Topical Herbal Alternatives


My Mother called me a while back with a bad muscular ache and asked me what herbs or medication she could take to make it feel better, ibuprofen hadn’t been helping much.  I asked her if she’d considered A535 or Myoflex rub.  There was a bit of a stunned silence on the other end of the line, ‘’they still exist?’’  I assured her that they did and that it was a relatively inexpensive experiment to give it a try.  She called me the next day triumphant and amazed that topical salicylic acid (aspirin) had done so much that Advil was unable to accomplish.

A few weeks ago it was a friend out here visiting who had an infected cyst on her back that had stubbornly resisted a course of oral antibiotics and daily cleaning.  I suggested she try a healing salve I had on hand and perhaps a plantain poultice or two if she had the heart for it.  A couple of weeks later she happily reported that to her surprise, the infection had cleared.

Everybody seems to want a pill.  For some reason modern medical science has groomed us all to believe that internal medicines, particularly in the form of capsules and pills, are the most effective treatment for everything.  For many common ailments however, it can be more useful to bypass the digestive system entirely and simply apply the medicine where it hurts.  We know this instinctively as children when we draw comfort from having Mom kiss our booboo better; we just forget it as we grow older.

This also makes sense from a physiological perspective.  The skin is the largest organ of the body and although it serves a protective (barrier) function, it also has the capacity to absorb.  Applying medicine to the skin is therefore just another method of conveying it within: that’s how nicotine and hormone patches work after all.

Testament to this way of working and its efficacy is also still evident in most modern pharmacies, Nicoderm aside.  Not only do antiphlogistines still exist (A535, Lakota, Myoflex), but vapour ointments (Vicks vapo-rub) and healing salves (Polysporin, Ozonol) still line the shelves as well.  These are often used alone but can be combined judiciously with internal treatments as the condition warrants.  The same is true if you’re working with herbal products rather than pharmaceutical ones.

For the home herbalist, topical treatments come in a number of varieties besides your basic salves and ointments depending on where they need to be applied and what they are for.  For those unfamiliar with the basic surface treatment modalities, they include:


  • Salves and Ointments:  A fatty body of thick consistency containing medicinals.  This can include herbal oils thickened with waxes, lard or animal fat mixed with herbs or petroleum jelly with added ingredients.  They have the advantage of covering over/coating an area in a relatively mess-free manner (compared to some of the other alternatives).
  • Liniments and Rubs:  An alcoholic body steeped with herbs (tincture) or a medicinal oil to be rubbed over the area affected.
  • Poultices, Packs and Plasters (the three Ps):  Mashed up pulpy fresh herbs, dry powdered herb meal mixed with water or flannel soaked with warmed oil placed over the area affected.  Sometimes the poultice is placed between pieces of cotton to protect the skin, particularly when the materials used can cause irritation or blistering (think of the good ol’ mustard plaster when you need to loosen up phlegm in the lungs).  Often the P preparation is kept warm by covering it with hot towels or a hot water bottle.
  • Fomentations:  A piece of cloth soaked in herbal tea of some kind and placed on the body.  Temperature is dependent on the effect desired.
  • Baths:  A human body, or part thereof, soaked in herbal tea of some kind.
  • Compresses:  Applications of hot or cold water on various parts of the body.


Flipping through any of the herbal texts or searching over the internet, dozens of recipes can be found for home-made remedies of the topical type.  The hard part then becomes to choose which ones to make, and discern the better blends from the worser ones.  So how do you do that?

It would be nice if there were an easy way to go about it, but the answer as in much of life, is seldom simple.  The best products to make or buy will depend on multiple factors: your needs, the ease of application desired, tolerance for mess in application, what herbs are easily available (fresh) in your area, and the amount of time you have to work.  Trial and error also help with the elimination process and over time every herbalist will develop their own personal favorites.

In case anyone out there wants yet another slew of suggestions on what to go ahead and try, these are the topical remedies that I love and wouldn’t be without.  Keep in mind though that if you ask another herbalist you’ll get another set of old stand-bys, and those will no doubt be just as effective!


(NB – Instructions on how to make a really awesome herbal oil (and thus salve or ointment) will follow in a future post since it’s a subject all its own.)

Basic Everything Ointment: This is what I run to for dermatitis, hives, itches, scrapes, mild burns, small cuts, bruises, bug bites, diaper rash and cracked dry skin.  It’s made from double infused olive oil.  The first infusion is with fresh chickweed, plantain and calendula flowers; the second is with dried comfrey leaf, benzoin powder and calendula flowers.  The oil is then thickened using beeswax with lavender essential oil and vitamin E completing the blend.

Anti-Fungal Ointment:  This is for ringworm, athlete’s foot, random forms of mycosis, candida rash, mild skin infection, impetigo as well as stubborn or purulent sores that won’t resolve.  Often use of this salve is combined with internal treatment of some kind.  It’s made from a triple infused combo of olive and neem oils.  The three successive infusions are with a combination of dried chaparral, black walnut, myrrh, echinacea, pau d’arco and usnea.  The oil is then thickened using beeswax with tea tree essential oil completing the blend.

Happy Knee:  This one got its name since I first made it for my husband’s knee pain.  Not surprisingly it’s good for muscular pain, pinched nerves, and soreness of any kind.  It’s also a good vapour balm to help with congestion and relax the bronchial passages.  Usually I’ll only do a single infusion in olive oil although a double or triple would only improve things.  The combination of herbs varies a bit every time but tends to include hops, lobelia, California poppy (heads if possible), rue, cloves or cayenne (go easy on those).  The oil is then thickened using beeswax with camphor, clove and wintergreen essential oils completing the blend.

Castor Oil Packs:  Yes, they’re messy.  Yes, they’re a pain.  Yes, until you get the hang of it you may burn yourself by accident.  Yes, you’ll have to keep the treatment up for a while.  But they’re oh so effective for oh so many things.  I’ve seen the faithful application of camphor oil packs resolve ovarian cysts, fibrocystic breast masses, mild tendinitis and hernia pain.  They’re deceptively simple but profound medicine.

Herbal Baths of Any Kind:  Because nothing feels better for the body, mind and soul than bathing in a giant cup of tea.

Therapeutic Use of Hot and Cold (Usually Water):  Headaches often respond to a cool fore-head and/or nape compress along with a hot foot bath.  Colds, flu and fever may benefit from sweating.  General immune function and body temperature regulation can be improved with cool showering.  And those are just the examples that pop off the top of my head.  Inexpensive and easy, applications of hot and cold be they in bath, shower or compress form are excellent in dealing with multiple situations.


So why do I go on at such lengths about surface treatment?  Because before popping a pill or brewing some tea for what ails you, it is worth considering if it could benefit from external treatment.  I am of the opinion that being less intrusive, it’s worth giving the external treatment a try first.  That holds true of herbs as well as for modern allopathic remedies.  Not only may the results be quicker (depending on the issue), but we put enough crap in our bodies already that topical treatments can be a gentle but powerful alternative in our holistic health arsenal.

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