's soothing - cathartic - with a really high water content, so it's great for sunburn. It's like holding a blanket of water on the skin."

At spas, the humble aloe plant has taken a starring role.

The Linden Spa at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels uses aloe along with herbs and plants indigenous to the Eastern Shore.

"You just break off a piece of the leaf and apply the gel," says Jenny Ferrand, the spa's director and a licensed aesthetician and massage therapist. "It's one of my favorite products for facials and the body."

Linden Spa uses and sells Noni Gel, an aloe-based product mixed with the exotic fruit extract noni.

"We apply cool compresses with calendula, linden and chamomile," Ferrand says. "We let that sit awhile, then do a scalp and body massage. That's followed by the Noni, which is very cool to the touch. It's excellent after being out in the sun. Aloe reduces inflammation, and it has a soothing emollient texture that creates a barrier for the skin to heal and cool."

More than 1,000 miles away in the Caribbean, wild aloe plants grow on the tiny island of Aruba against a backdrop of turquoise sea and alabaster beaches. At the Radisson Aruba resort, its Larimar Spa's aloe, white rum and lime cocoon-style massage is winning awards and drawing tourists.

"Aruba aloe is very pure. It's considered the best in the world," says Bruce Cavan, director of spa services. "Aloe is one of the few things that grow abundantly on Aruba because the climate is desertlike, and the plant does not need a lot of water."

Cavan, who pronounces aloe as "aloe-a," as islanders do, says natives are known to cut a soft leaf of the plant, rinse it off and swallow it whole.

"Folklore says aloe is good for stomach problems," he says.

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