It has been touted as a cure-all for everything from sunburn to hemorrhoids. There are those who call it a miracle plant, and others who say it's no more effective than water.

Aloe, or more completely Aloe vera, is one of the current buzz words in the cosmetic business, one of the "hot" ingredients in a world of natural ingredients and natural products.But about the only place it seems to be a staple is as a four-letter word for crossword puzzles.

Hardly new to the hearling profession, the early Greeks claimed the cactus-like Aloe vera plant as a medicinal product; Seminole Indians split the leaf and rubbed the juices on various injuries; East Africans have found it helpful in healing burns and bruises.

A member of the lilly family which grows in South Africa and Florida, the plant's leaves have been used as an ingredient in laxatives. And for years, the milky secretion from broken leaves has been claimed to soothe -- and even heal -- sunburn pain.

Larry Freeman of Freeman Cosmetics says his company added a line of Aloe vera skin-care products because aloe "has been proved, but not documented, to speed cell growth."

Rachel Perry, creator of the Potions Eternal line of natural skin-care products, drinks a mix of aloe and fruit juice daily for inner cleansing. She says Aloe vera is "one of the most miraculous elements of nature" and maintains that it inhibits the aging process, especially "sun-aging."

The Aloe Creme Laboratories, Inc., in Florida have been making a line of aloe products for 26 years. There are now 50 products (including Fashion Tan and After Tan), ranging in price from about $1.35 to $15. According to executive vice president Gerald DePace, they get 500 letters a month in testimony to the powers of aloe.

"Medical research can't tell you why it works, only that it does work," says DePace, who keeps crushed fresh aloe leaves in a jug of drinking water in his refrigerator -- "it makes it taste better."

But leading Washington dermatologist Naomi Kanoff, former chairman of the committee of cutaneous health and cosmetics for the American Medical Association, pooh-poohs all the Aloe vera claims.

"The extract of the plant is almost entirely water," she says.

"Its use in denuded skin, as in ulcers of the skin and in burns, was in vogue for a while. It was once part of emergency kits . . . But the only benefit one can ascribe to it is the same as the application of water. And water is a good therapeutic agent for sunburn."

Kanoff has heard all the claims and laughs. "My father told me when I was a little girl that if you had to give three reasons for something, there is no good reason."

Adds dermatologist Arthur Ugel, "It only proves what a lot of hype and publicity can do for the sales of a beauty product."

Harold Davis, a consumer safety officer in the drug branch of the Federal Drug Administration, says a major Army study in the late '50s showed that Aloe vera "was of no meaningful value."

"But like Phoenix and crab grass, Aloe vera always comes back to haunt us."