Yesterday, I discussed the various herbal preparations for internal use (tisanes, infusions, decoctions, tinctures, etc.). Today, I wanted to follow up with the many different ways herbs can be used externally (or topically) to speed healing, reduce swelling, and in general, relieve pain, itchiness, or discomfort from sprains, bruises, insect bites and stings, wounds, and pulled ligaments. These include poultices, fomentations, ointments/salves, and more.
- Poultices: A poultice is the term for applying herbs directly to the skin. Usually, you use fresh herbs that you’ve mashed up (although powdered/dried herbs can be used too) and poured boiling water into (you pour just enough to wet the mixture). You then wrap the mixture up in a cheesecloth or muslin, and apply it directly to the affected area, then cover with a warm cloth. Good herbs for poultices are demulcents (or mucilaginous herbs that apply a protective coating to whatever they touch). Some examples of good poultice herbs are Marshmallow Root (Althaea officinalis) for bee and wasp stings, Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) for dermatitis/eczema/psoriasis, Chickweed (Stellaria media) for abscesses, boils, or otherwise inflamed skin, and Comfrey Root (Symphytum officinale) for burns and just about anything skin-related (it’s also called “knitbone” because the old-time herbal healers used it to mend broken bones).
- Fomentations: A fomentation is kind of like the inverse of a poultice. Instead of applying the herbs directly to the skin, you are applying a wet cloth or towel that has been soaked in a decoction of the herb to the skin. You can apply fomentations either hot or cold (hot for old, chronic injuries, and cold for acute ones is the general rule). When might you want to use a fomentation instead of a poultice? Well, obviously, a fomentation takes more time to prepare, since you have to decoct the herb first before soaking a cloth or towel in it. In my mind, a fomentation is slightly more effective because the decoction has already extracted the goodies out of the herb, whereas with the poultice, you’re waiting for the boiling water to percolate through the herb, pick up the goodies, and take them into the skin.
- Ointments and salves: For me, the term “ointment” is synonymous with the term “salve.” Both extract an herb’s goodies and hold them in suspension so they can be applied later in time (the poultice and fomentation are meant to be used right away). There are several ways to make ointments and salves, but in general, you can make pretty good ones using just a double boiler, some beeswax, sweet almond oil, some lanolin, and of course, the herbs you want to use. (You can also make them without lanolin, if you want). I am a lazy herbalist, so I buy my ointments and salves from other, harder-working herbalists (other than my Cinnamon lip balm, which is really just a kind of ointment/salve, when you think about it).
- Eyewashes: Some of the infusions and decoctions that you would normally drink can also be applied as eyewashes for eye infections or inflammation. For example, a decoction of Chickweed can be good for eye infections, while an infusion of Marshmallow Root can be used to bathe inflamed eyes. Another herb, Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), got its very name from its ability to heal eye irritations like conjunctivitis (pink-eye), so that would be a good candidate for an eyewash or poultice as well.
- Douches: Okay, I have to digress for a second. Growing up in an immigrant household, I had no one to ask about those Massengill commercials (“Mom…do you ever get that ‘not-so-fresh’ feeling?”), as my own Mom always answered, “I have no idea what that means” (in Mandarin). So it wasn’t until I started studying Herbalism that I figured out that they were suggesting women don’t always smell so good in our nether parts and got indignant about it – but that is a post for another time, on another blog, probably feminism-related. Well, a GOOD reason to douche is when you have some kind of vaginal irritation (such as a yeast infection or thrush, for example), and you can also apply herbs that way, too (as an example, you can make a douche with yogurt and slippery elm powder for vaginal thrush).
I am working on an e-book on basic recipes for these topical herbal preparations as well, so if you’re interested in receiving it for FREE when it’s finished, please sign up for my newsletter in the right-hand sidebar or by clicking here. You’ll also automatically get free access to any future e-books I write, so it’s definitely worth doing!