Mother Earth Living

Give the Gift of Relaxation with Herbal Bath Blends

By Tina Marie Wilcox and Susan Belsinger
October/November 2005
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You can pamper your loved ones year-round by creating these personalized, high-quality bath soaks and salts.

As the holidays approach it’s easy to be pulled into the consumption stream. But do we really want to fight traffic and swim through the multitudes in the malls? Must we? Suppose instead that we focus on tranquility with gifts of herbal bath blends to impart a message of love and peace to the folks on our gift lists.

The ingredients can be homegrown or of a high quality from vendors near home. These are gifts we can make from imagination and wisdom, laced through and through with intimate knowledge of our friends and family members. Part of the fun can be inventive packaging that’s appropriate to the product and the person. Always include instructions for use.

FIRST, A WORD OF CAUTION

Because each individual may react differently, be sure to include the instruction to do a patch test on the skin before using the product, especially if you or your loved one has not used this particular blend before. Advise your gift’s recipient to apply a small amount of the product, dissolved in a little water if it’s solid, on the inner part of the elbow and wait a few hours to see if any redness or itching develops. Many essential oils are not safe for use by pregnant or nursing women. Do your research carefully if you are giving herbal gifts to an expectant mother or others who may be at risk of an adverse reaction.

GET CALM WITH HERBAL BATH THERAPY

An aromatic bath or foot soak is one of the simplest and most pleasurable forms of herbal therapy. Just the thought of soaking in hot water is relaxing, but when you add herbs or essential oils, the experience becomes a sensory treat that can soothe, rejuvenate or stimulate. We’ll discuss how to use dried herbs and flowers on their own and in combination with essential oils (be sure to use pure, natural essential oils, not fragrance oils that are synthetically produced), salts and other oils for the bath and shower. You can create your own scents or use our recipes as a guide. These aromatic preparations can be packaged and presented in pretty bottles or containers. They can be combined with other spa items such as a nail brush, sisal washcloth or luffa, bath brush, cotton washcloth or towel, potpourri or whatever you dream up, and packed into a nice basket or box for a total pampering experience.

LUXURIOUS BATHS IN A BAG

For gifts that are simple to create, we use dried herbs, flowers, seeds and citrus peel to make bath blends and tie them up in pieces of muslin or cheesecloth. The small muslin bags used for bouquet garni and tea blends are ideal for this, since they can be emptied, washed and dried, and used again. We often package herb bath blends in a jar, tie on a filled bag, and write instructions on the label as to how much to use and how to recycle the cloth bags. We also have used the paper tea bags that you fill and iron to seal closed, and we put a dozen or so of them in a jar — all your recipient has to do is drop one or two of them in a tub of hot water.

Some favorite combinations are lavender leaves and flowers with a few rose petals; lemon herbs and/or anise leaves with fennel or coriander seeds; rose geranium with orange or grapefruit peel; and chamomile with lemon peel or lemon herbs. We find lemon balm to be an excellent sleepy-time bath herb, while mint and rosemary are stimulating.

Include directions so there is no question how to use your homemade gift. “Place the bag in the tub or hang it from the faucet as you draw your bath.” Susan usually advises her recipients to add a few drops of almond or sesame oil, not more than a teaspoon, to the water. It softens and lubricates the skin and it captures the scent of the bath herbs so that it lingers on your skin.

SOOTHE THE SOUL WITH BATH AND MASSAGE OILS

Because essential oils are concentrated and very strong, they should be added to carrier oils before adding them to the tub or applying on the skin. Most essential oils should not be applied directly to the skin.

We generally use organic, cold-pressed oils such as almond, grapeseed, jojoba or sesame as carrier oils and buy them in small amounts so they are fresh. Usually we blend two or three, sometimes four, different essential oils together when making blends for the bath or massage. We use 20 to 24 drops of essential oil to 2 ounces (about 4 tablespoons or 1/4 cup) of carrier oil for bath blends, less for massage oils. You can use more essential oil in a bath blend because it will be extremely diluted in a tub of hot water.

We use bath oils for cold symptoms (this works well for children), muscle aches, to soothe and relax, or to renew and stimulate. A blend we frequently use for colds and flu is eucalyptus and lavender, with a drop or two of tea tree and one drop of peppermint, lemon or sweet orange. Susan mixes up a special blend that she calls Bliss Blend that contains lavender, clary sage, cedarwood and a drop or two of chamomile, which she finds blissful at the end of a long day. For relaxation, we use lavender, a little chamomile or ylang ylang and a drop or two of cedar or exotic sandalwood.

For massage oil, we use a much smaller amount of essential oil because we don’t want to overwhelm the person being massaged. Start with 6 to 10 drops in 2 ounces of carrier oil, cap it and shake it up, and then rub a tiny bit on the back of your hand and sniff to see if you want to add more essential oil. The act of massage is relaxing, and you can use oils to soothe, but you can also make blends that are warming or sensual. Find out if your recipient has a favorite scent and then use it as the basis of a special blend for them. A very pleasant blend is lavender, sandalwood and one drop of patchouli. We also like ylang ylang, neroli or jasmine, which are fragrant and sensual, combined with a little clary sage or cedarwood for balance. Go lightly at first: You can always add a few more drops of essential oil.

REVITALIZE WITH SUBLIME SALTS

Epsom salts are a good soaking aid for relieving muscle fatigue and drawing out toxins. Milk powder makes the skin soft and silky; but it isn’t absolutely necessary. Once prepared, these salts might seem strong, but remember your recipient will be using a small amount in a tubful of hot water, so the aromas will dissipate. Put 3 to 4 tablespoons into the tub toward the end of drawing your bath and stir with your hand. Relax and indulge yourself.

The following recipe makes one 8-ounce jar and easily can be multiplied to make large quantities for gift-giving.

Scant 1 cup Epsom salts
8 to 10 drops essential oil
2 tablespoons milk powder

Put salts in a glass or nonreactive bowl and sprinkle essential oil over. Use a spoon or your hands to stir it and work it around. Add milk powder and blend well. Pour the mixture into a jar, cover with a lid and label with the ingredients and directions for using the bath salts.

SOAK THOSE TOOTSIES

Soaking the feet is one of herbalists’ best traditions, requiring the soaker to sit still for a time to concentrate on doing something good for the entire body. Reflexology teaches us that the feet contain points that correspond to every organ in the body. Soaking the feet is even good for a headache.

Foot-soak preparations are decoctions and/or infusions. A decoction is made by simmering barks and roots for at least 20 minutes to dissolve tannins and other beneficial elements of the plant. To make an infusion, boil water, remove from heat, then add herb leaves, flowers and stems. Strain the finished products and toss the used foot-soak herbs into the compost or out in the garden rather than plug up the plumbing.

For a gift basket, these products can be packaged together, along with instructions for use, a luffa gourd, maybe a pumice stone and an organic cotton bath towel. We use big, speckled enamel bowls that we keep just for foot soaks. To provide equipment for the first-time foot soaker, check your pharmacy or mail-order catalogs for foot soak machines — we’ve seen some pretty fancy electronic or battery-operated machines brought to our pamper parties. Antique-store shoppers can still find large enameled wash pans for presenting a complete foot-soak kit. A nonreactive soup pot also will work just fine.

Ozark Foot Soak

Tina created this formula at the Ozark Mountain Center in Arkansas, to demonstrate how simple herbs once brought — and continue to bring — comfort to the lives of mountain people. The herbs can be packaged whole in brown paper sacks to convey holistic simplicity. The jewelweed vinegar, explained below, should be stored in dark glass with a plastic lid. (metal reacts with the acid of the vinegar.)

2 gallons water
1 small handful white oak bark strips
1 bunch dried spearmint or peppermint
4 to 7 dried comfrey leaves
1 cup jewelweed vinegar

Place water and bark in a large nonreactive pan. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer 20 minutes. Meanwhile, crush herbs with a mortar and pestle. Turn off the heat and add herbs and vinegar. Cover and steep for ten minutes or so. Pour the mixture into a wide and shallow foot-soak pan. Add enough cool water to bring the water to a comfortable temperature. Soak the feet for as long as it feels nice. You can add a little more hot water if it starts to cool down and you aren’t ready to get up. Massaging the feet enhances this pleasurable experience.

Why it works:

White oak (Quercus alba) bark is readily available at the Ozark Folk Center because the basket weavers and furniture makers use white oak in their crafts. Oak trees of any species can be used. To harvest bark, simply prune a small limb and whittle or skin off the bark with a sharp knife (this process is called “barking”). Tannic acid, contained in the inner bark, hardens the proteins in the skin and is antifungal and antibacterial. For preparing a foot soak it is not necessary to separate the outer bark from the inner bark.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) contains allantoin, a substance that speeds the healing of tissue. Folks who walk the rocky hills use comfrey externally to heal bruises and twisted ankles; it is not recommended for internal use.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis or I. pallida) is a native annual herb found growing along streams and springs in the eastern United States. The fresh juice of the entire plant traditionally is used to soothe afflictions of the skin, including poison ivy rash, heat rash and itchy bites. We crush the fresh plant and preserve the leaves and stems in a container of apple cider vinegar to have the remedy handy when needed.

Mint adds a pleasing fragrance and stimulates the feet. Folks often grab a partner and do a do-si-do after having one of these foot soaks!

City Folk Foot Soak

2 gallons water
3 green tea bags or about 1 generous
tablespoon green tea leaves
3 mint tea bags (spearmint or peppermint) or about 1 generous
tablespoon mint leaves
1/2 cup witch hazel astringent

Bring water to a boil in a large, nonreactive pan. Turn off the heat. Add tea bags or loose tea and witch hazel, cover and steep for 10 minutes. Pour the infusion into a foot-soak pan. Soak the feet for as long as it feels nice. Pat the feet dry with a soft towel. We might include a tube of arnica ointment in the kit for bruises and/or achy joints.

Why it works:

The green tea contains tannic acid in place of the white oak bark. Witch hazel is available in the pharmacy to treat minor skin irritation.

PAMPER YOUR LOVED ONES

These gifts of herbal bath blends will bring peace and comfort to the recipient. Pampering the people who love and care for you throughout the year is a great way to let them know how much you appreciate them. Be sure to make enough for yourself as you nurture your friends and family.

Susan lives in Brookeville, Maryland, and believes baths are an art form. Tina Marie lives in Leslie, Arkansas, and has been happily (and publicly) soaking her feet for more than 20 years. The authors get together regularly to have fun, from gardening with great abandon to creating herbal recipes and collaborating on presentations, articles and books. These bath blends are adapted from a chapter in the self-published book they are currently working on, Creative Herbal Home, with an anticipated publication date this spring.


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