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 Herbal Medicine : Topical Applications 
Not only can the remedies be used internally, but the whole array of topical formulations developed over the years become relevant. Herbs offering a range of actions that directly impact the skin can be applied directly by choosing the most relevant method from the list below.

For details of techniques, please refer to the pharmacy section and and the supplemental reading of The Herbal Medicine-Makers Handbook, by James Green. Actions that may be used this way include can be divided into two broad groupings:
  1. Actions to specifically act locally on the areas of the skin the herbs are applied to. Relevant actions include: anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-pruritic, astringent, emollient, rubefacient, vulnerary
  2. Actions intended primarily for internal effect but utilizing absorption through the skin as an entry point. This would potentially include all of the actions, but most commonly the alteratives have been used this way.

Bath/Balneotherapy: One of the pleasanter forms of apply medications to the skin! They are especially useful in treating widespread eruptions of the skin, removing crusts, scales and relieving inflammation and itching. Basically anything added to a bath would count as balneotherapy. Commonly used are:
  • Salts. Ranging from simple table salt or epsom salts to important salt from the Dead Sea.
  • Oils. Essential oils can be added to supply the wide range of properties these offer, acting through the skin but also via the nose. Fixed oils may be used as well for their lubricating and softening properties.
  • Extracts. These can be infusions, decoctions, tinctures etc.
  • Colloidal Oatmeal. This can be very anti-pruritic and drying in conditions such as weeping eczema or psoriasis.

Open Wet Dressing/Fomentation/Compress: This is the application of a liquid formulation locally. It has the advantage of conveniency and relative cleanliness (as compared to a poultice). Infusions, decoctions, tinctures, oils etc. can all be used in this way.

Poultice: Similar to the above but uses the herb in some solid form. This might be whole leaf, mashed cut herb or any relevant form applied directly to the skin and held in place with a cloth.

Lotion: Liquid formulations for carrying the herbs. The specific effects will depend upon both herbs and vehicle. There will usually be a cooling effect because of evaporation, whatever the remedies contained. They rarely need washing off, as part will be absorbed & the rest evaporate.

Cream: These are suspensions of oil in water, and can be formulated to be greasy or non-greasy. They are primarily emollient and protective. An advantage of creams is that they do not insulate the skin too much, thus not causing a localized rise in skin temperature. Over-heating will aggravate the itching in many skin problems.

Ointments: These are semi-solid lipid based applications. Because of the fats used as bases, e.g. cocoa butter and beeswax, they extract plant constituents well, soften at skin temperature and thus make the extracted material available to the skin. As with creams they are emollient and protective, but stay on the skin longer. This tenacity will have a warming effect locally.

Pastes: Mixtures of powder in an ointment base. A traditional pharmaceutical formulation that is, unfortunately, becoming rarer. This is largely a matter of convenience for dispensers because they can be very time consuming to make. Indicated when the effects of the herbs are wanted on the surface for extended periods of time. Their contents are not absorbed well, but impact the surface. Useful in conditions such as psoriasis where they facilitate the removal of scales.

Powders: This are dry fine powdered herbs or minerals. Examples are colloidal oatmeal, lycopodium powder, cornstarch and various clays. Their primary benefit is that they take up moisture (being hygroscopic). This might be an exudate in eczema or perspiration. They may also be anti-pruritic and anti-microbial.
Tonics for wellness
Actions for the system
Alteratives As with the musculo/skeletal system, the skin is often the focus for manifestations of systemic illness. For the phyto-therapist it is no surprise therefore that alteratives are again the cornerstone for any fundamental healing transformation. Please review the section concerning alteratives.

The therapist is constantly faced with the challenge of selecting appropriate alteratives for any particular individual. The selection model helps through its focus on secondary actions and system affinity, but sometimes this does not help. I have found the following generalization to be helpful. Bear in mind, however, that as with all generalization there are many exceptions.

It is possible to broadly group the alteratives based on their botany and also on their impact on elimination.

Part used: (Primary elimination pathway:)

Leaf (Kidney: Diuretic)
Galium aparine
Urtica dioica

Root/Rhizome/Wood (Liver: Hepatic)
Arctium lappa
Rumex crispus
Hydrastis canadensis
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 About The Author
David Hoffmann BSc (Hons), MNIMHWhilst working in conservation and lecturing in ecology and the eco-crisis for the University of Wales, David Hoffman became convinced that to heal the world, to embrace planetary wholeness and responsibility for it......more
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