Medicine Chest: Herbal First Aid Kit

Topical Herbal First Aid Kit

As you delve into the world of herbal medicine, at some point or another you take a look at your medicine cabinet and think, “What kinds of natural remedies should I stock in my first aid kit?” Many herbs offer topical applications for a variety of everyday woes, including aches and bruises, cuts and scrapes, bug bites and rashes. And conveniently, you can cultivate or wildcraft most of these herbs or find them easily at natural food stores and online herb shops. Here are a few basics to consider stocking:

Plantain {Plantago major} leaf, a ubiquitous and easily recognizable weed, is readily available in most lawns, woodland path edges, and pavement cracks. You can apply the freshly chewed or mashed leaves directly to bug bites, bee stings, poison ivy, rashes, and splinters to quickly draw out inflammation, irritation, venom, and foreign objects. How to use it: Fresh, mashed leaf poultice works best {and clean leaves store well in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp paper towel in a container}, but plantain infused oil, salve, vinegar, or alcohol also work well. Since I seem to attract any biting insect, I keep a roller vial of 50:50 plantain oil and yarrow tincture in my bathroom and travel bag to shake and rub on to disinfect and quell the maddening itch.

Calendula {Calendula officinalis} flowers also reduce itching and inflammation with wound-healing and mild antimicrobial activity but are more specific for general rashes, eczema, dermatitis, baby’s skin issues {such as diaper rash}, hemorrhoids, and minor cuts and scrapes. {Plantain works better for poison ivy and bug bites, but calendula helps out in a pinch.} For conjunctivitis, try a tea compress of calendula blossoms with some salt added to make it saline and perhaps a stronger antimicrobial like organic goldenseal. Use the tea or alcohol extract {diluted in water} as an antiseptic and healing mouthwash. How to use it: An infused oil is the most popular way to administer calendula, applied on its own or made into a cream or salve. However, it’s amenable to any form; fresh, dried, as a tea or compress, in the bath, in vinegar, and as a liniment/tincture. It works effectively solo or combined with other herbs, such as lavender essential oil.

St. John’s wort {Hypericum perforatum} fresh buds and flowers turn oil and alcohol a deep maroon red, a good indicator for potency. You can apply it to minor wounds and rashes much like calendula, and it has additional abilities to quickly ease pain {especially nerve pain}. With long-term use, it may even improve nerve repair. Consider the oil for burns, bedsores, minor injuries, and scars. For herpes {including shingles}, it not only helps limit outbreaks if applied at the start, but it can also ease itching and irritation and promote post-infection repair. How to use it: St. John’s wort is vastly superior when used fresh {not dried} with the bud and blossoms {not the whole aerial plant} – whip up a new batch every year or so. The oil is more soothing {and can be made into salves and cream}, but alcohol does an excellent job extracting and preserving the herb’s properties, and you can combine the two {shake vigorously before applying}. Use it plain or with like-minded herbs such as calendula, plantain, Gotu kola, lavender, and more.

Comfrey {Symphytum officinale} leaf oil {or salve or cream} works quite well as a substitute for the herb arnica with aches, sprains, strains, and arthritis pain. It may also speed healing when applied to a broken bone {after it’s been set properly}. Though it’s amazingly fast for wound-healing, I tend to prefer other herbs mentioned above because comfrey can heal a little too fast – it’s not sophisticated in skin remodeling, leading to scarring or sealing in infections. That said, it may promote connective tissue integrity and help work away old scars when applied regularly.

Some words of warning; comfrey contains cumulative liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids {PAs} and is best avoided internally; however, although you can absorb some PAs through the skin, the risk from topical use is minimal.

How to use it: Try it as an infused oil {which you can make into a salve or cream}, compress, or poultice.

Gotu kola {Centella asiatica} aerial parts may be more famous internally as an adaptogen, brain tonic, and for anxiety reduction, but Gotu kola offers benefits beyond these more commonly known uses. When taken internally and applied topically, both immediately and long-term, it supports connective tissue healing and integrity, reduces inflammation, and improves circulation and blood vessel lining. Consider it for wounds, aging skin, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, as a mouthwash, post-surgery, etc. How to use it: Gotu kola works well in pretty much any form, including oil, cream, salve, liniment, compress, and bath. For added support, take it internally {as food, tea, or tincture} simultaneously.

Yarrow {Achillea millefolium} leaves and flowers offer a cornucopia of healing properties inside and out. The genus name comes from the god of war, Achilles, a nod to its use as a wound-wort for soldiers. Fresh leaf poultice helps to stop bleeding, disinfects, eases pain, and promotes healing of wounds, but its uses don’t end there. It tightens and tones blood vessels and tissues while promoting circulation – making it useful for varicose veins and hemorrhoids as well as a sitz bath and mouthwash – and can also be used as an insect and tick repellent. A wash, compress, or liniment helps clean out wounds and infections, too. How to use it: Fresh leaf poultice works best for wounds, but a liniment, saline tea, or compress can also clean wounds. Apply the liniment/tincture, salve, oil, or cream topically for various uses. Spray on a low-alcohol extract or tincture as bug spray, reapplying frequently.

Lavender {Lavandula angustifolia} flower buds also offer modest antimicrobial activity, but most notably soothe inflammation and irritations and also promote healing. Its name comes from “lavar” – to wash – and almost any skin type responds well to lavender preparations. How to use it: Lavender essential oil makes a superb, concentrated, easy-to-carry remedy that can be used “neat” {straight} or diluted in alcohol, oil, or other herbal preparations. You can also turn to standard herbal preparations like liniments, and infused oils as well as lavender flower water or hydrosol {lightly aromatic and excellent as a gentle skin toner}. I carry all-natural lavender wipes in my bag to sanitize hands, scrapes and ease rashes in a pinch.

Arnica {Arnica spp.} flowers form the basis of the most popular homeopathic remedy in the country, which can be taken or applied for bruises, aches, pains, trauma, and post-surgery. We classically use A. montana, but it’s limited in range and at risk for overharvesting. Other species can be used interchangeably, including the prolific and easy-to-cultivate A. chamissonis. How to use: Being accident-prone, I stash homeopathic arnica tubes in my kitchen, bag, and backpack to use as soon as I take a tumble. Homeopathic or standard herbal oil, salve, cream, or liniment can also be applied externally to unbroken skin.

Additional Notable Herbs

Thuja {Thuja occidentalis and T. plicata} evergreen needles, also called arborvitae and white cedar tips, work fabulously on fungal infections and other icky skin conditions and may also help with warts. Try thuja as an herb-infused oil, salve, liniment, topical vinegar, or homeopathic remedy. Apply at least two times per day for at least a few weeks after the infection clears.

Chapparal {Larrea tridentata} leaves, also called creosote bush, can be used much like thuja for all manner of topical fungal infections as well as for herpes. Apply this potent antioxidant herb to sunburns and as a light sunscreen. Like yarrow, it serves as a fabulous wound-wort, speeding healing and disinfecting with minimal scarring. Colonies of chaparral grow throughout the southwestern deserts, and the leaves are available commercially. Try it as an herb-infused oil, salve, compress, wash, poultice, or liniment.

Celandine {Chelidonium majus} fresh leaf poultice works better than anything to remove warts quickly. This common weed in the poppy family exudes a yellow-orange latex when cut. Apply the mashed fresh leaves to the area under a bandage overnight {it may stain clothing, skin, and surfaces}. Usually, the wart disappears within a few applications.

Topical Remedies

Herb-Infused Oil: Steep fresh or dried herbs in a shelf-stable oil {olive oil preferred} to extract the properties before straining. I prefer to use the alcohol-intermediary method for most herbs except St. John’s wort {fresh simple maceration works best} and calendula {any method works, but alcohol intermediary plus heat comes out the strongest}.

Salve: In a double-boiler, melt and combine 1-ounce of beeswax per 4-ounces of herb-infused oil. Remove from the heat and stir in any other ingredient {like 10-20 drops of essential oil}. Pour into jars or tubes. I will have a lip balm consistency and last six months to 1 year.

Cream: A blend of shelf-stable oil and water-based ingredients {including alcohol extract and hydrosols}, creams are versatile and absorb nicely into the skin. You may find them a bit tricky to make and keep stable.

Liniment: Per 1-ounce by weight of dry herb, cover with 5-ounces of 80- to 100-proof vodka or rubbing alcohol. Per 1-ounce of chopped fresh herb, use 2-ounces of alcohol. Fit into the jar so you can hold it all in, totally covered to the very top. Strain after 1 month. Liniments are disinfecting and long-lasting {years} but also prove somewhat drying and irritating to the skin. You can combine them with oils and shake vigorously before applying, or add them as part of the “waters” to cream recipes.

Vinegar: Disinfecting, less irritating to the skin, and affordable compared to alcohol, vinegar also soothes irritations like sunburns and poison ivy. Follow the liniment instructions and only use plastic caps {it will corrode metal}. Your vinegar will keep for at least one year.

Poultice: Mash up or chew fresh plant material and apply the wad to the affected area. Cover with a bandage if needed.

Compress/Wash: Make a strong tea to soak the affected area or dip a cloth to apply it.

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