Have you ever taken a look at the ingredients on your store-bought first-aid products? Or worse, read about the side effects? For example, Neosporin contains antibiotics and petroleum. NSAIDS – pain killers like ibuprofen – are linked to over 100,000 hospitalizations and over 15,000 deaths each year.1
Luckily there is a better way!
Like many people today, I didn’t grow up using herbal remedies. Instead, we filled our bathroom cabinet with the standard things you’d find in most homes: store-bought ointments, pain pills, etc.
By the time I was a teenager, I had already developed an interest in natural health so, over time, I started replacing my standard over-the-counter products with the ones I found in the health food store.
But, eventually, this didn’t feel quite right either. There were still ingredients I didn’t know on the labels, I didn’t know how these things were made, and oftentimes the natural ingredients, like herbs, were the last listed ingredient. Most importantly, sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t, which often made me question the potency.
And then one day I took a class on making herbal salves and lip balms. My life would never be the same! To be able to take whole plant materials, like leaves and flowers, and make them into my own herbal remedies was so much fun!
I know that I’ll never forget that initial excitement because I still feel it every time I make a remedy. To be able to transform whole plants into amazing healing remedies is incredibly empowering. To know that most of the medicine I need for my everyday health care is growing outside my door instills my world with both gratitude and wonder. This is a very different experience than picking up something in a tube at the drug store!
Now my home medicine chest isn’t made up of boxes and pills that I buy at the store. Instead it’s filled with things that I created, remedies that I directly tailored to my family’s and my needs, and remedies I use time and time again so that I know I can trust them to be safe and effective.
The following herbal first-aid ointment recipe was inspired by the potent first-aid herbs that I can easily find growing around me. I actually found the herbs growing in my own garden! I’m using beeswax from a local beekeeper and locally made lavender essential oil, making this an almost entirely local product!
Here’s a closer look at the plants in this herbal first-aid ointment – and why they are so great for first-aid situations.
Plantain (Plantago lanceolata, P. major, P. rugelii)
Fresh plantain leaf poultices are famous for insect stings, such as a wasp or bee sting. You simply chew up a fresh leaf, and then place it on the affected area. It can immediately relieve pain and reduce swelling, heat, and redness. I like to change this poultice every 20 minutes until I feel like it’s no longer needed. The best part is that plantain conveniently grows practically everywhere, making it an easy-to-find remedy in the moment! I’ve also heard of plantain being used for serious spider bites; it’s really a potent plant!
Plantain has many uses beyond bug bites. It can be used topically to address infections and to heal both burns and wounds. Also consider it for an emergency toothache (however, since toothaches can be quite serious, also make that dentist appointment).
People have been using plantain to heal wounds for thousands of years. Dioscorides (40–90 CE) mentions it in his famous book, Materia Medica. Scientific studies done in the past decades have shown us that plantain has antimicrobial properties as well as vulnerary or wound-healing abilities.2 An older in vitro study showed that plantain has both antiviral and immune-modulating effects.3
How to Identify and Harvest Plantain
Plantago major and P. lanceolata are originally from Eurasia and now grow practically everywhere. They love roadsides, lawns, pathways, and disturbed soils. There are over 200 species within the Plantago genus.
There are two types of plantains that are regularly used as first-aid medicine.
One type is commonly called broadleaf plantain. It has oval or egg-shaped leaves. Plantago major (Eurasia native) and P. rugelii (North America native) are both examples of broadleaf plantain. From a practical point of view, these plantains are interchangeably used. From a botanical point of view, they are separate species. One distinctive property is that the base of the leaf stems of P. major are white, whereas the base of the P. rugelii stems are reddish.
The other type of plantain, Plantago lanceolata, has long narrow leaves and is commonly called narrowleaf plantain.
Both the broad-leaved and narrow-leaved plantains have prominent parallel leaf veins. If you gently pull the leaf apart, you will see the strings that run through the leaf veins.
Once you are certain you know how to identify plantain, the next step is finding where it’s growing near you. Plantain loves to grow right on walkways, lawns, and disturbed areas. I like to use plantain that hasn’t been walked on and hasn’t seen a lot of animal activity.
To harvest, choose leaves that are vibrant-looking without any signs of discoloration. Using your hands, scissors, or clippers, cut the leaf at the base of the plant. I like to harvest one to two leaves from one plant and then move on to another plant so I don’t stress one plant unduly. Since plantain grows commonly, this is easy to do.
Which plantain is best? As far as I can tell, each of these three species (and many others) can be interchangeably used. To answer even more practically, the best one is the one you find growing at your feet.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
For thousands of years, yarrow has been used to heal wounds and stop bleeding. People have called yarrow many names over the centuries, including the descriptive names spearwort, staunchweed, and woundwort. Yarrow offers a complete package for healing injuries.
When used as a topical poultice, both fresh and dried yarrow can encourage blood to coagulate, helping to stop bleeding. This is a helpful tip for hikers who may be far from medical care. I’ve seen it work in some dramatic circumstances! Using yarrow to stop bleeding can be as simple as bruising or chopping the leaves to form a poultice and applying them to the area. It’s famous for stopping nosebleeds.
Yarrow is broadly antimicrobial and antiseptic. When you use yarrow on a wound, it can help keep clear infection or yarrow can address signs of infection, such as heat, redness, or yellow discharge.
In the first century, Dioscorides recommended to “pound the leaves and put them on a fresh wound to close and heal the wound, clear it from heat and inflammation and congeal the blood.”4
Recent studies have further confirmed yarrow’s gifts for healing wounds. One study showed that oil infused with yarrow was effective in reducing inflammation on the skin.5
How to Identify and Harvest Yarrow
Yarrow loves to grow in sunny fields and meadows, although it can tolerate some shade as well. It commonly grows all over the globe. It reaches one to three feet in height and is a perennial herbaceous herb, meaning it dies back each year but emerges again in the spring from the roots.
The flowers grow as a compound corymb and are most often white but can have some pinkish hue. The flowers have a distinctive aromatic scent. Yarrow has both the ray and disk flowers characteristic of the Asteraceae family. I don’t use yellow or other ornamental yarrows in the same way as wild yarrow. (Important note: To beginners, yarrow could be mistaken for poison hemlock or water hemlock. Be positive of your identification before using this plant.)
The leaves of yarrow are quite distinct and easy to identify. The species name millefolium means a thousand leaves, referring to the finely divided, feather-like leaves of yarrow. In the spring, they emerge from the ground. They also grow along the flower stem.
I like to harvest both the leaves and flowers for this herbal first-aid ointment. Once you’ve found a safe place to harvest yarrow, using strong scissors or clippers, clip off a portion of the flower head and some of the leaves. Take sparingly from each plant so that it can continue to grow.
Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris, P. lanceolata)
Commonly found growing in lawns and other disturbed places, people often overlook self-heal and call it a weed (although Prunella lanceolata is a native plant in North America).
In western herbalism, herbalists use self-heal for all sorts of wounds. Some herbalists liken its qualities to plantain’s vulnerary abilities. Both of these plants are somewhat astringent and demulcent, stabilizing tissue and protecting the skin’s moisture at the same time.
Herbalists use self-heal for wounds on the skin, including cuts, scrapes, and burns. You can also use it for drawing out infections, such as abscesses and boils. Self-heal also has antiviral properties against the herpes virus.
How to Identify and Harvest Self-Heal
Self-heal is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and has the classic characteristics of this family:
- The purple flowers have a lipped-shape appearance and grow on spikes.
- The leaves are opposite each other on the stem.
- The stems are square.
The plant grows close to the ground, up to one foot in height. It loves damp shady places and often grows in lawns. It will also grow in full sun. It grows all over the globe and readily spreads once established.
Harvest the leaves and flowers when the plant is in bloom. Use clippers or scissor to harvest the upper leaves and flowers. Self-heal is generous! The more flowers you pick, the more it will bloom. However, it’s best not to stress one single plant and to spread your harvest across numerous plants.
Herbal First-Aid Ointment
Make this herbal first-aid ointment and you’ll have a safe, effective and super simple remedy to use on bites, stings, bumps, bruises, burns, and clean scrapes and cuts. You can also use this salve on herpes outbreaks. (Caution: don’t use oil- and beeswax-based preparations on already infected wounds.)
I recommend using fresh herbs that you have slightly wilted. In my climate, wilting them overnight works well. Ideally the plants lose about 50 percent of their water as they wilt.
What you’ll need…
- Large handful of fresh plantain leaves
- Large handful of fresh yarrow leaves and flowers
- Large handful of fresh self-heal leaves and flowers
- 1 1/4 cup olive oil (or other oil of your choice)
- 1 ounce beeswax (by weight)
- 40 drops lavender essential oil (optional)
- Tins or containers
- Harvest your plants one day ahead. Leave them in a cool and dark place overnight to allow them to wilt and lose some of their water content.
- The next day finely chop the herbs. For this recipe you’ll want a 1/3 cup of each plant.
- Place the wilted and finely chopped plants in the top of a double boiler (or a bowl placed over a pot). Pour in the oil.
- Gently heat the oil via the double boiler. You can use a thermometer to measure the exact temperature, ideally around 100° F. I just keep a close eye on it and turn off the heat once the oil is warm to the touch. Continue to heat the oil several times a day for 3 to 5 days. You’ll know you’ve extracted the plants well when the oil has turned green and it has the aromatics of the plants.
- Strain off the plant material and measure out 1 cup of oil. (If you have more than 1 cup, you can use the remaining amount as a nourishing body oil; if you have too little, add a bit more oil until you have 1 cup).
- On low heat, very gently heat the beeswax in a small pan. Once it’s melted, add the oil and stir well. It’s normal for the beeswax to harden slightly in this stage. Stir until everything is melted and combined.
- Remove from heat. Add the optional lavender essential oil. Stir well.
- Immediately pour into tins or containers.
- Let stand until thoroughly cooled and solidified. Store in a cool place and use within a year.
- For clean up, wipe down all oily surfaces with a paper towel before using hot soapy water to wash everything.
Fresh Herbs vs. Dried Herbs
I prefer fresh herbs that I’ve slightly wilted for this herbal first-aid ointment. However, if you only have access to dried herbs, you can use those. Use half the amount of dried herbs than the fresh measurements above.
Using Different Herbs
You could use each of the three herbs above as a simple, or single, herb in this recipe. If you only have access to two of the three herbs, you can increase the amount of those two herbs.
There are many other herbs with broadly beneficial first-aid properties for healing wounds and addressing skin irritation. Some other herbs you could consider for an herbal first-aid ointment or salve:
- Comfrey leaves (Symphytum officinale)
- Cottonwood buds (Populus spp.)
- Chickweed (Stellaria media)
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Now I’d love to hear from you!
Have you made ointments or salves before? What’s your favorite first-aid formula?
If you haven’t made a salve before, I’d love to hear about your experience. We’re also here to answer any questions you might have about the process.
Please share in the comments below.
- Singh, Gurkirpal. “Recent Considerations in Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug Gastropathy.” The American Journal of Medicine 105, no. 1 (July 27, 1998): 31S-38S. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9343(98)00072-2. ↩
- Najafian, Younes, Shokouh Sadat Hamedi, Masoumeh Kaboli Farshchi, and Zohre Feyzabadi. “Plantago Major in Traditional Persian Medicine and Modern Phytotherapy: A Narrative Review.” Electronic Physician 10, no. 2 (February 25, 2018): 6390–99. https://doi.org/10.19082/6390. ↩
- Chiang, Lien-Chai, Wen Chiang, Mei-Yin Chang, and Chun-Ching Lin. “In Vitro Cytotoxic, Antiviral and Immunomodulatory Effects of Plantago Major and Plantago Asiatica.” The American Journal of Chinese Medicine 31, no. 2 (2003): 225–34. https://doi.org/10.1142/S0192415X03000874. ↩
- Ross, Jeremy. Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine. Verl. für Ganzheitliche Medizin Wühr, 2010. ↩
- Tadić, Vanja, Ivana Arsić, Jelena Zvezdanović, Ana Zugić, Dragan Cvetković, and Sava Pavkov. “The Estimation of the Traditionally Used Yarrow (Achillea Millefolium L. Asteraceae) Oil Extracts with Anti-inflamatory Potential in Topical Application.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 199 (2017): doi:10.1016/j.jep.2017.02.002. ↩