How to Start Using Herbs Part 9: Herbal Washes, Compresses, Fomentations & Poultices
Woo Hoo! We are on to Part 9 of the How to Start Using Herbs Series! So far, we’ve covered foundational things every beginning herbalist needs to know, internal herbal preparations, and oil-based external herbal preparations (salves, balms, etc.). Today, we will discover water based herbal infusions used externally: washes, compresses, fomentations, & poultices! Exciting stuff!
I never, ever become un-amazed by what the herbal world has to offer us in terms of healing and health. Never.
Plants are just incredible, and when you know how to make and use a variety of preparations, you are empowered in a way that makes you feel much more secure in the world. (In my opinion.)
At any rate, let’s talk about these next external herbal preparations, along with some ways you can use them in your daily life!
How to Start Using Herbs Part 9: Herbal Washes, Compresses, Fomentations, and Poultices
All of these preparations have one thing in common: They use some type of herbal water infusion and are used externally on the body. There are different ways to use them, of course, but essentially they are water infusions applied topically.
I’ll mention the temperature of the preparation here. You can use hot or cold compresses, fomentations, and poultices; and the temperature does different things.
The hotter the preparation, the greater the circulation to an area. If you are wanting to calm inflammation, you may not want to use heat, as a cooler compress will better soothe and calm for example. If you need to help muscle spasms, heat may work better.
What are Herbal Washes?
An herbal wash is a strong tea made with the herb and water. It can be used warm or cool. There are a number of ways to wash with herbs, and here is a quick rundown:
The Herbal Bath:
Herbal baths are becoming more and more popular for those who love taking baths. You can make or buy muslin bags filled with wonderful herbs for medicinal, tonic, and pleasurable bathing.
You simple place the rather large tea bag of herbs in your bath water as you draw the bath. Relax and enjoy!
An alternative way to use herbs in your bath is to create a decoction or strong infusion of the herbs. Strain out the spent herbs and add the liquid to your bath water.
Here are some ideas for creating some wonderful herbal bath soaks:
Skin Softening Bath Ingredients: oats, epsom salts, chamomile, calendula petals, rose petals, lemon balm, chickweed, and eucalyptus.
Herbs for a Bad Cold Bath: eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint (also cooling in the summer months), sage, grated ginger, and marshmallow.
Stimulating Herbal Bath Ingredients: Peppermint or spearmint, rosemary (do not use if you have high blood pressure), oats, sea salt, and lemon grass.
Herbs for a Muscle Relief Bath Soak: Sage, chamomile, lemon balm, lavender, meadowsweet, oats, and epsom salts.
You can add all kinds of herbs along with extra ingredients to make your bath soak special. Feel free to experiment with powdered milk, ground almonds, honey, coconut milk, and/or green tea.
The Eye Wash:
An area of the body that often benefits from an herbal wash is the eye. Herbal washes can benefit eyes that deal with eye-strain from electronics, some types of infections or irritations, or just general cleansing.
The human eye is designed to clean itself very well via our natural tears. However, sometimes an herbal wash may be suggested for certain issues.
To wash your eyes, I prefer to use an eye cup. This is a glass cup that is curved to match the orbital area around the human eye.
Sanitize the glass eye cup by boiling before each use. Then fill about 1/2 to 3/4 full with the herbal tea. Close your eyes, tip your head down and place the cup over the eye. Now tip your head back, keeping your eyes closed.
Now it’s time to gently open and close your eyes, allowing the wash to do its job.
NOTE: I am VERY careful about using any kind of wash inside my head, and that includes my nose, ears, and eyes. Be sure you sanitize all materials you use.
What is an Herbal Compress and Fomentation?
Compresses and fomentations are almost synonymous, and that’s why I’m discussing them together. Herbalists define them somewhat differently, depending on their training.
The way I look at the main difference between the two is that a compress is applied warm or hot and is allowed to cool down while left on the body.
A fomentation is applied warm or hot, and is kept warm or hot by adding a heat source, covering with a towel, or being reapplied often enough to keep the fomentation warm or hot.
These are lesser known herbal methods for supporting the body, but they are extremely effective. Your skin is the largest organ of the human body, and by applying herbal solutions to the skin’s surface or areas of mucous membranes (eyes, etc.), the herbal constituents can play a powerful and useful role in health.
By dipping a cloth into some herbal tea that is created with a specific reason in mind (relaxation, wound care, headache, cooling, muscle spasms, etc.) and placing the moistened cloth on the surface of the skin or over your eyes, you have created a compress or fomentation.
NOTE: One way to use herbs as an eye compress that is VERY easy is to use tea bags filled with your herbs of choice. I love to place green tea bags over my eyes for some eye relief and de-puffing—kind of what some people do with cucumbers.
In fact, you could consider a cucumber slice on your eye a form of compress too!
What is a Poultice? How to Make a Poultice, and Which Herbs are Good to Use?
A poultice is similar to a compress or fomentation with a big difference: It is created using herbs macerated in a liquid (usually water, but sometimes chewed in saliva). This wet, mushy mass is placed directly on the skin or put inside a cloth of some type as a barrier.
The herbal constituents are able to affect the body through the moistness on the skin’s surface, much as a compress works—-only you have the actual herbs directly on the skin.
Poultices can be wrapped to increase the amount of time the herbal mass is in contact with the skin, and/or they can be reapplied as needed.
What are poultices good for?
Well, here is a short list of great ways to use poultices:
Sprains and bruising
Broken bones, as an emergency measure
Muscle spasms and inflammation
Bug bites and stings
Drawing out infections, toxins, and splinters (much like black drawing salve will do)
To help stop bleeding (find out how to create your own Quikclot emergency poultice using herbs and clay)
How to Make a Poultice:
There are different ways to make a poultice, and they are all pretty simple.
The Quick Spit Poultice:
Essentially, you just take the herb, chew it up in your mouth, and place the mass on the affected area. This is best for small issues like bug bites or stings. Plantain works great for this, and it grows nearly every where!
The “Normal” Poultice:
I don’t really know what else to call this method of making a poultice, but since it’s probably the most common, I decided to call it “normal.” lol
Essentially, you just crush or finely chop your herbs up. Place them in a clean cloth of some type (sterile gauze, a thin towel, a clean sock). Tie the cloth to keep the herbs inside. It’s kind of like a giant tea bag.
Put this cloth with the crushed herbs into some warm or hot water (use cool if you have no other options). Knead the cloth and herbs until it’s quite mushy.
Apply it to the affected area.
Keep reapplying using fresh warm water as needed.
A “Fancier” Poultice:
There’s really nothing fancy about this except you are using modern tools, like a blender. :-)
Add your fresh herbs to a blender and cover them with water. Blend until you have a mush.
Now you can add a bit of olive oil if you like, and mash it all together well.
Place this mixture into your cloth or directly onto the skin. There you go!
Here are some useful herbs for making poultices, compresses, and fomentations:
Plantain: A wonderful anti-inflammatory, and very helpful for stings, bruises, etc. that happen while hiking or camping.
Yarrow leaves & flowers: An exceptional hemostatic herbs, which helps speed blood clotting. You can find out more about how to make your own Quikclot here.
Comfrey: Mends skin & bone. Great for wounds, bruising, and helpful for broken bones if there is no medical help available.
Usnea: Anti-bacterial lichen that grows in moist, cool areas. It will also help staunch the flow of blood and reduce the risk of infection.
Chickweed: This is a great anti-itch herb! Perfect for bug bites, especially in combination with plantain.
Lemon Balm: Soothing and calming.
Sage: Astringent and tonic.
Mullein: Large, fluffy leaves make this herb good for covering an herbal mash. It also helps soothe and calm.
This was quite the quick rundown of herbal washes, compresses, fomentations, and poultices! But now you have a good idea about the differences between them, as well as how to go about making them.
People don’t often think about using these herbal preparations any more, but they have some very valid, powerful, and useful applications.
After all, what could be better than a soothing compress of lavender and peppermint tea on your forehead for a terrible headache? Or a nice, hot fomentation with fennel on your abdomen to soothe menstrual cramps?
Or perhaps an herbal bath using some peppermint, sage, and eucalyptus you can breathe the steam from while you soak to open inflamed sinuses?
Perhaps you’ll give one of these methods a try!
I hope you enjoyed this Part 9 of the How to Start Using Herbs Series! Up next is Part 10, which will be an Herbal Glossary of terms.
If you missed any of the other articles in this series, you can find them here:
Here’s to your natural health! Please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to share your experiences with any of these preparations! I love to hear from you—-
NOTE: You may be interested in joining my private Facebook group, Practical Herbs with Heidi, which is a supportive herb study group! :-)
Also—-have you given some thought to taking an herbal online course? The Herbal Academy of New England has courses for everyone of all experience levels! :-) It’s one of the places I’ve received my own education in the art & science of herbalism.
***And there are a LOT more great self-reliance and herbal articles on the blog! Feel free to head over and do some browsing around.
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,
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Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. The information in this article is educational only and not meant to treat, cure, diagnose, or prevent any illness or disease. Please be sure to seek advice from your doctor before using herbs or essential oils for your health. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
Gladstar, Rosemary (2012). Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Storey Publishing.
Eye wash for better eyesight: https://joybileefarm.com/herbal-eye-wash/