Aloe vera, asses’ milk and an asp: Cleopatra’s hacks for a beautiful life and painful death

By Austin Bailey

Last Updated: August 23, 2019

Aloe vera, asses’ milk and an asp: Cleopatra’s hacks for a beautiful life and painful death

In This Article

  • People have been using aloe vera for cosmetic and medicinal purposes for more than 5,000 years.
  • The gel from aloe leaves soothes sunburn, psoriasis and other skin conditions.
  • The side effects of ingesting aloe vera are still unknown, but external use is safe and effective.
  • It's easy to grow your own aloe vera plant.
Aloe grows on a windowsill.
Aloe vera is easy to grow at home. photo from Unsplash

Famous through the ages for looks that turned the heads of two Roman conquerors, Cleopatra remains a beauty icon to this day. Master of the smoky eye and reputed pioneer of salt scrubs and clay masks, Cleopatra rubbed aloe vera gel on her skin every day to keep it soft and smooth. Her knack with natural ingredients persisted until the end, when she reportedly killed herself with the bite of an asp.

While her extensive beauty regimen is out of reach for most of us, keeping some aloe around is easy to do. And it’s way more practical than daily baths in the milk of 700 donkeys.

Since its debut on the health and beauty stage more than 5,000 years ago, aloe vera has been used as medicine, skincare and even food. The colorless gel inside aloe leaves has been proven to have antiseptic, pain relief and anti-inflammatory benefits. If you’ve ever smoothed aloe vera gel over a sunburn, you know all about this already.

The gel also contains salicylic acid, a common ingredient in acne cleansers and treatments. Some dermatologists recommend topical use of aloe for burns, abrasions, acne, dry skin, cold sores and psoriasis. It has plenty of non-medicinal uses too. It’s a popular ingredient in homemade hair conditioning treatments and DIY makeup removers.

There are about 400 species of aloe, and many of them are more or less the same as far as soothing and moisturizing properties go. One theory posits that aloe vera, a species that originated on the Arabian peninsula, grew wild along the Silk Road trade route. Traders could easily harvest and sell it, so that’s why it was this particular aloe that came into common use.

Now, aloe is virtually everywhere. You can buy aloe vera pills and aloe vera juice made from aloe gel mixed with water. But should you? Proponents say ingesting aloe gel can improve bowel health and help control diabetes. Unfortunately, consuming aloe vera has been linked to liver disease and even cancer, so it’s probably best for external use only.

Aloe latex, a yellow substance extracted from a thin layer between the clear gel and the skin of the aloe leaves, has a strong laxative effect. It was a key ingredient in over-the-counter laxatives until 2002, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulled those products from the market because of a lack of research proving they were safe.

Verdict: it’s probably best to avoid ingesting aloe vera products, but there’s no harm in smoothing this age-old remedy on irritated skin and dry hair. 

You don't need much room to grow aloe vera, it likes cramped pots.


Aloe vera makes a great houseplant because it prefers dry conditions, so you can forget to water it for long stretches. The plants are available at nurseries and big box home stores, or you could propagate your own by raiding a friend’s or neighbor’s plant and harvesting the small shoots that grow out around the mature leaves. You can also take a 3-inch cutting from the pointy tip of a leaf and put it in potting mix.

  1. Plant aloe vera in a mix of sand and potting soil in a pot with large holes at the bottom so any excess water can drain.
  2. Put your aloe in a sunny spot and water it once every week or two. But not too much! If the leaves start turning brown, cut back on your watering.
  3. When you’re read to harvest the gel, cut off a leaf and rub the juicy end on your skin. You can extract more gel by splitting the leaf spike in half longways and scooping out the innards with a spoon.