For a lot of people, aloe vera is a must-have in the medicine cabinet. After all, it feels pretty amazing on the skin after too much sun exposure. But according to a new study, the store brands of aloe vera gel from Wal-Mart, Target, and CVS didn’t show any trace of the actual aloe vera plant during lab tests—even though they all listed it as the first or second ingredient (after water) on the ingredients label.
The four gels tested? 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, and Walgreens Alcohol Free Aloe Vera Body Gel.
Researchers from a lab hired by Bloomberg News arrived at this conclusion after testing the products for three certain chemical markers that indicate aloe: acemannan, malic acid, and glucose. They were absent from the tests for store-brand aloe vera gel from all three retailers. A fourth, Walgreens, showed only one of the two markers, which means that whether aloe is present or not is inconclusive.
Instead of aloe, the store-brand versions of the gel from the three retailers seem to use a cheap sugar called maltodextrin that’s sometimes used to imitate aloe, according to Bloomberg. Spokespeople for Wal-Mart, CVS, and Walgreens said that suppliers confirmed products were authentic. Texas-based Fruit of the Earth, which makes the gels for Wal-Mart, Target, and Walgreens, says its aloe came from the Ormond Beach, Florida company Concentrated Aloe Corp., who in turn says it uses “fair-trade, organic aloe that’s farmed and processed in Guatemala.” CVS’s supplier is Product Quest Manufacturing, and they didn’t comment or share the name of their supplier.
Meanwhile, Concentrated Aloe CEO Tim Meadows disputes the findings. He says that the test the lab used isn’t reliable and also says there’s no conclusive way to test for aloe: the marker acemannan can be removed during processing and maltodextrin might have been used in the drying process. However, the consultant who reviewed the lab results, James Neal Kababick, director of Floral Research Labs, stands by the results.
Either way, it’s tricky to really be sure. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t perform any oversight on aloe vera products, which mean they go pretty unregulated onto store shelves—which, as Bloomberg points out, puts “sellers on an honors system.” For those who want an absolute guarantee that what they see is what they get, the best method might be the most old school: an actual aloe plant around the house will keep the soothing succulent on demand.