Rodale's 21st-Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature's Most Powerful Plants

CHAPTER 6

HERBS FOR BEAUTY and BATH

Since the earliest days of recorded history, people have used herbs and other plant ingredients to beautify and scent their skin, hair, and nails. Ancient records reveal recipes for fragrant hair treatments, healing herb-infused oils, and tonics for longevity and youthful appearance. Botanical cosmetics have been discovered in the tombs of ancient Egyptians, and legendary beauties Cleopatra and Nefertiti are reputed to have claimed aloe as one of their antiaging secrets. For centuries, Indian women have decorated their hair and skin with henna and anointed their bodies with fragrant botanical oils and herbs such as turmeric. Hippocrates (460 –377 BCE), an ancient Greek physician, studied the link between health and beauty and is credited with developing the science of dermatology.

Today, herbs are no less popular as cosmetic ingredients. Herbs and other botanical ingredients—from gentle, emollient vegetable oils to fruits rich in skin-softening plant compounds—offer an alternative to the harsh chemicals found in many synthetically based commercial beauty and hair-and skin-care products. Equally important, they provide exquisite natural fragrances that uplift the spirit, rejuvenate the body, and add to personal allure.

SKIN HEALTH

Beautiful skin is healthy skin. Used on the outside of your body, herbs and other botanical ingredients can help keep skin looking fresh and youthful by exfoliating dead skin cells, improving skin tone and blood circulation, and keeping skin supple and hydrated. They can soothe irritated skin, combat inflammation, fight skin infections, and help to heal wounds, sores, and burns. The botanical world is also rich in alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). These acidic plant compounds help exfoliate and soften skin and are used in many of today’s antiaging skin products.

Having radiant, healthy skin does not depend solely on what we put on our skin—what we put into our bodies matters, too. Taken internally, many herbs—including burdock, nettle, and red clover—have a long history of traditional use for treating skin problems. Drinking plenty of water is also essential to keeping skin hydrated and looking its best. Skin, hair, and nail health all require and benefit from a balanced diet that includes plenty of plant-based foods—nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and healthful oils, and especially those foods that are rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids. Regular exercise promotes blood flow, resulting in a healthy glow that keeps skin looking fresh and youthful. And never underestimate the cosmetic value of adequate sleep—it’s called “beauty rest” for a reason.

Other lifestyle choices are just as important to healthy skin as proper diet and exercise. Exposure to the sun’s rays and cigarette smoke are recognized as two of the leading causes of skin wrinkling and other signs of premature aging. Experts advise using adequate sun protection, such as sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat, whenever you’re exposed to the damaging rays of the sun. Avoid secondhand smoke, and if you yourself smoke, give it up—your entire body will thank you for it.

BEAUTY THROUGH THE AGES

The desire to look and feel our best is universal. All over the world, people have spent time and energy—and money—to develop herbal products for cosmetic and medicinal use.

When other civilizations were still in their infancy, Chinese herbalists were experimenting with the possible uses of plants, seeking the combination of herbs that would do the most to nourish and cure. The ancient Egyptians used eye pencils, depilatories, deodorants, hair tonics, and cleansing creams made from limes, lilies, frankincense, and myrrh. In India, both men and women used makeup and perfumes to adorn themselves for religious ceremonies, as early as the second century BCE.

Ancient Romans used lavender to scent bathwater and linens and to soothe wounds—in fact, this herb’s name comes from the Latin lavare, meaning “to wash.” In biblical times in the Middle East, perfumes and bath oils were made from saffron, cassia, cinnamon, and camphire (henna). By the 9th century, Arab scientists had perfected the process for extracting an herb’s essential oil via distillation. Over the centuries that followed, much of the Arab world was using aromatic baths, powders, and salves to cure a variety of ills.

HERBS for HEALTHY, BEAUTIFUL SKIN and HAIR

The following herbs have properties that can protect, heal, and beautify your skin and hair. Depending on their effects, you can use them to make gentle cleansers, stimulating rinses, soothing salves, and much more. (For how to make healing salves for skin, see Chapter 5 on this page.)

Some plants have had special significance for hundreds of years. One introduced to Europe from the Middle East during the Crusades was the damask rose. Roses and the fragrant oils they produce have been supremely important in the Muslim world since the time of Mohammed (570–632). As early as the 7th century, Arab alchemists used roses and their fragrant extracts to purify mosques, infuse prayer beads with fragrance, sprinkle guests as they entered houses, and flavor foods ranging from sherbet to candy. In fact, one of the books by the Arabic herbalist Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Sina, known in the Western world as Avicenna (980–1037), was devoted entirely to roses. Today, rose oil continues to be an important ingredient in beauty products, as well as aromatherapy.

HERB

EFFECT

Aloe (Aloe vera)

Antifungal, anti-inflammatory, emollient; helps heal wounds and burns

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

Antibacterial, antifungal; used in shampoos, hair rinses, and hair tonics to treat dandruff and possibly stimulate hair growth

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

Antifungal, anti-inflammatory, emollient; used externally and internally for acne, eczema, and psoriasis; good for oily skin

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Antifungal, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, styptic; helps heal wounds and burns, relieves sunburn; good for normal, dry, and sensitive skin types; good all-purpose hair rinse

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Helps relieve itching

Citrus (Citrus spp.)

Antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, astringent; helps heal insect bites and wounds; good for oily skin

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Emollient; stimulates cell growth, helps in wound healing; good for dry skin

Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)

Fights infection, helps in wound healing

Elder flower (Sambucus spp.)

Anti-inflammatory, astringent, emollient; good for both dry and oily skin types

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Anti-inflammatory, aromatic; good for dry skin

German chamomile (Matricaria recutita)

Anti-inflammatory and antiseptic; used for minor burns, cuts, eczema, and other skin irritations; good for normal, dry, and sensitive skin types

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Analgesic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, astringent, stimulating; used to relieve bruises, muscular aches and pains, and poor circulation

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)

Helps promote wound and scar healing, encourages production of collagen

Grand Fir (Abies grandis)

Antiseptic, astringent, deodorant, stimulant, tonic; good for burns, cuts, muscle aches and pains, and wounds

Henna (Lawsonia inermis)

Enhances hair color

Jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum)

Analgesic, anti-inflammatory, tonic; soothes irritated skin

Kelp (Laminaria spp.)

Emollient, nutritive; good for dry skin

Lavender (Lavandula spp.)

Antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, aromatic; good for normal and sensitive skin types

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

Antiseptic, aromatic

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Anti-inflammatory, emollient; good for sensitive skin

Neem (Azadirachta indica)

Antifungal, anti-inflammatory; helpful against dandruff

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Astringent, nutritive; helpful against dandruff; used in hair rinses

Oats, oatstraw (Avena sativa)

Emollient, nutritive; good for dry and sensitive skin types

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Sedative; relieves irritated skin; can be used to make a relaxing bath

Peppermint (Mentha × piperita)

Antiseptic, astringent, cooling, stimulating; good for oily skin

Plantain (Plantago major)

Antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, astringent, emollient; helps with wound healing

Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Anti-inflammatory; used externally and internally for acne, eczema, and psoriasis

Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

Analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic; used to treat burns, cuts, insect bites, and other skin irritations; adds shine to hair

Rose (Rosa spp.)

Antiseptic, aromatic, astringent, emollient; good for normal, dry, and sensitive skin types

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Antiseptic, aromatic, astringent, stimulating; good for oily skin and hair

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Antiseptic, aromatic; used to treat acne; good for oily skin and hair

Spearmint (Mentha spicata)

Analgesic, antiseptic, astringent, stimulant; good for oily skin and hair

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Anti-inflammatory; helps heal wounds and burns (avoid sun exposure after applying to skin)

Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

Antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic; used to treat fungal infections, acne, dandruff, and eczema

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, styptic; helps relieve itching; good for oily skin

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, styptic; good for oily skin

Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata)

Antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic; used to heal insect bites, scars, and wounds

WHY SKIN SAFETY MAT TERS

Your skin is your body’s largest organ. Its surface area can be as much as 3,100 square inches. Although we tend to think of our skin as a barrier to the outside world, it’s really more like a living sponge. Skin can absorb thousands of chemicals, feed them into your bloodstream through the network of tiny blood vessels just below its surface, and immediately circulate them through your body. When these compounds are toxic, they can do damage over both the short and long term.

To experience how easily and quickly compounds can be absorbed into your skin, try this simple test: Place a drop of spearmint or peppermint oil on your forefinger and rub it with your thumb. Be careful not to smell the oil—hold your hand as far from your nose as possible. Look at a clock with a second hand. If you are like most people, you will feel a small sensation—I call it a “puff”—of peppermint taste at the back of your throat or inside your mouth in less than a minute. Your skin has absorbed a fragrant compound, and the compound has circulated through your body, where you sense it in your throat.

No peppermint or spearmint oil lying around the house? No worries—just rub a crushed clove of garlic on the bottom of your foot. A few minutes later, you will have a mild taste of garlic in your mouth.

The toxic and irritating compounds in the personal-care products and household cleansers you use enter your body in the same manner. But the truth is, so many known or suspected toxins are allowed to be used in personal-care products and household cleaners (to name just two categories) that we all need to examine labels carefully and choose products wisely. Opt for those with simple, natural ingredients—or make your own. You can reduce your toxin load a bit by making some of the herbal products discussed in this chapter. —M. J. B.

HERBAL BEAUTY PRODUCTS

A walk through the cosmetics aisle of your grocery or health food store can reveal a bewildering array of products—shampoos and conditioners, soaps, cleansers, and antiaging face creams—promoting the benefits of the botanical ingredients they contain. But be aware that many commercial skin- and hair-care products touted as “natural” contain synthetic ingredients, including preservatives and surfactants. Preservatives give a product a longer shelf life but don’t have an impact on its effectiveness. Some surfactants are thought to be harmful to the environment and are banned in Europe.

If you are purchasing herbal beauty products from a store, it’s a good idea to become educated about the ingredients they contain—or do not contain in sufficient quantities to have an effect. Read the labels carefully: Be sure the products can deliver the benefits they promise, and seek out clinical studies that can back up their claims. How many of the plant ingredients do you recognize? You will find many common garden flowers and herbs—such as aloe, chamomile, lavender, rose, and rosemary—listed, as well as more unusual and exotic plants such as ginger, passionflower, ylang-ylang, and yucca.

An easy, economical, and in some cases more healthful approach is to make herbal skin- and hair-care products in your own kitchen. Herbs can be incorporated into beauty products in many ways. Whole, dried herbs can be added to facial steams; ground herbs can be used to make facial scrubs. Herbal infusions or decoctions (teas) can be used as rinses to add shine to hair or to bring therapeutic benefits to a bath or foot soak. Infused in oil (such as sweet almond or grapeseed oil), herbs can be applied directly to your skin or incorporated into creams, lotions, and salves with soothing, emollient properties. All kinds of botanicals and kitchen ingredients, including fruits and milk products, can be used to make rejuvenating facial masks. By choosing herbs and ingredients recommended for specific skin types or problems (see this page), you can easily customize herbal beauty products to not only enhance your appearance, but also to improve the health of your skin.

You can further personalize homemade beauty products by scenting them with aromatic herbs or essential oils, which are much more concentrated than herbs. (See this page for more information and cautions about using essential oils.) Floral scents, such as jasmine, lavender, orange blossom, and rose, are generally more popular with women than with men. To give homemade herbal beauty products a masculine flair, focus on plants with woodsy, spicy, or “green” scents, such as bay, fir, peppermint, and rosemary. By choosing herbs with clean, light, or neutral aromas, such as calendula, lavender, or citrus, you can make natural skin-care products that will appeal to both men and women.

Because homemade herbal beauty products do not contain chemical preservatives, they will have a shorter shelf life than their commercial counterparts. To reduce the risk of spoilage, make sure that all the equipment you use to make herbal cosmetics is absolutely clean. Avoid dipping your fingers directly into these mixtures; instead, use a small spatula or other clean utensil. Make herbal beauty products in small batches, and store them in your refrigerator to keep them fresh for as long as possible.

To avoid an allergic reaction, test any new herbal product on the inside of your arm before applying it to your face, and avoid getting any cosmetic product in your eyes.

AN HERBAL FACIAL

A homemade herbal facial is a gentle and wonderful way to cleanse, exfoliate, and enhance blood circulation to your facial skin. Performed once a week, it can keep skin looking vibrant and feeling supple. Customize the treatment to meet the needs of your particular skin type.

1. Cleanse your skin. Use a mild cleanser.

2. Steam your pores open. Use an herbal steam. (Or, for very sensitive skin, use a warm washcloth.)

3. Exfoliate with an herbal scrub. Be careful not to rub too hard; avoid the delicate skin around your eyes.

4. Rinse and apply a mask. Choose a mask appropriate for your skin type (a clay-based mask for oily skin or a cream and avocado mask for dry skin).

5. Tone and moisturize. Carefully remove the mask with cleanser and warm water. Finish by splashing with toner. Blot your face dry and apply a moisturizer.

CLEANSERS AND SCRUBS

Routinely removing accumulated oil, pollutants, and bacteria from your face is essential for obtaining clear skin that glows with good health. Gently cleanse your face once or twice daily.

Use a scrub less often—about once a week—to slough off dead skin cells and stimulate circulation. The mild exfoliating action of an herbal scrub will leave your face looking radiant and feeling baby soft. Be careful, though: Scrubbing too vigorously can leave unsightly blotches, although these will fade with time. If you have sensitive skin, be extra gentle.

Oatmeal, lavender, rose petals, calendula, and cornmeal make an invigorating homemade facial scrub.

Mild Herbal Skin Cleanser

1 teaspoon dried herb or a handful of fresh herbs (see the chart for suggested herbs)

1 tablespoon powdered milk

Make an infusion with the herb and 1 cup of water (see this page). Allow it to cool to a comfortable temperature. Mix in the powdered milk. Apply the liquid to your face with a cotton ball or cloth, then rinse with cool water. Immediately refrigerate any unused portion; discard after 48 hours.

Herbal Facial Scrub

1 cup rolled oats

1⁄3 cup cornmeal

1⁄3 cup dried herbs (such as calendula, lavender, peppermint, rose petals, or a mixture of herbs)

Almonds, clay, or sugar (optional; use alone or in combination to total 1 tablespoon)

In a clean coffee grinder, combine the oatmeal, cornmeal, herbs, and almonds, clay, or sugar (if using). Grind the mixture to a fine powder. (You could also use a mortar and pestle.) Store the scrub in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry location for up to 3 months. To use, place some of the mixture in the palm of your hand. Add enough water to make a paste. Apply the mixture evenly over your face, avoiding your eyes. Massage the scrub gently into your skin, using circular motions. Rinse thoroughly.

HAND-MILLED HERBAL SOAP

Fragrant, soothing, all-natural soap can make a facial or a shower feel like a trip to the spa. Why do without it? Hand-milled herbal soap is easy and fun to make, and the creative possibilities are almost endless. Dozens of herbs are fragrant, gentle on your skin, and have antimicrobial powers—use your imagination to combine essential oils, herbal flowers, and other ingredients for fragrance and beauty. Lavender, rosemary, peppermint, and citrus-scented herbal soaps are just the beginning.

Hand-milled soap (also called “rebatched soap”) is especially easy to make because you start with premade, unscented soap—no lye required. As you become more comfortable with the process of making hand-milled soap, you might want to try making soap from scratch using freshly harvested and dried herbs. Many good books are available; see “Resources.”

Basic Soap-Making Technique

You can use this basic method for making many other kinds of herbal soaps. Calendula, used in this recipe, has cleansing and anti-inflammatory properties and is a favorite for treating skin problems. For gift giving, wrap several soaps in a washcloth and tie with a ribbon.

½ cup dried calendula petals, divided

16 ounces unscented castile bar soap, grated

¼ cup finely ground rolled oats

1 teaspoon calendula essential oil

1. To give this soap a pale yellow color, bring 1½ cups of water to a boil in a small pot over high heat, then infuse ¼ cup of the calendula petals in the hot water. Remove from the heat and allow the liquid to cool to room temperature. Strain, discard the petals, and reserve the liquid.

2. In a heavy pot over low heat, combine the grated soap and the calendula water. Slowly heat the mixture, stirring often with a wooden spoon. Be sure the soap does not boil or stick to the bottom of the pot. It will take about 30 minutes for the soap to melt completely.

3. When the soap has completely melted and blended with the liquid, stir in the remaining ¼ cup of calendula petals and the oatmeal. The mix should have the consistency of a thick dough. Turn off the heat and stir in the essential oil. Mix thoroughly, scraping down the sides.

4. Make a test ball. Scoop out a small amount of the soap and put it on a plate to cool. When you are able to hold it, use your hand to squeeze the soap into a ball. If it is too sticky to roll into a ball, you’ll need to add a bit more oatmeal to the pot; if it won’t hold together, you’ll need more water. Return the soap to the pot, place the pot over low heat, and adjust as needed, until the squeeze test shows it’s reached the right consistency.

5. Shape the soap. Remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool. When it’s cool enough to handle, shape the soap into 2½-inch-diameter balls by rolling it firmly between the palms of your hands.

6. Line a tray with waxed paper, place the soap balls on the tray, and cure the soap for 3 to 6 weeks. Turn the balls every few days so that they dry evenly. The longer the curing period, the longer the soap will last when you use it. When the soaps have finished curing, they’re ready to use—or to give as gifts.

Pamper yourself and your family with hand-milled soaps made with skin-soothing herbs.

FIELD NOTES

Nature’s Body Wash

Some plants contain compounds known as saponins—these are a type of glycoside that can be irritating or even toxic if ingested, but which form a soapy froth when shaken in water. Long ago, people recognized the value of this froth for cleaning their bodies as well as objects they used, such as clothing or cooking implements.

Some Native American people used the fresh or dried flowers and fruits of species in the genus Ceonanthus, a group of small trees and shrubs in the buckthorn family, for washing and as a detergent. Another important cleaning plant in North America was the genusYucca, the root of which was collected and pounded for use in bathing, shampooing, and washing clothes. In Europe, soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), so named for its use for washing, was a common cleanser. A diluted extract of soapwort root, produced by boiling it in water, was used for cleaning delicate textiles.

My favorite saponin-rich plant is the shampoo ginger (Zingiber zerumbet), found in many areas of the tropics. I first saw it on Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia, where it is called oanginpele. People squeeze the slimy sap from the shiny red inflorescences and rub it into their hair as a shampoo and conditioner, which is then washed out with water. It’s easy to use and produces immediate results!—M. J. B.

Zesty Peppermint Rosemary Soap

Wake up to the stimulating scents of peppermint and rosemary! Both are also excellent cleansers with antiseptic properties. And because both are astringent, this recipe is especially good for oily skin.

16 ounces unscented castile bar soap, grated

¼ cup dried rosemary leaves

¼ cup dried peppermint leaves

1 teaspoon peppermint essential oil

In a heavy pot over low heat, combine the grated soap with 1½ cups of water. Melt the soap, stirring often with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. After about 30 minutes, when the soap has completely melted to a uniform consistency, stir in the rosemary and peppermint. Turn off the heat and stir in the oil. Finish by following steps 4 through 6 of “Basic Soap-Making Technique” on this page.

HERBAL STEAMS

An herbal steam opens pores and stimulates blood circulation. But for people who have extremely sensitive, damaged, or dry skin, or those who are prone to developing tiny broken veins or capillaries, herbal steams can be irritating and should be avoided unless suggested by a doctor or other health-care provider.

Simple Herbal Facial Steam

½ cup dried herbs (such as calendula, German or Roman chamomile, lavender flowers, orange or other citrus peel, peppermint, rosemary, or rose petals)*

Bring a 3-quart pot of water to a boil, then remove it from the heat. Add the herbs to the pot of steaming water. Wait a few minutes to allow the water to cool slightly. Place your face about 12 inches above the pot and drape a towel over your head. Allow the steam to bathe the skin of your face for a moment or two. Remove the towel, raise your head, and take a few breaths of fresh air. Repeat the process for a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes. As the herbs steep, the rising steam will open your pores and carry the aromatic volatile oil components of the herbs to your facial skin. To finish, use a cleanser, scrub, or mask (if desired), and then splash your face with cool (not cold) water or toner to close your pores.

Dried herbs and flowers, such as chamomile, orange peel, and rose petals, can be added to homemade facial steams.

* See the chart for suggested herbs.

FACIAL MASKS

Depending on your skin type, a botanical mask can be designed to be either a hydrating, emollient, deep-moisturizing treatment or an astringent, skin-tightening treatment.

You’ll find most of the ingredients you’ll need in your refrigerator or kitchen pantry. Many fruits and milk products are rich in skin-softening alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which make them an excellent addition to facial masks. Other good ingredients for facial masks are aloe vera gel, eggs, pumpkin pulp, and unsweetened cocoa powder. If your skin is dry, choose ingredients with moisturizing benefits, such as avocado, coconut oil, cream, egg yolks, honey, oats, olive oil, powdered milk, or plain yogurt. If your skin is oily, choose ingredients with astringent or toning effects, such as apple cider vinegar, banana, citrus or cranberry juice, egg whites, green clay (also called bentonite, available in natural food stores), strawberries, or witch hazel. Once mixed, the mask ingredients won’t keep well, so discard any leftovers.

Simple Mask for Dry Skin

2 tablespoons plain thick yogurt

1 egg yolk or 1 tablespoon liquid honey

Few drops coconut or olive oil

In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, egg yolk or honey, and oil. Use a cotton ball to apply the mask to your face, avoiding the eye area. Leave the mask on for 10 to 15 minutes. Cleanse thoroughly with warm water, then splash your face with cool water.

Simple Mask for Oily Skin

1 ripe banana

1 egg white

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar or citrus juice

In a blender, combine the banana, egg white, and vinegar or juice. Blend to form a smooth paste. Use a cotton ball to apply the mask to your face, avoiding the eye area. Leave the mask on for 10 to 15 minutes. Cleanse thoroughly with warm water, then splash your face with cool water.

TONERS

Applying a toner after cleansing your skin helps restore its acid pH and tighten pores. Hydrosols (flower waters created during the manufacture of essential oils) also make soothing, aromatic toners. Witch hazel is an excellent toner for oily skin.

Basic Herbal Skin Toner

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or lemon juice

1 cup water

In a small jar, combine the vinegar or lemon juice and water. Splash or spray your face with the toner, avoiding your eyes. There’s no need to rinse; the toner will evaporate quickly. Vinegar toners will keep indefinitely at room temperature. Keep lemon juice toner in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

HERB-INFUSED OILS

Applied directly to your face or body, infused oils—vegetable oils in which herbs have been steeped—have moisturizing and other therapeutic benefits. Infused oils are also important ingredients in other herbal cosmetics and skin-care products, such as moisturizing face creams, body lotions, and healing salves.

Calendula is a common ingredient in creams, salves, and soaps that soothe skin irritations.

Good choices of oils for cosmetic use include grapeseed, kukui nut, and sweet almond oils. These oils tend to be lighter and feel less greasy than many other vegetable oils. Olive oil is often used to make infused oils for therapeutic application. For example, olive oil infused with the flowers of St. John’s wort makes an effective massage oil for treating sciatic nerve pain.

To make an herb-infused oil for external or cosmetic use, fill a glass jar about three-quarters full with dried herbs (calendula flowers, for example; see the chart for other suggestions). Pour the oil of your choice over the herbs to fill the jar. Be sure the herbs are completely submerged in the oil; any plant material exposed to the air can cause spoilage. Cap the jar. Allow the herbs to soak in the oil in a warm, sunny location for 4 to 6 weeks, and then strain it carefully. Pour the oil into clean, dry, amber bottles. Label and store them in a cool, dry location for up to 1 year.

You can use your herb-infused oils—alone or in combination—as the base of a soothing salve or skin cream. Beeswax solidifies the mix; vitamin E acts as a preservative. You’ll also need small tins to contain your salve. The beeswax and tins are available from herbal products suppliers and health food stores.

Lavender Hand Salve

8 ounces lavender-infused sweet almond oil

1 ounce beeswax, grated

4 vitamin E capsules

10 drops lavender essential oil

10 drops rosemary essential oil

In a double boiler over low heat, gently heat the infused oil. Add the beeswax and stir until melted. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the contents of the vitamin E capsules and the essential oils. Pour the salve into clean, dry tins. When the salve has cooled completely, put the caps on the tins. Label and store them in a cool, dry location for up to 1 year.

QUEEN of HUNGARY’S WATER

Handed down through the generations, Queen of Hungary’s water is a classic vinegar-based skin toner that tightens pores, balances pH, and improves skin tone. Herb-infused vinegars, such as this one, provide myriad cosmetic benefits and are remarkably easy to make. Although some modern women may shy away from using vinegar as a skin-care ingredient, herb-infused vinegars have been treasured cosmetics for centuries. In fact, few ingredients are as effective at balancing your skin’s pH. The aroma of the vinegar dissipates quickly and does not linger on your skin.

The ingredients and proportions used in Queen of Hungary’s water can vary according to what you have on hand, but the basic ingredients are dried calendula, chamomile, comfrey, elder flower, lemon balm, lemon peel, rose petals, rosemary, and sage. Place the herbs in a jar, cover them completely with apple cider vinegar, and let them soak (macerate) in the vinegar for at least 2 weeks. Strain. To each cup of herb-infused vinegar, add ½ cup of rose water (available from health food stores, natural grocers, and online herb suppliers). Store Queen of Hungary’s Water in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

HERBAL BATHS

Soaking in bathwater infused with aromatic herbs is an excellent way to experience the cleansing and healing benefits of plants. It’s also an unbeatable way to relax and ease away the tensions of a stressful day at work!

Because your body is able to absorb some medicinal compounds through your skin, herbal baths have as many therapeutic uses as they do cosmetic benefits. “Hydrotherapy” and “balneotherapy” are terms regularly used to describe the use of baths to treat physical ailments, including damaged skin. Among many other applications, therapeutic herbal baths can help soothe itchy or irritated skin, ease sore muscles, treat stress and insomnia, reduce fevers, and heal problems in anal and genital areas.

Frequent hot baths can be drying to your skin, however. When treating dry skin, include colloidal oatmeal or other emollient herbs (such as seaweed), or add herb-infused vegetable oils directly to your bathwater. If you’re adding oil, be careful not to slip on the oily surface when getting in and out of the tub.

Because herbs are so easily absorbed through the soles of your feet, foot soaks can also confer therapeutic benefits. Simply add an herbal infusion of your choice to a large basin of warm water and soak your feet for 10 minutes.

How to Make an Herbal Bath

There are two main methods for making an herbal bath. One is to start by making a strong herbal infusion (or tea) by steeping dried herbs in boiling water: Use 1 to 2 tablespoons of dried herbs, or several handfuls of fresh herbs, per 2 cups of water. Then add the prepared infusion to your bathwater.

Another easy way to make an herbal bath is to place a mixture of herbs in a cloth bag (muslin and cheesecloth both work well), and suspend this from the bath tap so that the hot water flows through it and soaks the herbs as the bath fills. After your bath, discard the herbs and save the bag for future herbal baths.

To take advantage of one of the best-kept beauty secrets of the ancients, add about 1 cup of powdered milk to your bathwater. Milk products exfoliate and tone your skin, leaving it feeling exceptionally soft and supple.

HERBAL HAIR CARE

Herbs have long been held in high esteem for natural hair care. Throughout history, herbs and other botanicals have been used in all kinds of hair-care products, from hair rinses and deep-conditioning treatments to remedies for dandruff, hair loss, and other scalp problems.

Herbs recommended for oily hair include sage and burdock. Herbs traditionally used for treating dry hair include calendula, comfrey leaf and root, and marshmallow root. Herbs appropriate for all hair types include chamomile, lavender, nettle, rose, and rosemary. Scalp irritations can be soothed with calendula, comfrey, or German chamomile, while dandruff can be helped with burdock, sage, nettle, or rosemary.

Teas made from fresh herbs and herb flowers along with lemon juice can be used as hair rinses.

Rinses and Conditioners

Rinses and conditioners are the best ways to bring the benefits of herbs to your hair. Many commercial shampoos tout the benefits of the herbs they contain. Although these herbal shampoos smell wonderful (and can lift your mood), they do little to truly improve hair health because they remain on your hair for just a short time.

For more lasting benefits, select herbal rinses and deep conditioners, which are left on your hair for a longer period of time and are therefore better able to coat and penetrate the hair shaft. Dry hair benefits from oil- and protein-rich deep-conditioning treatments.

You can use an herbal tea, or infusion, as a simple homemade hair rinse. Nettle, considered appropriate for all hair types, is one good choice. Or experiment with calendula, rosemary, sage, or other herbs. Adding vinegar or lemon juice to the infusion will help restore your hair’s natural pH. The vinegar scent dissipates quickly and will not remain in your hair.

Simple Herbal Hair Rinse

1 teaspoon dried herb or handful of fresh herbs (see the chart for suggested herbs)

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or lemon juice

Place the herb or herbs in a bowl and pour 1 cup of boiling water over the top. Add the vinegar or lemon juice and steep, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain, let the infusion cool to a comfortable temperature, and pour it through freshly shampooed hair. (Makes enough for one use.)

Moisturizing Deep-Conditioning Treatment

½ avocado (mashed), 1 tablespoon plain yogurt, or 1 tablespoon powdered milk

Egg yolk

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, coconut oil, or shea butter

In a medium bowl, combine the avocado, yogurt, or powdered milk and the egg yolk. Stir to thoroughly combine. Moisten the mixture with the olive oil, coconut oil, or shea butter. Work the conditioner thoroughly through your hair, paying special attention to the ends. Cover your head with a shower cap or plastic bag, and relax for 10 to 20 minutes. Rinse, then wash your hair thoroughly with a pH-balanced shampoo.

Herbal Hair Coloring

Herbs can be used to enhance hair color. The most important herbal hair dye comes from henna (Lawsonia inermis), used in Egypt, India, and the Middle East for at least 8,000 years to provide hair with shine and striking red highlights. Other herbs, such as turmeric and saffron (for yellow) and nettle (for green), were also used. Commercial henna hair dyes come in a variety of colors, but only true, unadulterated henna creates the red color. Black henna, for example, contains a synthetic black hair dye.

Henna is also used to create temporary tattoos that are an important part of traditional Indian wedding ceremonies. The longer the henna remains on your skin, the darker and longer lasting the tattoo will be. The henna dye soaks into the outermost layer of skin and coats the hair shaft, but it does not permanently stain skin or hair.

Various other herbs can be used to enhance natural hair color, even though they are not true dyes. For example, hair rinses that contain German and Roman chamomile are used to add shine and bring out highlights in blond hair. Rosemary and sage rinses are believed to help enhance the natural beauty of brunette hair. (See “Simple Herbal Hair Rinse” on this page.)

Folk Remedies for Hair Loss

Hair loss (alopecia) can be a distressing problem for both men and women, although the condition is much more common in men. Herbal folk remedies reputed to help with hair loss abound, but there’s little scientific evidence that any one of them works. When a hair follicle stops producing hair, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to reverse the process.

Herbs that have garnered a traditional reputation for stimulating hair growth (or at least slowing hair loss) include aloe, burdock, chamomile, nettle, peppermint, rosemary, and sage. One small clinical study suggested that saw palmetto can help reverse genetic hair loss, including male-pattern baldness.

A traditional remedy for treating hair loss recommends massaging your scalp daily with an oil (such as olive oil) infused with rosemary. The biggest benefit of the treatment, however, could be the massage itself, which stimulates circulation to your scalp and hair follicles.