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Heals burns and scalds, relieves sunburn, treats minor wounds

As a healing plant, aloe is something of a celebrity. Across America, the spiky plant sits on untold numbers of kitchen windowsills, just waiting. Waiting for what? A spattered bit of grease, a careless moment at the oven, and the inner gel of the aloe leaves gets called into service as a burn salve. Even scientists take advantage of this simple home remedy.

"To treat minor burns, scalds and cuts, I keep a potted aloe on the windowsill of my kitchen," says Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D., director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine. "Everyone should."

Most household burns and scalds, and many other minor mishaps, occur in the kitchen. With an aloe plant close by, it's easy to snip off one the thick, fleshy leaves, slit it open and squeeze the clear gel onto the injury. "Aloe gel dries into a natural bandage," Dr. Mowrey explains. "It also promotes healing and helps keep burns from becoming infected."

Aloe has a long history as a healer. Around 1500 BC, the ancient Egyptians began using aloe as a powerful laxative and a treatment for skin problems. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he learned that an island off Somalia teemed with aloes. He immediately seized it to guarantee a supply of the wound treatment for his troops, while keeping the herb from his enemies. Arab traders carried aloe from Spain to Asia around the sixth century. Traditional Indian Ayurvedic doctors and Chinese physicians quickly adopted it as a laxative and skin treatment. American pioneers used aloe gel to treat wounds, burns, hemorrhoids and rashes.

Scientific validation of aloe's wound-healing power dates from the 1930s, when radiologists noticed that aloe gel scooped straight from the cut leaves of the plant hastened the healing of x-ray burns. Since then, many studies have confirmed the herb's ability to promote healing of cuts, frostbite and first- and second-degree burns.

"Aloe contains allantoin, a substance that speeds wound healing," says Alan R. Gaby, M.D., a Baltimore physician who practices nutritional and natural medicine and is president of the American Holistic Medical Association.

One chemical in this herb — aloe-emodin — "has anti-tumor activity," according to James A. Duke, Ph.D., a botanist retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and author of The CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Aloe is not currently used to treat cancer, but one day it might be. And some derivatives of aloe are also being studies for both anti-AIDS and anti-cancer potential.

Putting the herb to work

Before applying aloe to burns of cuts, wash them thoroughly with soap and water. For minor burns, scalds, sunburns or cuts, select a lower (older) leaf, cut off several inches and slice it lengthwise. Scoop out the gel, apply it liberally to the affected area and allow it to dry. (The injured aloe lead quickly closes its own wound. Periodic leaf-snipping does not harm the plant.)

Aloe gel is safe for external use by anyone who does not develop an allergic reaction. If your skin shows signs of redness or irritation after using aloe, discontinue use. And if a burn or cut does not heal significantly within two weeks, consult a physician.

Even if you have a brown thumb, you can grow aloes. They need little water and no care other than good drainage and a temperature above 40 degrees F. They prefer sun but tolerate shade, and they don't mind poor soil. Aloes periodically produce offshoots, which may be removed and replanted when they are a few inches tall. Simply uproot or unpot the plant, work the soil gently to separate the offshoot and return the parent plant to its bed or pot.

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