Indulging in a bit of gourmet cooking, Richard Burnett was deep-frying cauliflower, which, ideally, did not include plunging the tips of all five fingers into the sizzling oil with the cauliflower. But that’s just what happened. Richard applied a dollop of arnica salve to his burns, wrapped his whole hand in a plastic bag, and let the injury soak overnight. By morning, Richard had no pain and no blisters.
As Americans use herbs in ever-increasing numbers, they are turning to assorted preparations that will round out their herbal medicine chests. Herbs that are applied externally, made into semi-solid preparations and rubbed on with the fingers, are called salves or ointments — terms which essentially mean the same thing, although sometimes “ointment” is used to refer to a softer material, which might come in a tube, as opposed to salve, which usually comes in a wide-mouth jar or tin for finger dipping. The more general term, balm, sometimes is used to refer to salves but technically refers to any soothing preparation.
Salves are thickened herbal oils. The consistency can vary from very greasy, like petroleum jelly, to a thick, sticky paste, depending upon the desired effect. I’ve been formulating and manufacturing salves for 20 years, and I can attest to their healing power.
Salves treat bites, cuts, sores, stings, scrapes, rashes, boils and acne. They can reduce skin pain and itching. Other herbal salves treat joint and muscle problems. Professional herbalists apply salves to cysts and other benign growths.
A very simple preparation for a salve is to mix the active ingredient into petroleum jelly. It’s convenient but not a good choice for a salve that needs to penetrate the tissue. More typically, a combination of fats and oils is used as a base to carry the active herbs, allowing them to absorb through the skin, in addition to hardening agents for the desired consistency. Lard or other stiff animal fats were often used traditionally but today are often replaced by more socially acceptable ingredients. Food-type oils, such as almond or olive, are common. Lanolin, cocoa butter, wheat germ oil and vitamin E are typical ingredients. Beeswax is often added as a thickener.
Salves for the Skin
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is an important folk medicine plant, and the most popular medicinal use is in treating irritated membrane conditions. During the Civil War, doctors used calendula leaves to treat open wounds on the battlefield. Calendula flower is among the most soothing of herbs for salves. Herbalist Aviva Romm, author of Natural Healing for Babies and Children (Crossing Press, 1996), uses it along with chickweed (Stellaria media), plantain (Plantago spp.), comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and chamomile (Matricaria recutita) to soothe children’s skin. One study of calendula for wounds showed that it noticeably stimulates physiological regeneration and skin healing.
Calendula salve heals wounds, rashes and inflammatory skin lesions with itching, burning and swelling. Rub the flower into sites of bee stings to reduce swelling and pain. Or make a compress for burns, scalds, sore nipples or stings by chopping the flowers and moistening with water. Use sap from the fresh stem to eliminate calluses, warts and corns.
For diaper rash, apply calendula cream with yarrow (Achillea millefolium) oil. To soften and moisturize tired feet, use lotions containing calendula flower with chickweed, plantain and comfrey leaves. Calendula cosmetic creams will soften and smooth the skin, heal pimples and reduce large pores.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is an Asian herb with a centuries-old reputation for healing skin problems, from wounds to leprosy to acne. Kathi Keville, in Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996), mentions this herb as a salve for dermatitis. Recent scientific innovations indicate that gotu kola salve can play a significant role in scar management. An article in the prestigious Cochrane Database System Review (2000) found that gotu kola salve reduces stretch marks in pregnancy.
Sandalwood oil is the main cooling herbal oil used for the skin by Ayurvedic practitioners. I use it in a salve for acne that also includes vitamin E, borax and menthol.
St. John’s Wort — Not Just for Depression
In Europe, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is well respected as an external remedy, which is where it really excels. The herb is a European staple for traumatic injury, burns and wound healing. European authorities approve it as an oily preparation, such as an ointment, for wounds, muscle pain, bruises, varicose veins and burns. Yellow St. John’s wort flowers contain red pigments, so the oil is a beautiful deep-red color. St. John’s wort is especially therapeutic for sunburn, which is ironic, considering the herb’s reputation for promoting photosensitivity.
An article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology (2000) reported that extracts of St. John’s wort showed significant benefit in wound healing in an animal study. A scientific report from Germany, published in 2003, found that St. John’s wort salve was better at healing dermatitis than a placebo.
More Salves for Sore Muscles and Joints
Arnica flower (Arnica spp.) salve is clearly the winner for relieving the pain of sore muscles and joints. This remedy is widely respected in Europe and North America. As the remedy par excellence for sprains and bruises, German physician and herbalist Rudolf Fritz Weiss claims that “arnica has excellent pain-relieving properties, particularly with bruises and hematomas,” prompting resorption. The German advisory panel on herbal medicines approves it for external use as an anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antiseptic. In Germany, commercial medicinal preparations containing arnica extracts are sold over-the-counter. For traumatic injury to the tissues of all kinds, this is the best choice.
European arnica has aromatic yellow-orange daisy-like blossoms that bloom from April through September. This pretty little plant is native to the mountains of Siberia and central Europe, particularly in moist mountain valleys of 3,500 to 10,000 feet. North America has several native species of arnica, including A. fulgens, A. sororia and A. cordifolia, but they are not widely recognized as medicine.
Arnica is quite poisonous — common names are wolf’s bane and leopard’s bane — and, used inappropriately, it can be fatal to humans if taken internally. Preparations containing arnica are for external use only, except in the hands of well-qualified botanical medicine specialists.
The preeminent European medicine for bone, flesh and cartilage trauma, arnica has a long history of folk medicine use in Russia, Germany and the rest of Western Europe. Goethe praised arnica for once saving his life. People use it for external treatment of wounds, rashes, eczema, black eyes, sore muscles, sprains, strains, fractures, arthritic pain, phlebitis, bruises and hematomas.
Swiss research from 2002 looked at arnica herbal gel for mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee. Patients applied the salve twice a day for six weeks. Pain and stiffness were significantly reduced.
German studies have found the sesquiterpenoid lactones helenalin and dihydrohelenalin to be responsible for arnica’s anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. Arnica stimulates white blood cells, which disperse compounds trapped in injured tissue.
My personal experience with arnica has made me a believer. In my three decades of concocting herbal salves, the absolute standout has been a formula of arnica flower, witch hazel, pine essential oil, pine tar and sulfur. Applied in a thick paste, it also draws the inflammation from boils. Conventional surgeons apply it, and a medical school trains physicians to use it after surgery. One full-contact karate team uses it after matches to avoid waking up the next morning unable to move. The company for which I formulated it receives more positive comments for this one salve than for the rest of their entire product line put together.
Arnica is also prepared as a very popular homeopathic medicine, a completely different type of remedy. This extremely diluted preparation is considered safe for internal use in proper therapeutic dosages. There are no side effects.
Castor Oil Realities
Castor oil, the “arnica of Ayurveda,” is an excellent remedy for pain and bruising and a general anti-trauma salve. Based on castor oil, this salve treats damaged structural and connective tissue. This salve helps to heal traumatized tissue and prevent bruising. It is not designed for acute pain relief, although chronic pain, such as in osteoarthritis, can often be prevented or relieved.
Castor oil is astringent and helps to stabilize hypermobile joints, such as neck subluxations. Castor oil is used in Ayurveda to reduce benign masses and swellings, including ovarian cysts, breast cysts, varicose veins, swollen lymph glands, enlarged liver or spleen and lipomas.
Apply castor oil to large areas of nerve involvement or organ dysfunction such as an involved leg or as an abdominal pack for an affected liver, menstrual pain, constipation or general abdominal discomfort. Use it on burns, bedsores, rashes, skin itch, cracked heels, torn cuticles and minor cuts or wounds. You can apply it as a spot treatment to pimples or stretch marks.
In Ayurveda, castor oil is also used in the treatment of disorders of the nervous system, including epilepsy, paralysis, neuralgia, foot neuropathy and sciatica. Ayurvedic practitioners recognize castor oil as a wonderful panacea for a large number of health concerns. In the West, it is known as Palma Christi (hand of Christ).
Since castor oil is so messy, I prefer to use a product with a water-soluble gel base. The gel form allows you to pile it on where you want it, and it penetrates the skin more effectively in that form.
As our culture’s attitude toward herbal medicine is broadening, people are using herbal salves as a natural next step. Keep the arnica salve in your medicine chest for first aid, or use St. John’s wort salve for your arthritis. Herbal salves work, they’re convenient, and you’ll get what you need when you use them.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is an adjunct faculty member in the botanical medicine department of Bastyr University.