Creating Herbal Formulas for Dermatologic Conditions
One of the greatest philosophical differences in herbal versus allopathic approaches to the treatment of skin disorders is that most herbalists and alternative medical practitioners emphasize the importance of gastrointestinal health on the health of the dermis. Accordingly, many herbal formulas for acne, psoriasis, boils, and dermatitis include the use of alterative and bowel-supportive herbs such as Arctium lappa, Mahonia aquifolium, or Taraxacum officinale root. To this same end, many herbalists and naturopathic physicians also work with people on their diet to support intestinal health and optimize nutrition as a way of treating chronic skin conditions.
Many skin conditions may also be related to underlying allergic and atopic phenomena, and herbs that affect mast cells, histamine, and inflammatory mediators are other important ingredients in dermatologic formulas. Tanacetum parthenium, Angelica sinensis, Curcuma longa, and many other herbs may reduce inflammation and atopic phenomena in the skin.
In other cases, vulnerary agents such as Calendula officinalis, Equisetum arvense, or Centella asiatica are included to support wound healing and connective tissue regeneration. Centella asiatica contains the triterpenoid wound-healing compounds asiaticoside, asiatic acid, and madecassic acid, which are found to reduce excessive fibrosis in situations of scleroderma, extensive scar formation, and keloids. Both epithelial and vascular regeneration are promoted by Centella asiatica, and research shows Centella asiatica to be an angiogenic agent, promoting growth factors and extracellular hyaluronic acid-binding proteins.
Both poor circulation and diabetes can contribute to chronic fungus, skin infections, and poor wound healing. Some formulas include Ginkgo biloba or other circulatory-enhancing agents that aid when poor perfusion contributes to skin complaints. Hypoglycemic agents such as Cinnamomum spp., Allium sativum, or Opuntia ficus-indica are also featured in formulas for cases when high blood sugar and diabetes contribute to nail, foot, or other skin fungus.
All these botanical therapies are aimed at improving the entire “ecosystem” of the skin, making it less hospitable to acne bacteria and fungi and less susceptible to inflammatory processes, poor wound healing, or excessive scar tissue formation. Herbalists contend that supporting optimal microbiota in the skin is a superior therapy for treating common acne and fungal infections of the skin than is the use of antibiotics such as tetracycline for acne or steroids for eczema. In nearly all cases, acne and eczema will recur when such antibiotic and steroid medications are discontinued, which is evidence that they are superficial therapies that do nothing to change the underlying pathology, and are detrimental to overall health when used long term. The following formulas explain and exemplify how to work at a deeper level, using herbs to treat common skin complaints and diseases.
Formulas for Burns, Bites, Stings, Wounds, and Trauma
Traumatic injuries to the skin affect nearly everyone over the course of a lifetime. Herbal therapies can promote healing and help alleviate pain and discomfort. Such herbs may be effective both topically and internally. Homeopathic medicines are often helpful for bites and stings and are specific for various presentations and qualities of pain. Home remedies can also be useful for minor kitchen burns and cuts, and many households have common remedies on hand such as onions (for poultices), an Aloe plant, or simple ice packs.
Following are homeopathic, topical, and internal remedies to help allay acute pain and itching due to venomous insects. While snakebites require expert medical care, and antivenom where available, Echinacea is a traditional North American herbal option, and several homeopathics detailed below may also help while en route to the hospital.
Field Poultices for Venomous Bites and Stings
The following herbs are classic remedies for bee stings and other insect venom. These herbs or mud and ashes are commonly available “in the field,” where such stings typically occur. Herbalists may employ a so-called “spit poultice” where Plantago or Stellaria leaves are simply chewed, and the masticated pulp is applied topically to the lesion. The pulp can be covered with a piece of torn leaf to help keep it moist and active for 15 to 30 minutes. Mud and clay can have natural drawing effects. Where available, vinegar or Epsom salt compresses may also be helpful.
• Plantago ovata or P. lanceolata: Plantain leaves employed as a spit poultice
• Stellaria media: Chickweed leaves employed as a spit poultice
• Charcoal or ashes: Activated charcoal is ideal, but in a pinch, can be prepared from campfire ash and moistened with water
• Mud: Obtained from a stream bank or made out of dirt and water
Any of the above may be applied topically and left in place for 15 to 30 minutes. A single application may suffice for minor stings, while wasp or other more painful stings may require repeat application as the poultice dries.
Essential Oils to Allay Itching
Mint, lavendar, and tea tree essential oils can relieve stinging and itching sensations when topically applied. Small bottles of essential oils are light and easy to include in the first aid kit when camping or backpacking or to keep in emergency supplies in the trunk of the car.
• Mentha piperita
• Lavandula augustifolia
• Melaleuca alternifolia
Simply apply a few drops of one of the above essential oils to mosquito bites, bee stings, and other insect stings, directly on the skin. Effects are typically immediate, and the essential oil can be reapplied as needed, when the effects wear off over time.
Echinacea Tincture for Spider Bites and Snake Venom
Snake venom spreads so rapidly because it contains hyaluronidase, an enzyme that breaks down the hyaluronic acid “glue” that supports connective tissue scaffolding and structure. Hyaluronidase enzymatically disrupts the integrity of connective tissue, allowing the venom to disseminate rapidly and deeply. Echinacea angustifolia is a natural hyaluronidase inhibitor and a Native American snakebite remedy. In this formula Echinacea angustifolia is combined with Viscum album and Phytolacca decandra to promote white blood cell–driven immune modulation and support cell-to-cell adhesion. Silybum marianum will help protect the liver, should the venom get that far.
• Echinacea angustifolia 15 ml
• Viscum album 15 ml
• Phytolacca decandra 15 ml
• Silybum marianum 15 ml
Take 1 dropperful of combined tincture every 5 to 10 minutes while enroute to an emergency room for antivenom treatment and appropriate medical care.
Epsom Soak for Snake Venom
Both magnesium and sulfate found in Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) play roles in ion channels and other gated channels on cellular membranes and may be able to affect the venom load that is taken into the tissues following a snakebite. Epsom salts can affect pain signaling as well as prevent the spread of infections by affecting cell adherence. Epsom salt soaking is a time-honored home remedy for both pain and skin infection. Epsom salt soaking is highly regarded for its ability to treat vascular inflammation when topically applied, and research has shown efficacy in treating thrombophlebitis, which may result from serious envenomations.
• Epsom salts
Dissolve the entire quart-size package (as affordable) in hot bathwater and soak for 30 minutes at a time, 3 or more times daily on the first day of an acute wasp, snake, jellyfish, or other sting. Alternately 1 to 2 cups of Epsom salts may be dissolved in a quart of hot water and used to soak cloths to use as a compress. Leave in place for 30 minutes, and repeat 3 or 4 times over the course of the day.
Topical Burn Spray
Aloe vera is one of the most well-known herbs for burns, and Aloe vera polysaccharides reduce inflammation via reducing nitric oxide release and activity. Hypericum perforatum is a good complement to Aloe vera in helping to heal injured nerve endings. Rosewater and lavender essential oil are both pain-relieving, plus they provide nervous system support via the olfactory nerves into the limbic system to help calm a traumatized patient. This formula blend can pass through a spray nozzle or can be placed in a regular tincture bottle and applied via a cotton ball. The use of a spray is least painful to a patient and recommended. When no such formula is available, the topical use of honey or egg whites is both pain-relieving and healing.
• Rosa damascena (rose) water 30 ml
• Aloe vera gel 14 ml
• Hypericum tincture 12 ml
• Lavandula angustifolia essential oil 4 ml </em•>
Combine in a 2-ounce spray bottle. Shake prior to each use, and spray on burned skin every 30 minutes.
Internal Formula to Support Healing of Burns
For serious burns, the use of vulnerary herbs may help speed healing and reduce scarring. Symphytum officinale is a healing agent of long standing and Calendula officinalis is known to promote circulation to the dermis and enhance connective tissue regeneration at the basement membrane. Research is limited, but Calendula officinalis is believed to facilitate wound healing via promotion of glycoprotein and collagen synthesis, hastening dermal regeneration. Hypericum perforatum helps reduce pain and heal injured nerve endings. Centella asiatica (gotu kola) has been shown useful in promoting epithelial regeneration following burns. This formula may be prepared as a tincture or a tea.
• Symphytum officinale
• Centella asiatica
• Hypericum perforatum
• Calendula officinalis
Combine in equal amounts. Take 1 teaspoon of the combined tincture 6 times daily for a week or more. To prepare as a tea, use 1⁄2 ounce of each herb to make the blend. Steep 1 tablespoon of the herb mixture per cup of hot water and strain. Drink 5 or 6 cups per day if possible, continuing for a week or two.
Simple Spray to Allay Burn Pain
Lavandula angustifolia essential oil is wonderful to heal burns and allay pain. This simple recipe will prepare a 1-ounce bottle of medicine to be used with a spray nozzle. This spray is useful to include in first aid kits for sunburns, kitchen burns, and other minor burns.
• Lavandula angustifolia essential oil 5 ml
• Water 25 ml
Combine the oil and water in a 1-ounce bottle with a spray nozzle and spray on affected area frequently.
All-Purpose Herbal Wash Powder
This powder-based formula is handy to use as an herbal wash for infected wounds and stasis ulcers and to irrigate purulent ear canals. The powder can also be prepared as a sitz bath for infants with infected diaper rash lesions and as an herbal douche for vaginal discharges and inflammation.
• Calendula officinalis powdered flowers
• Hamamelis virginiana powdered bark
• Symphytum officinale powdered root
• Geranium maculatum powdered root
• Mahonia aquifolium powdered root
Combine equal parts of these powders and store in an airtight jar, in a dark cupboard if possible. Prepare a wash for topical use by infusing 1 teaspoon per 1⁄2 cup of hot water. Apply to the affected part by soaking a cloth or piece of gauze in the liquid and placing against the area to be treated. Leave in place for 10 to 30 minutes, allowing to air-dry afterward. You can also make large quantities to use as a douche or a sitz bath.
Tincture Formula for Acute Skin Trauma
This formula contains the most well-known vulnerary herbs combined in a tincture to take aggressively following any serious skin wounds to support healing. It is taken orally to complement topical applications.
• Hypericum perforatum
• Symphytum officinale
• Calendula officinalis
• Centella asiatica
Combine in equal parts. Take 1 teaspoon of the combined tincture hourly for several days, reducing to every 2, then every 3, then every 4 hours as pain and symptoms abate.
Calendula Succus Simple for Lacerations and Abrasions
Calendula officinalis (calendula) is a first aid kit staple. A succus has lower alcohol content than a tincture and is made from fresh juice. Calendula officinalis succus is unlikely to sting very much when topically applied. Use a dropperful of succus on a sterile gauze pad and apply topically, repeating each hour until the wound has scabbed over.
Calendula-Comfrey Poultice for Lacerations and Abrasions
Calendula officinalis (pot marigold or calendula) and Symphytum officinale (comfrey) are a classic duo for trauma and wounds. Calendula enhances circulation and connective tissue regeneration in the dermis, and comfrey contains the cell-proliferating agent allantoin.
• Calendula officinalis succus
• Symphytum officinale roots
When fresh comfrey roots are available, thoroughly wash several inches of a supple root, then mince or grate, and cover in a small amount of water. Add Calendula officinalis succus and allow it to stand for 10 minutes to yield a gummy mass for topical application. Dry comfrey roots can be macerated in hot water until mucilaginous. Symphytum officinale root tincture would also do in a pinch, but fresh roots, or long-macerated dry root preparations are superior. If using fresh root pulp, place the gummy mass on a thin gauze pad, place the fabric side against the skin, saturate with Calendula officinalis succus and cover with plastic or more gauze and tape to hold in place. Apply 3 to 5 times daily for acute injuries, allowing the injury to air-dry between applications.
You can also make this poultice by combining equal parts of Calendula and Symphytum tinctures, applying to a sterile gauze pad, and using topically, or by making a paste out of the combined dry powders and water.
Tincture to Control Profuse Bleeding in Skin Lacerations
Achillea millefolium and Hamamelis virginiana are folklorically classic herbs to control bleeding, both topically and internally. Achillea millefolium is said to be named after Achilles, a hero of Greek mythology who used the plant to staunch bleeding wounds in soldiers. These styptic herbs are combined with Calendula officinalis to support wound healing.
• Achillea millefolium
• Hamamelis virginiana
• Calendula officinalis
Combine in equal parts. Several milliliters of the tincture may be placed on a sterile gauze pad and used topically to staunch bleeding. This formula may also be taken internally by the teaspoon every 5 to 10 minutes for hemorrhagic situations.
Formula for Trauma with Extensive Bruising
Following motor vehicle accidents, bad falls, and tissue trauma, the use of herbs high in flavonoids can help speed the resolution of bruising and abatement of pain. Hypericum perforatum is specific for bruising, strains, sprains, and injuries to highly innervated areas such as the spine, hands, and feet. This formula may also be prepared as a tea when the dry herbs are on hand. Bromelain at a dose of 500 to 1,000 milligrams 3 to 6 times daily is also appropriate and may be taken along with the tea or tincture.
• Hypericum perforatum
• Aesculus hippocastanum
• Hamamelis virginiana
• Vaccinium species
Combine in equal parts. Take 1 teaspoon of the combined tincture every hour, reducing the frequency as pain and symptoms improve.
To prepare as a tea, steep 1 teaspoon of the dry herb mixture per cup of hot water and then strain. Drink as much as possible, at least 3 cups daily, and up to 8 to 10. Continue for 3 or 4 days, then cut the dosage in half, and continue for another 3 to 7 days, depending on the severity of the trauma.
Hypericum-Hippophae Oil for Ecchymoses and Nerve Trauma
Hypericum perforatum (St. Johnswort) and Hippophae rhamnoides (sea buckthorn) are some of our best topical remedies for nerve, blood vessel, skin, and tissue trauma. Prepare Hypericum and Hippophae into a salve or simply combine into a skin oil to use topically. Essential oils may be added for pain and medicinal effects, such as Mentha piperita essential oil for pain relief, and Helichrysum italicum for additional vulnerary action. Hypericum promotes collagen production by fibroblasts and is especially specific in formulas for fingertip, spine, and other nerve trauma. Centella asiatica may also be specific for injury to nerves and highly innervated areas by promoting axonal regeneration. Centella asiatica tincture, but not the tea, has been shown to promote a marked increase in neurite growth with oral consumption. This formula uses Centella asiatica powder, only because Centella asiatica oil is not readily available. Consider making your own oil by macerating the powder in olive, sesame, or other oil. Blend these ingredients together when the need arises.
• Hypericum perforatum oil 30 ml
• Hippophae rhamnoides oil 15 ml
• Centella asiatica powder or oil, if available 7.5 ml oil or 1⁄4 ounce (7 g) powder
• Helichrysum italicum essential oil 7.5 ml
Combine the oils in a shallow bowl and stir in the Centella asiatica powder and Helichrysum italicum essential oil. Transfer to a 2-ounce bottle and use topically for bruises and nerve injuries. If you have pre-prepared Centella asiatica oil, combine it in equal parts with the other fixed oils, adding a small amount of Helichrysum italicum oil. Apply as often as possible in the acute phase following trauma, such as 5 times daily in the first 48 hours, reducing frequency until pain is resolved and healing is well established.
Reprinted with Permission from Herbal Formularies for Health Professionals, Volume 1: Digestion and Elimination, including the Gastrointestinal System, Liver and Gallbladder, Urinary System, and the Skin by Jill Stansbury, ND and published by Chealsea Green, 2018.