The skin is highly absorbent; constituents of any herbal preparation applied to it will be carried by tiny capillaries under the skin surface into the bloodstream and then round the body. There are various ways in which you can employ this pathway into the body.
A fragrant warm bath is a wonderfully luxurious and relaxing way to take herbal medicines and a very easy way to treat babies and children. You can hang a muslin bag filled with fresh or dried herbs under the hot tap. Alternatively you can add strong herb infusions to the bath water. Soak in the water for 15-30 minutes. You can also add a few drops of your chosen essential oil to the bathwater - always dilute the oils first for babies and children, or if you have sensitive skin.
In a herbal bath the plant constituents are absorbed through the skin's pores which are opened by the warmth of the water. Volatile oils are carried on the steam to be inhaled through the nose and mouth into the lungs and from there into the bloodstream. From the nose, the oils send messages via nerve receptors to the brain and have rapidly relaxing and soothing effect, easing mental and emotional strain. Lavender, chamomile, and ylang ylang are wonderfully relaxing and smell lovely, while rosemary is also relaxing but has a stimulating edge sending blood to the brain an enhancing alertness.
Our hands and feet are sensitive areas, with plenty of nerve endings. Despite some thickening of the skin from use, herbal constituents pass easily from these areas into the bloodstream.
Mustard foot baths are an old English remedy for all afflictions of cold and damp, from colds and flu to poor circulation and arthritis. The famous French herbalist Maurice Messegue advocates this therapeutic pathway for the use of herbs in his several books on herbal medicine and recommends foot baths for eight minutes in the morning. Hand and foot baths are excellent ways to treat babies and children who only need to remain in the water for half of the time recommended for adults - four minutes in the morning and again in the evening.
To make a simple salve, herbs are macerated in oil. Put 16 oz (450 ml) of olive oil and 2 oz (50 g) of beeswax into a heatproof dish, add as much of the herb as the mixture will cover, and let it heat gently for a few hours in a bain-marie. This allows time for the constituents of the remedy to be absorbed into the oil. Press out through a muslin bag, discard the herb, and pour the warm oil into jars where it will quickly solidify.
You can also make up creams very easily by stirring tinctures, infusions, decoctions or a few drops of essential oil into a base of aqueous (water based) cream from the pharmacist.
A poultice is a soft, damp mixture applied to part of the body. You can use fresh or dried herbs as a poultice, placed between two pieces of gauze. When using fresh leaves, stems or roots, make sure to bruise or crush them first. When using dried herbs, add a little hot water to the powdered or finely chopped herbs to make a paste to spread over the gauze. Then bind the gauze poultice to the affected part using a light cotton bandage and keep it warm with a hot water bottle. You can use cabbage leaves this way for painful, arthritic joints or tender, engorged breasts, while a bran poultice will ease mastitis.
Take a clean cloth or towel, and soak it either in a hot or cold herbal infusion or decoction, or in water to which is a few drops of essential oil have been added. The wring it out and apply to the affected area, such as the site of a headache, period pain, backache, inflamed joints, or varicose veins. Repeat several times for good effect.
Liniments, also called embrocations, are rubbing oils used in massage to relax or stimulate muscles and ligaments or soothe away pain from inflammation or injury. They consist of extracts of herbs in an oil or alcohol base, or a mixture of herbal oils and alcohol tinctures of you chosen herbs. They are intended to be absorbed quickly through the skin to the affected part and for this reason often contain stimulating oils or cayenne to increase local circulation.
Essential oils are extracted from aromatic plants by a process of steam distillation and so cannot be prepared at home. You can buy them from many different sources including health food shops and mail order companies.
You can easily make herbal oils, however, by infusing finely chopped herbs in a pure vegetable oil such as almond, sunflower oil, for about two weeks. Place the herbs in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid and cover them with oil. Place the jar on a sunny windowsill and shake it daily. Gradually the oil will take up the constituents of the remedy you use. After two weeks or more, filter the oil and press the remainder out of the herb through a muslin bag. Store in an airtight dark bottle.
Oils can be used for massage, and are particularly easy way to give herbs to children. A few drops of essential oil can be diluted in a base oil (2 drops per 5 ml). You can also put five to ten drops into a bowl of hot water for inhalations, into a little water to use as an aromatic or disinfectant room spray, or in a facial steamer for cleaning the skin.