Mother Earth Living

Under the Sun

Protect yourself when you’re out in the garden.
By The Herb Companion staff
August/September 1996
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Sidebar: Sensible Sunning 

An herb garden invites the gardener to linger. There, you can find hours of pleasure, not only by sitting in a comfortable chair and enjoying the fragrances and colors and billowing shapes, but also by getting down on your knees, working the beds, planting, weeding, pruning, harvesting. Getting dirt on your hands, breathing fresh air, soaking up vitamin D, exercising every muscle in your body, feeling sunlight on your face. . . .

Intruding on this idyllic picture is a cold fact that every gardener confronts: sun on your face—or any other exposed part of your body—gives you wrinkles, makes you age before your time, gives your skin the look of old leather, and, not least of all, increases your risk of developing skin cancer, the most common form of cancer. Let’s hope that anyone who takes up serious gardening gives some thought to coping with the problem of overdosing on sunshine.

Common sense is one place to start; another is the box at right, which ­provides several guidelines for skin ­protection.

Sunburned herb gardeners can draw comfort from any number of plants growing in their gardens. Many herbs have been used for hundreds of years to soothe and cool hot skin, take the sting out of a burn, condition dry skin, and help it heal. Whether used alone or in combinations for teas, lotions, bath oils, or salves, herbs lend their healing qualities to rough, dry, end-of-the-summer skin and help mitigate the aging effects of overexposure to the sun. Here’s a look at some of the herbs most often used on skin and a simple, soothing recipe to concoct from your garden.

Above all, aloe

No herb is simpler to use or more effective in healing sunburned skin than the familiar Aloe vera. Break or cut off one of its thick leaves, split it down the middle, fold back the outer layers, then rub the thick, gooey, cool gel gently over tender, reddened skin. Relief will be instantaneous. Aloe gel prevents ­progressive skin damage, relieves pain, reduces inflammation, and dilates ­capillaries to increase blood supply to the injury and speed healing. It also inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi, and it moisturizes the skin and promotes the growth of healthy new skin cells in the bargain.

Aloe gel is readily available in pharmacies and is a component of many commercial skin preparations; how­ever, commercial creams and lotions, though easy to use, vary quite a bit in their quality and effectiveness. There is no better way to be assured of aloe’s strength and quality than to use it fresh from the plant. In the garden, grow it in a bright spot but out of direct sunlight, water it infrequently, and bring it indoors when temperatures drop below about 40°F. Even easier, grow it in a pot on the windowsill. It thrives on neglect, and you’ll always have it on hand on sunny days.

Three herbs that are grown in herb gardens across the United States have a long history of softening, soothing, protecting, and healing skin: cham­o­mile, calendula, and lavender. They are safe, gentle, effective, and easy to use.

German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and, to a lesser extent, Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) have been used for centuries as a topical treatment for inflamed and irritated skin and in cosmetics. Both of these herbs have anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal properties. The chemical component bisabolol is readily absorbed by the skin and has been shown to accelerate healing. One recent study examined chamomile’s effect on red and roughened skin damaged by ultraviolet radiation; applications of a chamomile cream over sixteen days ­resulted in faster and more thorough healing than applications of creams that did not contain chamomile.

There are a variety of ways to use the tiny daisies or the essential oil of chamomile. To make an infusion, bring 2 cups of water to a boil, remove it from the heat, and pour it over a generous handful of fresh or dried chamomile blossoms. Let this mixture stand for 10 minutes, then strain and discard the plant material. When completely cool, dab the chamomile tea onto sunburned skin with a cotton pad. You can also add a few drops of chamomile essential oil to a soothing bath, or include cham­o­mile in a gentle skin lotion, as in the recipe given below.

The bright yellow and orange flowers of calendula, or pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), are used to treat all kinds of skin problems and conditions, including cuts, bruises, open wounds, lesions, inflammation, and dry eczema, as well as sunburns and other types of burns and scalds. Safe and gentle, ­calendula is used externally for skin problems and is an ingredient in many cosmetics, lotions, salves, and first-aid creams. Extracts have been shown to have antiseptic, antifungal, and anti-­inflammatory properties and to speed healing.

The cheerful flowers of calendula are easily gathered from early summer into the fall and dried for later use in creams and lotions. (Frequent harvests also help to keep new flowers coming throughout the growing season.) You can also make an infusion of fresh or dried petals, let it cool, then soak a cotton pad in it and apply to sunburned skin.

Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is known for its delicate perfume fragrance, but herbalists are also familiar with its ­medicinal powers for a variety of conditions. A useful wound herb and skin treatment, lavender is antibacterial and antiseptic. For skin problems, it is most often used in the form of essential oil, which, as one of the most popular ­fragrance oils, is readily available. Add a few drops to a cup of water and splash it over tender sunburned or scalded skin.

We’ve combined aloe, chamomile, calendula, and lavender in a soothing skin cream that will help you pamper your skin after long days in the garden. Vary this recipe as you like; for example, for a more masculine scent, leave out the lavender oil.

Phototoxicity: Sunburn with a Difference


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