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I'm on vacation and got sunburnt, so someone said I should go get Aloa Vera since that apparently helps. There seems to be a plethora of made-for-adsense-sites that claim the same.

Is there solid ground for that belief?

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Many things "stimulate the immune system." Pin pricks, knife cuts, chain saws, animal attacks, gunshot wounds... I've never heard of those curing sunburns, though. But maybe it's worth some experimentation. –  Flimzy Jul 1 '12 at 14:41
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No, Aloe Vera doesn't help prevent or heal sunburn.

I have to admit to being surprised by this. I was expecting to see a (small) effect.

This experiment involved 20 volunteers in a randomized double-blind trial, where they applied aloe vera cream (or placebo) either before, after or before and after exposure (twice daily for 3 weeks).

The results showed that the aloe vera cream has no sunburn or suntan protection and no efficacy in sunburn treatment when compared to placebo. The aloe vera cream has no bleaching effect too.

This was a review of the scientific literature that came to the same conclusion:

Topical application of A. vera is not an effective prevention for radiation-induced injuries and has no sunburn or suntan protection.

General Burns

However, there is evidence that general (e.g heat-based) burns and wounds can be helped by aloe vera.

The same paper, Feily and Namazi, also states:

It can be effective for genital herpes, psoriasis, human papiloma virus, seborrhoeic dermatitis, aphthous stomatitis, xerosis, lichen planus, frostbite, burn, wound healing and inflammation.

This also concluded that aloe vera helped with burns:

the summary weighted mean difference in healing time of the aloe vera group was 8.79 days shorter than those in the control group

The idea that aloe vera helps with regular burns but not sunburn still surprises me.


Bonus:

This essay, sometimes straying into superlatives and past what the scientific evidence supports, discusses some of the history of the research, and makes an interesting distinction between fresh aloe vera and the gels found in cosmetics.

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I don't think that the claim is that it provides protection, but that it helps to heal it after it happens, so I'm not sure that the second reference is any help. In any case, I have never used it because it was making it better but because it made it feel better in the immediate term. –  dmckee Jul 1 '12 at 13:04
    
You may, however, want to include something on the effects of A. vera on burn wound or inflammation, such as this. Even in your second reference the authors speak about efficacy for burn, wound healing and inflammation. I agree with @dmckee on the fact that these products are not generally sold as protective, but rather after-the-fact remedies. –  nico Jul 1 '12 at 13:05
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So, is a UV-burn different from a heat-burn? If so, how (aside from the cause, of course)? –  nico Jul 1 '12 at 14:50
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@dmckee perhaps it is keeping your sunburned moisturized (with aloe or non aloe lotion) is what makes it feel better. –  Sam I Am Jul 2 '12 at 2:27
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@nico: Yes! They are totally different physiologically, despite the name! A heat-burn is basically the same thing you do to meat when you cook it, except its happening to your flesh instead. A sunburn is radiation poisoning from exposure to UV radiation. The chemical changes in your skin from a heat-burn are not the same as the changes that occur from a radiation burn. Though I should point out that microwave radiation can induce thermal oscillations in water (which is how a microwave oven works), which then can cause heat-burns. The sun is a negligible source of microwave radiation, though (a –  user7774 Jul 8 '12 at 3:27
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