Building Your Natural First-Aid Kit: Herbal Skin Healers

Scientifically backed first-aid herbs can often heal wounds and relieve pain better than pharmaceutical alternatives. Learn what to stock in your natural first-aid kit.

aloe vera gel

Aloe vera gel is nature’s perfect burn cream. Human studies show it heals minor burns more quickly than a standard pharmaceutical cream, and it’s a well-known treatment for sunburns.

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As the matriarch of an active family, I’ve learned a thing or two about taking care of minor wounds. When a loved one runs into the house bleeding or gets a cut while out hiking, it’s a scary experience. And while of course some injuries require a trip to the emergency room, when it comes to dealing with minor cuts and burns, becoming well-versed in natural remedies and wound healers can help us feel more calm and in control in those moments of chaos.

Skin-Healing Recipes

Healing Calendula and Comfrey Salve
Soothing St. John’s Wort Oil

Your Guide to Herbal First-Aid

When an injury strikes, before you do anything else, take a deep, centering breath. If you have any doubts about handling the situation on your own, call your doctor or 911 (see our two “When to Seek Medical Assistance” for more tips). The information in this article applies to minor lacerations (cuts), abrasions (scrapes) and burns.

If it’s not an emergency-room situation, your first step is to control bleeding. Cover the area with a clean bandage and apply firm, steady pressure for at least five minutes. Don’t stop to peek under the cloth.

Next, wash the wound with plain soap (not anti-bacterial soap) and plenty of water. Remove any foreign material, including splinters and road grime. If necessary, use a fine brush and tweezers. Cover the area with gauze and tape, plus an herbal salve, if desired.

Finally, turn to medicinal plants to help relieve pain and support healing. People have turned to medicinal plants for millennia for first-aid treatment. In this article, we highlight some of those traditional plants whose healing power is supported by research. Many of these plants are easy to grow in temperate climates or in pots indoors. All of them are excellent additions to your natural first-aid kit.

Aloe (Aloe vera)

Aloe is widely cultivated, but it tends to thrive in hot, sunny climates—conveniently the very places people easily sunburn. It’s little wonder that the leaf’s soothing inner gel has a long history of use to treat burns and wounds. It’s anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and analgesic. It hastens wound contraction and the creation of new skin cells and blood vessels.

Human studies show that aloe gel healed burns more quickly than a placebo cream or a standard 1 percent sulfadiazine cream. Though some studies do show reduced pain and hastened healing from surgical wounds, one study found the gel actually delayed closure of the wound. If you’re having surgery, talk to your doctor before using aloe or any other herbal product on the surgical site.

Otherwise, using this plant is simple. Unless you live in a hot, dry climate where aloe grows outdoors, I recommend keeping a potted plant inside. When needed, cut a fresh leaf, slice it open lengthwise, scoop out the gel, and apply to burned, scraped or irritated skin. Or use a commercial product containing 99 to 100 percent aloe gel. The gel penetrates the skin rapidly, providing soothing relief. Apply frequently.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

A member of the daisy family, yarrow grows easily across North America. Its long history of traditional use in wound healing is only recently undergoing research. Ethnobotanist Erin Smith calls yarrow “the first-aid herb.” “Used topically, it stops bleeding, prevents infection and heals wounds,” she says.

Research indicates that extracts of the leaves and flowers increase wound closure and also discourage microbes. Lab studies also show extracts help rejuvenate aging skin.

Smith uses yarrow flowering tops in several ways. She creates compresses, which involves making a strong tea to wash wounds. (Add 2 tablespoons dried, crumbled flowers to 4 cups boiled water. Steep 20 minutes, strain, cool and apply with a clean cloth.) She also extracts the flowers into oil, then adds beeswax to the oil to make salves (see an example salve recipe on page 55). She uses poultices made of the ground herb wetted with water and applied directly to the wound or layered between pieces of cheesecloth. For first-aid needs while out hiking, Smith makes a “spit poultice” by chewing a bit of fresh leaf or flower and applying it to a cut or scrape. Note: People allergic to ragweed (in the same plant family) may also be allergic to yarrow.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

This cheery, yellow-flowered daisy member has a strong history of use as a wound and burn healer, and lab research supports that use. In addition, human studies show that calendula ointments help heal diaper rash, prevent radiation dermatitis (skin inflammation) in people with breast cancer, and resolve leg ulcers in people with chronic venous insufficiency. A 2013 Iranian study compared aloe gel, calendula ointment and standard treatment (a topical iodine-based antibiotic) in women who had episiotomies (surgical incisions to widen the vaginal opening) during childbirth. Both aloe and calendula improved healing significantly better than standard care.

Calendula can be used in all the ways you could use yarrow: a compress, an herbal oil, a salve or a poultice.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

A European native that now grows widely in North America, comfrey has a long history of external use for wound healing. Two German studies showed that a cream containing 10 percent comfrey extract (made from the above-ground parts) produced better healing of traumatic injuries in children and teens compared with a placebo cream. In a 2014 German study, applications of a comfrey cream yielded good results in the treatment of pressure ulcers (bed sores), which are notoriously hard to treat. Topical applications also help reduce pain and tenderness of bruises, and can ease ligament sprains and muscle strains after sports injuries and accidents.

You can buy commercial comfrey salves or make your own (see recipe above). If you grow this plant (which can take over the garden), you can wrap one of its large, furry leaves (roughing it up a bit first) over a patch of irritated or injured skin. Because of a potential for liver injury, comfrey is not recommended for internal use.

Smith, who founded the Center for Integrative Botanical Studies in Boulder, Colorado, notes that this “powerful cell proliferator” should not be used on puncture wounds or other deep wounds where sealing in an infection is a potential problem. For deeper cuts, Smith says she starts with milder calendula, then switches to comfrey once it becomes clear the wound is healing without infection.

Plantain (Plantago major)

A ubiquitous “weed” (not to be confused with the banana-like plant), plantain enhances healing of burns and wounds in lab studies and is a valuable but underused herb, Smith says. “It’s antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral,” she says. “Used as a poultice, its drawing action helps with splinters and spider bites. Its anti-inflammatory and antihistamine action relieves bites and stings. And it heals mucus membrane ulcers.” She uses the leaves fresh or dried.

Herbalist (and my coauthor of Kids, Herbs, and Health) Sunny Mavor prefers to use the leaves fresh, calling them “backyard bandages.” She washes the leaves, mashes them in a mortar and pestle, (or chews them if outdoors), and applies them directly to insect bites, stings, scrapes, cuts and minor burns, holding in place with a bandage.

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)

Gotu kola is a low-growing herb native to tropical regions of Asia, Australasia, Pacific Islands, Africa and America. Extracts hasten wound healing and reduce scarring. Lab studies using external applications demonstrate increased production of collagen (a protein that gives skin its strength) from special cells called fibroblasts and increased wound closure. Taking the herb orally also increases formation of collagen, new tissue and new blood vessels.

Gotu kola may offer hope for people with abnormal wound healing. For instance, test-tube studies with human fibroblasts derived from keloids (overly exuberant scar tissue that extends beyond the wound into uninjured areas) show that gotu kola normalizes the healing process. Internal use has been shown to improve wound closure and reduce scarring in people with diabetes, an illness that impedes wound healing.

Gotu kola can be taken internally and externally. One percent creams or 2 percent powders are applied externally two to three times a day. Use by mouth should be restricted to the period of wound healing. Isolated case reports have noted evidence of liver injury associated with use beyond three weeks. Oral use is also not recommended during pregnancy and nursing.

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Though it’s more well-known as an antidepressant herb, St. John’s wort is also useful for healing wounds. Lab research and a few human studies suggest ointments made from the leaves and flowers speed healing of accidental and surgical wounds and burns. Two studies have combined St. John’s wort with neem oil, made from the seeds of the neem tree, which is native to parts of Africa, India and Southeast Asia. Creams containing St. John’s wort also improve eczema. Making an oil from St. John’s wort flowers is simple and can help heal wounds and comfort strained muscles. Find recipe and instructions at beginning of this article.

Oats (Avena spp.)

Oats are a time-honored remedy for skin irritation. Healing burns and wounds are often maddeningly itchy, yet scratching can damage fragile new skin. An Australian study of people with burns found that a bath oil containing 5 percent colloidal oats significantly reduced itching and requests for antihistamine drugs compared with the group receiving a bath product lacking oatmeal.

Colloidal oatmeal also reduces inflammation and itching associated with eczema. You can buy colloidal oatmeal products or grind oatmeal (not the instant kind) to a fine powder and add 2 cups to running bath water.

You can also cook oatmeal, let it cool and apply it to a mild burn, Smith says. Bandage it in place and rinse it off  after 30 minutes. For baths, try the oats-in-a-sock method: Pour about a cup of whole oats (not instant) into a clean sock and knot the top. Run a warm bath, toss in the sock, climb in and gently knead the oat “milk” from the sock onto irritated skin.

Tea (Camellia sinensis)

While commonly used as a beverage, tea can also be applied externally to soothe mild burns. Black and green tea come from the same plant, but are processed differently. While black tea is also traditionally used, studies have focused on green tea, which is more antioxidant. Lab studies show extracts increase the rate of wound closure (including injuries caused by burns) and hasten new blood vessel formation. In addition, green tea extracts can help protect against skin damage after exposure to ultraviolet light and may slow the growth of existing skin cancers. Topical extracts may also help control bacteria associated with acne and eczema.

To use, make a cup of green tea. Steep five minutes, strain, allow to cool and apply the liquid to mild burns with a clean cloth.

Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

Sea buckthorn oil comes from the berries of a shrub native to sea dunes and cliffs in Europe and Asia. The seed oil extract is lauded for its skin-healing properties as it contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, vitamin E and carotenoids, which guard against oxidative damage associated with burns. Oral administration of the seed oil increases tissue regeneration in lab studies. Leaf extracts may also benefit wounds.


A Note About Puncture Wounds

Teeth, claws, nails, splinters, thorns and the like make puncture wounds, in which the opening at the skin is small relative to the depth. Both herbalist Sunny Mavor and ethnobotanist Erin Smith recommend you not apply herbs that speed wound closure to puncture wounds, as this can trap bacteria under the new skin, leading to infection.


When to Seek Medical Assistance for Injuries

• You suspect the person injured his head or neck. Do not attempt to move the person. Dial 911.

• Extreme pain or deformity suggests fracture or joint injury.

• A laceration may need sutures (stitches) if: it’s more than an inch long; is deep, jagged or gapes open; it’s on the face or neck; it crosses a joint; it continues to bleed despite five minutes of steady pressure.

• Foreign material is stuck in the wound.

• A human or animal bite broke the skin.

• A puncture wound involves the eye, face, neck, chest or abdomen.

• Domestic violence caused the injury.

• Signs of infection later develop (local redness, heat, swelling, yellow discharge).

• Your tetanus shot is out of date.

• You have diabetes and the wound is not healing well.


When to Seek Medical Assistance for Burns

• A first-degree burn (redness without blisters) involves your face, throat, hands, genitals, feet or a joint.

• A second-degree burn (redness and blisters) exceeds the size of your hand.

• Any third-degree burn (involving all layers of skin) occurs.

• An infant receives a burn.

• Smoke is inhaled.


Linda B. White is a medical doctor and the author of Health Now: An Integrative Approach to Personal Health and coauthor of 500 Time-Tested Home Remedies and the Science Behind Them. Her favorite first-aid remedy is a calendula-comfrey salve.