Most people know that you can use aloe vera to soothe sunburns. However, this versatile plant has several other medicinal properties, making it one of nature’s best herbal remedies. Its vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients make it an anti-inflammatory powerhouse. This is why you can find this plant in everything from skin and hair care products to ointments to drinks.
“You can buy large leaves in some produce sections or on Etsy,” says Grahame Hubbard, owner of Plant Specialists, a landscape design and service agency in New York City. “But what’s better than growing your own?”
Choosing and caring for your aloe vera
There are 500 species of aloe vera, but Aloe barbadensis Miller, native to the Arabian peninsula, is the most widely available and most popular one. You can buy a small plant from farmers markets or small local growers, and let it grow, or buy a large plant and divide it as it gets even bigger.
“Look for plump, fleshy leaves,” says Hubbard. “The aloe plant hasn’t been looked after if the leaves are wrinkled or limp to the touch.”
Aloe vera prefers well-draining soils to mitigate the risk of root rot and nutritional deficiencies. Choose pots with holes in the base to provide adequate drainage, and put them on a saucer to prevent a mess. Terra cotta is always a good choice, as its naturally porous surface will allow water and air to flow through it. Make sure to keep the setup lightweight so you can easily move your plants around if you need to.
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As for a growing medium, you’ll need potting mixes appropriate for cacti and succulents, as they imitate the soil conditions that these plants grow in: gritty and porous. They also help drainage, increase evaporation, and provide the adequate dry conditions your aloe needs. For optimum health, remember to replace the soil with a new mix every two to three years.
Water your aloe sparingly, moistening the top layers. Be careful not to allow water to collect in the saucer below.
Location is everything
Aloe vera needs a minimum of six hours of daily sunlight, so it’ll grow best in bright spots indoors (especially in the winter) or in a sheltered, sunny part of the garden. It can handle full sun, but it doesn’t need it. You can move the plant outside during summer, just make sure it receives the proper amount of light.
“Transition to a sunny exterior slowly,” cautions Hubbard. “Let your plant get used to a shady outdoor environment for a week after exiting your home, so they don’t burn.”
Healthy plants may produce baby plants called pups, which share part of the parent plant’s root system. To give them a life of their own, wait until they are at least a quarter of the size of the parent plant, remove both plants from their pot, and gently separate the pup’s roots from the parent’s. After you’re done, pot them separately.
Time to harvest your aloe
Aloe vera leaves are long and slightly curved with ragged edges. Inside, you’ll find a clear gel.
Use sharp, clean kitchen scissors or a knife, and cut a bottom leaf from the base of the plant. Place the cut aloe leaf into a small cup or glass, cut end down. You’ll notice a yellow sap seeping out—allow it to drain for 10 minutes before discarding it.
While not toxic in small quantities, this sap is bitter, has laxative properties, and can cause intestinal discomfort.
Once you get rid of the sap, it’s time to extract the aloe vera gel. Using a clean, sharp knife, trim the fleshy leaf’s top, bottom, and sides, then slice it horizontally, like filleting a fish. With a clean large spoon or a dull knife, gently scrape the mucilaginous gel into a container.
You’ll notice some of it may be thicker than the rest. Form a homogeneous mixture by combining the two textures, mixing by hand or with a hand blender
Once you have extracted the cooling plant’s gooey insides, you’ll want to store and preserve your fresh aloe vera gel. For this, you have a couple of options: you can store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or freeze the gel in ice cube trays and pack them into labeled plastic bags or reusable containers. Those will last for up to a year—just make sure you label them with the date before you put them back into the freezer.
If you’re planning on rubbing your aloe gel ice cubes across your skin, you can add one or two drops of tea tree oil to the gel before freezing. This essential oil is famous for its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial qualities, making it perfect for skin and wound treatment.
What to do with your newly harvested aloe vera gel
Aloe vera gel is known for its anti-inflammatory, skin protection, antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic, and wound healing properties. Here are some suggestions on how to use it.
Dermatologist Raja Sivamani uses aloe gel to treat acne on his patients, especially in those with sensitive skin. A study showed that when applied topically along a retinoid, aloe vera helped reduce redness and irritation that commonly come as a result of acne treatments.
You can add half a cup of aloe vera gel to your DIY hand sanitizer to make it gentler on your skin.
The soothing effects of aloe vera gel can also help treat seborrheic dermatitis, the condition that causes dandruff. Although further research is needed, a recent study found improvements of up to 80 percent in the symptoms associated with this condition when applied twice a day directly on the skin.
Aloe vera gel also has strong antioxidant nutrients that accelerate the collagen production process when applied to the skin.
Aloe vera’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agents help reduce the pain, swelling, and itching produced by mosquito bites. Frozen aloe ice cubes will provide instant relief.