The most well known species of aloe is aloe vera. The aloe plant is common in many countries.
What aloe is
The aloe plant is from the lily family. It is originally from West Africa but is now a common household plant in many countries. The most well known species of aloe is aloe vera.
There is no scientific evidence to prove that aloe can treat any type of cancer. In fact, aloe may cause severe side effects when used as a cancer treatment.
It has cactus like fleshy leaves. They contain a thin clear gel that people often use to soothe minor skin problems, such as:
- superficial burns
Aloe vera gel has softening properties. So it is used in many skin and beauty products such as cleansers, moisturisers and soaps. The gel can also be made into juice to drink.
An extract taken from inside the outer lining of the leaves is called aloe latex. It can be dried into brownish granules. These contain a substance that can help to treat constipation.
Why people with cancer use aloe vera
People mainly use aloe vera for skin conditions. There is some evidence to support its use for minor skin problems and burns.
Some people with cancer use aloe vera to help heal and soothe burns caused by their radiotherapy treatment. Some specialist nurses, radiotherapy doctors and radiographers also recommend its use.
In many countries, including the UK, aloe products are available as dietary supplements. Some are sold as treatment for constipation. Germany's regulatory agency for herbs (Commission E) has approved aloe for treating constipation.
More rarely, people use aloe as an injection, capsule or drink to try and treat their cancer. We do not recommend that you replace your conventional cancer treatment such as cancer drugs or radiotherapy with aloe vera.
How aloe is used
Aloe vera can be squeezed from the plant leaves and put straight onto your skin to help heal minor cuts, scrapes and burns. Some people have an aloe vera plant in their home to use in this way. You can also buy it in health food shops and chemists as a gel or cream.
Aloe products such as aloe latex and aloe juice as a liquid or capsules help treat constipation. They can work well for some people but you should never take more than the recommended dose.
A product called T-UP is made of concentrated aloe. Some people promote T-UP as an alternative cancer therapy that you can drink or inject into a tumour or bloodstream.
T-UP injections have caused death in several patients with cancer. They are illegal in the USA and are not available in the UK.
Always let your doctor know about any complementary therapies or supplements that you use.
Possible side effects of aloe
Using aloe vera on the skin to help treat and soothe minor skin problems works well and is generally very safe.
Swallowing aloe vera as a liquid or capsules causes side effects for some people. They are usually mild but might cause more of a problem for some people. Side effects might include:
- feeling and being sick
- a skin rash
- stomach pain
There are a few reports of serious problems such as liver inflammation (hepatitis) and blood clotting problems. One woman having treatment for breast cancer reported low blood potassium levels.
Aloe products can be powerful laxatives. There are some reports of serious body chemical imbalance after severe diarrhoea. These side effects are more likely to occur if you take very high doses.
Aloe vera might interact with other drugs or herbs so make sure you talk to your doctor before you begin having it.
There is some evidence that aloe might affect the thyroid gland. We need more research to confirm this. Symptoms of thyroid problems include unexplained tiredness, feeling uncomfortable and feeling the cold more.
Aloe vera injections can cause very serious side effects. The aloe injection T-UP has caused several deaths when used as a cancer treatment. We do not recommend you have aloe vera as an injection.
Research into aloe for cancer
Some people claim that aloe vera can balance the immune system or even treat and cure cancer. But there is currently no evidence that aloe can treat cancer in humans.
Some laboratory studies and early studies on animals seem to show that extracts from aloe may be helpful in boosting the immune system to attack cancer cells. But the safety of these chemicals has not been tested in humans and we don't know whether they may work.
One study looking at an aloe extract called aloe emodin has suggested that it can block the growth of head and neck and liver cancer cells in test tubes.
Acemannan is a substance taken from the aloe vera leaf. It can stimulate mouse immune cells to make cancer killing chemicals (cytokines). One test tube study has shown that a starch compound found in aloe juice (aloeride) can stimulate the immune system to produce cancer killing chemicals.
Another compound made from aloe vera, di 2-ethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP), has been found to stop the development of leukaemia cells in test tubes.
Early studies of aloe substances in laboratory animals seem to suggest that some of the chemicals found in aloe may have helpful effects on the immune system and can shrink some cancers.
Two studies published in 2010 looked into the effects of aloe on skin cancer in mice. In one study, aloe products applied to the skin and taken by mouth reduced the number of skin cancers. But in the other, certain aloe products increased the number of skin cancers caused by ultraviolet light - especially in female mice.
An Italian study in 2009 tested aloe vera arborescens alongside chemotherapy for people with lung cancer, bowel cancer and stomach cancer that had spread.
The cancer was controlled or shrank for a time in 50% of the participants who had chemotherapy alone, and 67% in those who had aloe as well. The researchers said the people who had aloe vera had a better quality of life and had fewer chemotherapy side effects such as numb fingers and fatigue. The researchers also said that there were no ill effects from the aloe vera.
This research seems positive but the researchers had some concerns about the study. The researchers knew which people were receiving aloe vera and they may have influenced the results. The study also involved patients who were quite ill with metastatic cancer. It is not clear how well aloe vera would work in patients with earlier stage cancer.
The researchers recommend further research to confirm or disprove these findings.
A US company produced an aloe vera product called T-UP which you drink or inject into your bloodstream. Some people promote it as an alternative cancer cure.
No clinical trials have proved that this product can help treat or cure cancer. It is illegal to inject aloe vera in the USA.
Injecting aloe can cause serious side effects and some people have died from it. The injection is not available in the UK or USA but some clinics in other countries use it.
Before having aloe
Check with your doctor before you start using aloe so they have the full picture about your care and treatment.
In Europe it is important to buy products that are registered under the Traditional Herbal Remedies (THR) scheme. Remedies that are registered under the scheme have a THR mark and symbol on the packaging. THR products have been tested for quality and safety.
The cost of aloe products
Many aloe vera products are available to buy in health food shops, chemists and over the internet. Generally the products aren’t very expensive, but prices can vary if you buy online.
The amount of aloe vera in each product can vary too. Some may not contain the amount stated on the label.
The cost will depend on:
- where you buy it (health food shops, chemist or online)
- what form you buy it in (cream, gel, liquid)
- the dosage and amount you buy