Peruse the aisles of any drugstore and it’s clear that athlete’s foot, hemorrhoids and aching backs are big business. Throughout the centuries, people have experimented with a variety of remedies to soothe these kinds of irritating health problems. As it turns out, numerous plants contain healing compounds that provide exactly the relief needed. In fact, many of these remedies work so well that a significant number of over-the-counter topical drugs rely on medicinal herbs for their pain-relieving, healing and soothing effects. For example, some sunburn lotions contain aloe to cool and heal the skin; creams to relieve arthritis pain often depend on capsaicin from cayenne peppers; and salves for healing and preventing diaper rash commonly include allantoin, the active compound found in comfrey.
You’ll find here some of the most effective herbs for topical use. All have a long history of use for healing — some dating back to the dawn of civilization. In addition, many of these herbs are gaining the support of science because of research studies that support the herbs’ traditional uses.
Aloe (Aloe vera)
The succulent aloe plant has been used for thousands of years to treat wounds, burns, eczema and psoriasis. Some researchers believe that the polysaccharides (large complex sugar molecules) in aloe are responsible for the plant’s anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. Easy to grow indoors, an aloe plant is a valuable herbal ally.
Burns, wounds, eczema, psoriasis: Remove an outer leaf from the plant, slice it lengthwise, and apply the clear thick gel inside the leaf to the skin two to three times daily.
Calendula salve is easy to make, but it requires advance planning because you first need to infuse the calendula flowers in oil and let them steep for at least one week.
1/4 cup dried calendula flowers
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 cup grated beeswax
40 drops lavender essential oil
To make the infused oil, put calendula flowers into a pint-size canning jar. Add the olive oil and stir well. Cover the jar with a lid and place the jar in a sunny window. When the oil turns a deep golden yellow (this generally takes one to two weeks), strain the oil through several layers of cheesecloth to remove the flowers.
To make calendula salve, combine the calendula oil with the grated beeswax in a small, heavy saucepan. Heat gently until the beeswax is melted. Add lavender essential oil. Pour the mixture into wide-mouth glass jars. Let the salve cool, and cover with a lid. When stored in a cool, dark place, calendula salve will stay fresh for approximately one year.
Arnica (Arnica montana)
Arnica is most commonly used for bruises, sprains, strains and sore muscles, and is an excellent addition to a first-aid kit. The flowers contain anti-inflammatory and circulation-stimulating compounds. Because arnica is potentially toxic if taken internally, it never should be used on broken skin.
Bruises, sprains, strains, sore muscles: Apply arnica salve or oil as soon as possible to the affected area; repeat the application two to three times daily until the pain and swelling subside. Discontinue use if irritation occurs.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
A close relative of the common marigold, calendula has a wide range of anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and wound-healing properties. Research supports the healing potential of calendula, including a recent study that indicates calendula can help heal venous leg ulcers, a slow-healing wound that is caused by poor circulation. Use calendula salve for skin rashes (including diaper rash), minor cuts and burns, and chapped lips. The antimicrobial properties of calendula also make it helpful for athlete’s foot.
Minor wounds, burns, bruises, chapped lips: Apply calendula salve two to three times daily.
Diaper rash: Apply calendula salve after every diaper change.
Athlete’s foot: Steep 1/4 cup calendula flowers in 1 quart water for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid into a shallow basin large enough to hold both feet. Add 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar (vinegar increases skin acidity, which inhibits fungal growth) and warm water to cover the feet, and soak for 15 minutes. For a stronger antifungal effect, add 10 drops of tea tree essential oil to the footbath. Repeat twice daily.
Cayenne (Capsicum annuum)
Spicy hot cayenne peppers contain capsaicin, a compound that is a potent pain reliever for neuralgia (nerve pain), arthritis and muscle soreness. When applied topically, capsaicin stimulates nerve cells to release substance P, a neurotransmitter that delivers pain messages to the nervous system. By depleting the nerve cells’ supply of substance P, capsaicin helps to temporarily relieve pain.
Arthritis, neuralgia, sore muscles: Apply cayenne salve, oil or a capsaicin cream three to four times daily to the affected area. For continuous pain relief, apply the salve, oil or cream every few hours to maintain the depletion of substance P. Mild burning and redness commonly occur as an initial side effect, but this usually disappears with repeated application. Be careful not to touch your eyes and other sensitive areas after use.
Making your own cayenne oil is simple. Gently warm 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil and stir in 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper until the cayenne is thoroughly dissolved. Let cool, and pour into a tightly capped bottle.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Chamomile flowers are rich in compounds, including bisabolol (which calms inflammation and combats bacteria) and apigenin (an antioxidant that shields skin from free radicals and helps the skin repair damaged cells). Chamomile is used widely for a variety of topical applications, including sunburn, gingivitis and venous leg ulcers.
Skin irritation and sunburn: Make a strong tea of chamomile. Chill it in the refrigerator, and apply with a spray bottle to the skin. Alternatively, soak in a cool bath with 1 quart of strong chamomile tea added.
Gingivitis: Use chamomile tea as a mouth rinse after meals.
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Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
Comfrey leaves and roots are rich in allantoin, a compound that stimulates the creation of healthy new skin cells and helps calm inflammation. Allantoin is a common ingredient in a variety of over-the-counter skin soothers for dry skin, sunburn and minor cuts. Because comfrey speeds the repair of damaged tissue, midwives and herbalists often recommend an herbal sitz bath made with comfrey tea to help heal vaginal tissue following childbirth. Note: Comfrey is for external use only.
Cuts and scrapes: Apply a comfrey salve to minor cuts and wounds daily to promote healing. Avoid using comfrey on deep wounds to prevent rapid surface healing, which potentially can create an abscess.
Post-partum sitz bath: Steep 1/4 cup of dried comfrey leaf in 1 quart of just-boiled water for 20 minutes. Strain, and add to a warm sitz bath. Soak for 15 to 20 minutes twice daily.
Plantain (Plantago major, Plantago lanceolata)
Plantain is one of the most common weeds in the world. Its leaves have astringent, soothing properties and encourage wound healing. Often included in skin-healing salves, the crushed fresh leaves also are a useful first-aid remedy and generally are readily available — plantain grows in back yards, open fields and even in sidewalk cracks.
Insect bites and stings: To alleviate pain and inflammation, crush or shred plantain leaves. Rub the juice onto the affected area for several minutes.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Although St. John’s wort is known primarily as an herbal remedy for relieving mild to moderate depression, the plant also has been used for centuries to treat wounds, burns, bruises, varicose veins and nerve-related pain, such as sciatica. Recent scientific studies are verifying the anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties of St. John’s wort. In a 2003 study reported in the journal Phytomedicine, researchers found that a cream containing St. John’s wort was significantly more effective than a placebo in relieving atopic dermatitis.
Burns, wounds, bruises, varicose veins, sciatica: Apply an oil, cream or salve of St. John’s wort flowers two to three times daily.
COOLING WITCH HAZEL SPRAY
Adding lavender essential oil to distilled witch hazel makes a soothing skin spray for skin irritation and insect bites.
4 ounces witch hazel extract
20 drops lavender essential oil
Combine ingredients in a small bottle. Shake well and spray onto insect bites, irritated skin, sunburn or eczema.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Witch hazel has been a popular and inexpensive home remedy for insect bites, sunburn and hemorrhoids for more than a century. Rich in tannins and volatile oils, witch hazel calms inflammation and reduces swelling. Witch hazel also has antimicrobial properties, which makes it helpful for more serious skin problems. In a 2002 German study, researchers found that a 90 percent distilled witch hazel extract demonstrated significant antimicrobial activity when applied to the skin.
Insect bites, minor skin irritations: To cool and soothe the itching of insect bites and irritated skin, apply distilled witch hazel extract to the skin with cotton balls or a spray bottle.
Hemorrhoids and varicose veins: Ease the pain of hemorrhoids and varicose veins and shrink swollen tissues by applying chilled witch hazel compresses several times daily to the affected area.
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 1001 Natural Remedies (DK, 2003) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).