Aloe vera is one of the most popular home remedies throughout the Americas. While it used to be a folk medicine, large corporations have begun adding the plant to sunscreen, skin creams, and even cosmetics, and other personal care items.
Nowadays, it’s not surprising to see a bottle of aloe vera gel at your local pharmacy. But a recent Bloomberg article found that these products might not contain what they’re advertising.
Using a credited anonymous lab, Bloomberg reporters examined 4 products from national retailers Wal-Mart, Target, and CVS. They found that although the products all listed aloe barbadensis (aloe vera) leaf juice as the first or second ingredient, there was no evidence that the products actually contained the plant (1).
Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve cosmetics before they’re sold, instead, they rely on an honor system that isn’t always respected. Hence, companies don’t face repercussions if the label doesn’t match the product.
This means that while your cosmetics may say “organic”, “all-natural”, or “contains aloe”, this isn’t necessarily the truth.
The Case Of Aloe Vera
Demand for aloe Vera products, including drinks and vitamins, has grown 11 percent in the past year. It now represents a 146 million dollar a year industry, Bloomberg reports.
Using nuclear magnetic resonance, the extensive study concluded that none of the samples tested contained aloe vera. They did, however, contain various emulsifiers and other additives.
Here are the specific items that were examined:
- Wal-Mart’s Equate Aloe After Sun Gel with pure aloe vera
- Target’s Up & Up Aloe Vera Gel with pure aloe vera
- CVS Aftersun Aloe Vera Moisturizing Gel
- Walgreens Alcohol-Free Aloe Vera Body Gel
Three chemical markers naturally present in Aloe, acemannan, malic acid and glucose, were absent in the Wal-Mart, Target and CVS products. Instead, they all tested positive for maltodextrin, a modified sugar used for its inexpensive cost and similarity in texture to true aloe.
What’s more, none of the samples contained lactic acid, a key component in all processed aloe vera.
Another gel tested, which was purchased at Walgreens, contains malic acid, but did not contain the other chemical markers. Ken Jones, an independent industry consultant based in Chapala, Mexico explained that the product’s aloe content could neither be confirmed nor denied by the test results alone.
“You have to be very careful when you select and use aloe products,” said Tod Cooperman, president of White Plains, New York-based ConsumerLab.com, which has done aloe testing but was not involved in the study.
Fake Aloe Vera Gel
Fruit of the Earth is the aloe brand that’s behind Wal-Mart, Target and Walgreens’ privately-label products. They insist that the aloe in their products are sourced from Ormond Beach, a Florida-based Concentrated Aloe Corp that sells fair trade, organic aloe from Guatemala.
“We’ve been in the business a long time and we know where the raw ingredients come from,’’ John Dondrea, Fruit of the Earth’s general counsel, said to Bloomberg in a telephone interview. “We stand behind our products.’’
Tim Meadows, president of Concentrated Aloe Corp., also criticized the study. He argued that that “nuclear magnetic resonance isn’t reliable for cosmetics because the presence of multiple ingredients can cause interference and there’s no way to test for
He argued that that “nuclear magnetic resonance isn’t reliable for cosmetics because the presence of multiple ingredients can cause interference and there’s no way to test for aloe in finished products.” He went on to defend the use of maltodextrin, insisting that it’s often added to aloe gel during the drying process, as well as explain that some of the processing required to made aloe gel removes acemannan.
The trouble is, acemannan is actually one of the compounds behind aloe’s many health benefits and can account for as much as 15 percent of aloe’s makeup.
“Acemannan has been misinterpreted,’’ Meadows said. “The cosmetics industry requires highly processed aloe. How that affects acemannan is anybody’s guess.’’
However, James Neal-Kababick, director of Flora Research Labs in Grants Pass, Oregon, Jones, said that his review of the test found no evidence of aloe or interfering substances. While nuclear magnetic resonance isn’t a test that’s designed to study aloe vera in cosmetics, Neal-Kababick argues that it had the ability to correctly identify the presence of these substances in other products.
The supplier behind the CVS aloe gel, Product Quest Manufacturing LLC. , denied to comment. Additionally, all four companies declined Fortune’s request for comment (2).
Several law firms around the country have since filed class-action lawsuits against the retailers.
“No reasonable person would have purchased or used the products if they knew the products did not contain any aloe vera,’’ attorneys wrote in a complaint filed in September in Illinois on behalf of plaintiffs represented by 10 law firms.
Curious about the results, ConsumerLab.com followed suit and independently tested a dozen aloe products. They also found that Fruit of the Earth brand Aloe Vera 100% Gel contained no evidence of aloe, while Aubrey Organics’ aloe products did. What’s more, they found that only half of the products that claimed to contain aloe actually did.
The Rise Of Fake Aloe
According to the International Aloe Science Council, which was created in the 1980s to fight the rise of fake aloe products, maltodextrin is a food additive used as a filler to mimic the appearance of aloe.
Jeff Barrie, a sales manager at AloeCorp, one of the biggest suppliers of raw aloe powder, said it’s a rising problem. He told Bloomberg that he’s “seen competitors beat his lowest prices by half”. When aloe can cost up to $240 a kilogram and maltodextrin can cost a few dollars, it’s no surprise that many sellers are turning to the later to make a profit.
According to Barrie, it takes 400 kilos of hand-harvested leaves to create one kilo of aloe powder, making it an expensive ingredient to use.
With all the stories of cosmetic companies selling mislabeled or even dangerous products, maybe it’s time to just buy an aloe plant and use as needed instead of picking up a dubious product at the pharmacy.
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