Archive for Skin and hair

Drink your lawn: blender juice.

blenderjuice.JPGThere was a nasty, hot, lung-drying bug going around these parts this spring. Turns out the perfect thing for it is one of your lawn’s best-kept secrets: blender juice.

Specifically, blender juice made of cooling, soothing, mucilaginous plants. Plantains (Plantago spp.), chickweed (Stellaria media), violets (Viola spp.), and mallows (Malva spp.) are especially nice.

(This combination is also wonderful for hot, irritated digestive systems — think ulcers, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” / IBS, and other inflammatory conditions.)

Making blender juice is a great way to get the fresh, green, cooling properties from just about any plant.

Here’s how to do it:

Pick your plants.

Rinse them off if you need to.

Toss them in the blender with a bit of water.

Blend.

I like to let them sit for a while to infuse, then blend a little more and strain. But you can just go ahead and strain after the first blending if you need to.

Drink.

(Hot tip: mallow/plantain/chickweed/violet blender juice is wonderful sponged on a sunburn.)

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Shampoo-free in the New York Times.

I am so fashionable.

This in the Fashion & Style section of the Times today: Of Course I Washed My Hair Last Year (I’m Almost Certain). It’s an odd little piece, mixing reporting on trendy beauty-parlor washing in New York with bits on the “shampoo free” movement in Australia. And the author is more than a little skeptical.

But it’s proof that questioning detergent-on-your-head has gone mainstream.

The article quoted an Australian radio host who hasn’t shampooed in a decade or so:

Mr. Glover had another reason why some Australians just say no: “We’re tired of feeling like cogs in the machinery of consumption. There’s this feeling of liberation to be able to say no to an entire aisle of the supermarket.”

Certainly a pleasant side effect of a healthy scalp!

(If you’re interested in how to stop using shampoo, check out this post from the other week: Shampoo? What shampoo? Simple herbal hair care.)

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Shampoo? What shampoo? Simple herbal hair care.

I’ve been getting hair care questions in the comments to my facial scrub post, so I thought I would write a bit about how I take care of my own (long, unruly) hair.

Careful brushing. Brushing gets a bad rap because it can cause breakage. But if you have a little patience, you can get all the benefits of brushing without the damage. First, detangle. Brush the ends, then a little higher, then a little higher, until you reach the roots. Then brush firmly from the roots to the ends. Remember what grandma said? 100 strokes? Right. That. You want to spread your hair’s natural oils from the roots to the ends and get the blood flowing to your scalp. (I’ve found that a wood-bristle brush works best for this, but your hair might need something different.)

Herbal rinses. Rosemary and sage are my favorites, but chamomile is traditional for blondes, and rose for redheads. Strong herbal tea with a dash of vinegar reinvigorates your scalp and helps the hair cuticle stay smooth, preventing breakage and split ends.

Good food. You won’t grow good hair if you don’t eat good food. Protein. Minerals. Vitamins. All that. Bone broth is the best food I know of for healthy hair — your grandmother didn’t tell you that gelatin is “hair food” for nothing!

That’s it. That’s all I do.

I hear you, I hear you: “You didn’t mention shampoo! What about washing? If I don’t wash my hair, it’ll get all greasy and icky!”

Well, I don’t use shampoo. And no, my hair is not greasy and icky.

If you want to stop using shampoo but you don’t want to end up with icky hair, here’s what to do: Every day, use a little less shampoo. After a while, switch to a soap-based (rather than detergent-based) shampoo. Then use less and less of that soap-based shampoo. Try washing every other day, then every third day. Now switch from your soap-based shampoo to baking soda water (1/2 tsp in a pint of water) and a vinegar rinse (1 tablespoon in a pint of water). If you brush thoroughly, you can probably stop using the baking soda eventually.

The whole process needs to be done carefully, paying attention to how your scalp is adjusting. I’d say it should take 3-6 months for most people. If you go cold turkey on hardcore industrial detergent-based shampoo, well, don’t blame me if your hair gets greasy and icky!

How to make an herbal rinse:

Pick an herb. Any herb. (OK, rosemary and sage are traditional, like I said. Or chamomile. Or rose. Lemon verbena is lovely, and yarrow is nice and stimulating for the scalp. Mint is pleasant. So is thyme. Bee balm is absolutely wonderful. Play with it! Use what you like!)

Pour about a pint of boiling water over a good size handful of your herb. Close it tightly and let it steep until it’s cool.

Strain your tea and add about a tablespoon of vinegar.

Pour it over your head in the bath. Let it stay on your hair and scalp for a couple of minutes if you can.

Your hair will be ridiculously soft.

If you find your hair’s too fluffy, try some flaxseed gel (which doubles as leave-in conditioner).

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Simple gifts: Yogurt and green tea facial scrub.

dscf1264.JPGI don’t like to buy skin care products. They tend to be either ridiculously expensive or full of sketchy industrial ingredients (yes, even the ones in health food stores).

The thing is, it’s really easy to make very high quality skin care products from things that you already have kicking around your kitchen.

Today I made a lovely yogurt and green tea facial scrub. I think I’ll be using this one for a while. The ingredients? Yogurt and green tea. Yes, that’s all. Just grind up some green tea and mix it with enough plain yogurt to get the consistency you want. You can add a pinch of vitamin C powder if you have it, or a drop of essential oil if you want to scent it (though I like the fresh green tea smell, myself).

I use this concoction as a combination facial scrub / mask. I rub it on with circular strokes, letting the little bits of green tea do the scrubbing. I leave it on for a few minutes to give the lactic acid and cultures in the yogurt a chance to work on my skin. Then I just rinse.

The combination of yogurt and green tea is soothing, cooling and gently exfoliating. It’s wonderful for sensitive, irritated skin. (Some of the most expensive skin care products on the market are based on green tea or lactic acid. This homemade version is cheaper, fresher, and better.)

If you put this stuff in a little jar and put a ribbon on it, you have a great Christmas gift. (Just make sure the recipient knows to keep it refrigerated.)

Here are some other simple facial scrubs / masks (and potential quick-and-easy gifts):

Honey mixed with ground almonds and a bit of oil. (A nourishing scrub.)

Milk and honey and powdered rose petals. (Moisturizing and soothing.)

Yogurt and chopped mint leaves. (Cooling, soothing and stimulating.)

Yogurt and ground basil. (Soothing and invigorating.)

Oat flour and plantain infusion. (Incredibly soothing and healing.)

Oat flour and rosemary infusion. (Healing and stimulating.)

You get the idea. Why not make up your own recipes?

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Old-fashioned flax hair gel.

Remember the flax seed tea?

It doubles as hair gel. Really.

A soothing, conditioning hair gel (not like drying, alcohol-based commercial gels).

This is what the flappers used to set their pin curls in the twenties.

Just make the tea,* strain out the seeds while it’s hot, and let it cool. Hair gel.

You can add a few drops of essential oil (I like lemongrass or grapefruit) to preserve it and make it smell nice. But that’s it.

I have very unruly hair. The flax gel keeps it in pleasant curls rather than unbearable frizz. I just rub it through my hair while it’s damp, and let it dry.

Easy, cheap, and fun.

* For hair gel, I simmer 1 tablespoon of flax seeds in 1 cup of water until the liquid is reduced by half. (I use only a teaspoon of the seeds if I want to drink the tea.)

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Pokeweed: an herb for all things pokey.

poke1.JPG
Now that I’m living on my home ground again, I’ve been feeling like writing about some real traditional Appalachian herbs. So for July’s berry-themed blog party, I chose a classic of Appalachian herbalism: pokeberry (Phytolacca americana).

A while back on the Herbwifery Forum, a few of us were reminiscing about growing up in West Virginia and North Carolina. From our informal survey, it seems like covering oneself in pokeberry juice and running around like a little demon is an essential part of an Appalachian childhood. And it’s no wonder. Pokeweed is everywhere in Southern Appalachia, and the ripe berries hang in shiny, inky purple-black clusters. Squish them in your hands, and they turn bright pink. What could be more fun?

Of course, we all knew that pokeberries were “poison,” so we didn’t eat them. (Unless someone said “I dare you,” that is. And even then we’d spit them right out again. I never knew anyone to get sick on them.)

The truth is, poke is strong stuff. It can be toxic even in moderate doses. Some herbalists stick to diluted homeopathic preparations of the plant, just to be on the safe side. But I prefer the old-fashioned way: drops of the tincture, spoonfuls of the decoction, sips of the wine, or a berry at a time. (Fresh plant only. Poke doesn’t take well to drying.)

So you might be asking, like my ten-year-old niece always does, “What’s it for?” Well, poke is for all things, um, pokey. Poke gets things moving in the body, especially the lymphatic system, the joints, and the metabolism. In other words, it’s an “alterative.” Used externally, it kills things (scabies, ringworm, etc.).

The most common indications for pokeberries in old-time Appalachian herbalism were “rheumatism” and “bad blood.” These days I’d call those “chronic joint pain” and “lymphatic sluggishness.” The usual prescription was to eat one berry a day for a week (without chewing the seeds), stop for a week, and repeat. Three berries, three times a week was another classic dose.

This tradition of on-and-off dosing is interesting. Perhaps poke inspires a reaction in the body—maybe in the immune system—that is triggered only by withdrawal of the dosage? Poke is often called an “immune stimulant,” but I imagine it’s more complicated than that. I often wonder about poke’s effects on autoimmune conditions, since many of the conditions associated with the symptoms of “rheumatism” turn out to have links to autoimmunity.

Modern herbalists sometimes use pokeberries to help stimulate an underactive thyroid, and old texts often mention goiter and obesity as important indications for the plant. It’s possible that poke acts directly on the thyroid, or indirectly on the metabolism through its general stimulation of “movement” in the body.

Poke’s movement-stimulating properties, combined with its affinities for the lymphatic system and “glands,” have led to its traditional use for many conditions involving hard, swollen masses in the body, including simple swollen lymph nodes, mumps, tonsillitis, adenitis, orchitis, mastitis, goiter, and cancer.

In my experience, poke root is one of the best things out there for inflammations of the breast, including mastitis. Fresh root poultices are traditional (though they can cause skin irritation), but tincture of the fresh root or a plaster of fresh berries will work, too, along with drop doses of the tincture internally. (Poke is contraindicated during pregnancy, but okay for nursing moms—in small doses, of course.)

One of poke’s many folk names is “cancer root,” and (like many other lymphatic herbs) it has a reputation as an old-time cancer remedy—especially for breast and skin cancers. It’s interesting that the old authors are split on its effectiveness. I’ve noticed that those who recommend poke for cancer support tend to emphasize using the fresh plant, rather than dried. This fits with what I’ve been taught. Always use fresh poke.

Whiskey tincture of the fresh root and fresh berry wine are the traditional Appalachian ways to preserve the plant for internal use. Traditional preparations of poke for external use often involved extraction in kerosene. This is one tradition I don’t follow. Poke-infused olive oil works just fine, thanks.

My favorite saying about poke comes from Tommie Bass. Talking about the old-time use of poke whiskey as a tonic, he said “It just straightened you out.”

An herbalist’s cheat-sheet for poke:

Parts used: fresh root, fresh berries (young shoots and leaves are also a “spring tonic” food, boiled in two changes of water).

Actions: alterative, lymphatic, antifungal, possible thyroid stimulant.

Affinities: lymph, breasts, testes, skin, joints.

Taste: acrid, slightly sweet, root slightly bitter.

Vitalist energetics: root slightly cooling and drying; berries slightly warming.

Michael Moore energetics (highlights): lymphatic, immune, skin/mucosa, hepatic, parasympathetic stimulant; cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, CNS sedative; berries for thyroid depression, root for adrenalin stress.

Tongue indications: swollen, with a white coating; sometimes foamy saliva (Michael Moore).

Specific indications: Hard, swollen lymph nodes. “Hurts to stick out tongue” (Matthew Wood).

Homeopathic mental indications: “Loss of personal delicacy, disregard of surrounding objects. Indifferent to life” (Boericke).

Have fun “poking” around!

PS: I’m going to post this month’s blog party on August 2nd—mainly because that’s the day we get real internet access at our new house, but also because it gives busy-in-the-summer folks an extra day to make a blog party post!

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Blog Party: Herbs for irritated skin.

The June Blog Party theme was “Herbs for irritated skin,” just in time for summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

As you might suspect, a few herbs were mentioned in just about every post (think plantain, chickweed, calendula). But there were surprises too. (Have you ever used anise hyssop for skin irritation? Lime zest? Prickly pear? Moneywort?)

Here are this month’s posts:

Kiva Rose of A Medicine Woman’s Roots gave us a very thorough inventory of the herbs she uses for summer skin problems.

Angie at The Herbalist’s Path contributed tips and recipes, including a delicious-sounding facial toner.

Ananda at Plant Journeys illustrated her extensive post with lovely photos of her favorite plants for skin irritation.

Darcey of Gaia’s Gifts gave us her favorite recipes, including the aptly named “Plantain Itchy Spray.”

I wrote about that most basic of skin-soothing recipes, the spit poultice.

And of course the inimitable Henriette of Henriette’s Herbal Blog gave a wide-ranging and useful roundup of remedies for all kinds of skin problems.

Next month’s party: Berries!

July in the Northern Hemisphere means berries. Strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, gooseberry, elderberry, huckleberry, mulberry, and currant. Ground cherry, highbush cranberry, mountain ash, honeysuckle, barberry, juniper, partridge berry, and virginia creeper. I bet you can think of at least that many more.

How do you use berries and berry plants medicinally? Write about one plant or several. Let’s have a berry party!

Put your post on your blog during the last week of July, and email me a link.

On August 1st, I’ll post the party here!

(If you’re interested in hosting a blog party, or have ideas for themes, let me know!)

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Herbs for irritated skin: spit poultices.

The theme of this month’s Herbal Blog Party is “Soothing recipes for irritated skin.”

Now, I can think of a lot of wonderful recipes for salves, ointments, lotions, sprays, liniments, etc. But when I think about how I use herbs in the summer for my own skin, I think of the simplest recipe of all: the “spit poultice.”

A spit poultice is exactly what it sounds like. Pick a few leaves, chew them up a bit, spit them out, and put them where they’re needed. I use spit poultices for bites and stings, scrapes, cuts, bruises, burns, and just about any other mishap my skin might encounter in the summer.

Here are some of my favorite herbs for spit poultices:

All Heal (Prunella vulgaris). All heal (also called “heal all” or “self heal”) is a great all-purpose spit poultice—no surprise, considering its name. It’s good for cuts, bruises, burns, bites, and irritations of all kinds.

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma or M. fistulosa). Also called “wild bergamot” or “sweet leaf,” bee balm is one of the best plants to poultice on burns of any kind.

Chickweed (Stellaria media). Chickweed is incredibly soothing. It’s wonderful for irritations of the eye; also stings and superficial inflammations.

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale). Comfrey poultices are good for interior swellings (bruises and sprains) and exterior abrasions (scrapes and superficial cuts).

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea). Ground ivy is a great poultice for bruises, especially dark purple ones (think of the classic black eye).

Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia). Moneywort (also called “creeping jenny”) is a good poultice for all sorts of wounds, especially old ones that refuse to close.

Plantain (Plantago major or P. lanceolata). Plantain is the classic spit poultice herb. A plantain spit poultice is the best thing I know of for any kind of bite or sting. It works great for redness and swelling in general, too.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). This much-maligned plant makes a great poultice for running sores and ulcers.

Violet (Viola sororia or V. odorata). Violet’s mucilage makes it lovely for burns (including sunburn), but it’s also great for bruises, irritations, and swellings.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Yarrow is especially good for deep, clean cuts. Bruises, too. It’s one of the best herbs to stop bleeding, particularly when there’s thin, bright red blood.

Most of these are common underfoot plants. If you need a spit poultice, you can usually look around and find at least two or three of them. And most of them are good for most skin problems in a pinch. (But don’t use comfrey on deep wounds—it can cause the skin to heal over a wound that isn’t ready to be sealed off.)

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Winter skin care: green tea moisturizing cream.

Green Tea Moisturizing Cream

Since the temperature dropped a week or two ago, my skin has been painfully dry.

I don’t generally like to use store-bought lotions and creams because almost all of them (even “natural” brands) have weird ingredients in them: drying alcohols, toxic preservatives, etc. And the ones that have good ingredients tend to be way too expensive for me. So I make my own.

This week I made a thick cream based on coconut oil (Cocos nucifera), green tea (Camellia sinensis) and oats (Avena sativa). It’s a rich moisturizer—the oats and green tea are soothing and healing, and the coconut oil forms a barrier that protects skin from harsh weather.

This is how I made it.

1. Melt 3-4 tablespoons of grated beeswax with 1/2 cup of coconut oil and 1/2 cup of grapeseed or other skin-friendly liquid oil (more beeswax makes a thicker cream). When it’s thoroughly melted, pour the oil mixture into a blender and let it cool completely.

2. Make a strong infusion from 2 tablespoons green tea and 3/4 cup almost-boiling water (don’t use boiling water on green tea; it destroys some of the medicine). Let it steep for 5 minutes or so. Then pour it through cheesecloth or muslin and wring it out. You should have about 1/2 cup of strong tea.

3. Simmer a small handful of oats in 3/4 cup water for about 10 minutes. Let it sit for a while (at least 1/2 hour). Strain. You should have about 1/2 cup of oat water.

4. Mix the oat water and the green tea together. These are your “waters” (as opposed to oils).

5. When both the oils and the waters are completely cool (it’s easiest to just wait until the next morning), put the waters into a pitcher or another container that’s easy to pour. Then get the blender going on its highest speed and pour the waters in a slow, steady stream into the center of the blending oils. When you’ve almost finished adding the waters, pay close attention. When the cream is ready, the blender will start to sputter and choke a little bit. When this happens, turn the blender off. Your cream is done. You can stir it more by hand if you like, but if you beat it too much it might separate. (This is also a good time to add a few drops of essential oil if you want to scent your cream. I used 5 drops of grapefruit oil.)

6. Scoop the cream into jars, and store it someplace cool. (Since it doesn’t have any preservatives in it, it’s a bit perishable. If you won’t be using it for a long time, you can store it in the refrigerator.)

You can vary the recipe in all sorts of ways, but make sure you have 1 cup each of oils and waters, and that they are at room temperature when you blend them. (The basic proportions of this cream are based on the recipe for Rosemary Gladstar‘s “Perfect Cream,” which can be found on Recipenet or in her many books.)

Some notes:

Because this cream doesn’t have drying alcohols in it like most store-bought creams do, it takes a few minutes to soak in. Don’t worry, your skin will absorb it.

Since this cream feels oilier than store-bought creams, people sometimes worry that it might promote breakouts. I have never found that to be the case. In fact, I’ve used it to soothe acne-prone skin with good results. But everyone’s skin is different, so you’ll have to try it and see how it feels.

New note (11 Feb): If it’s on the cool side in your house (i.e., your room temperature is below 68 or so), you might want to use less coconut oil and more liquid oil so that the final oil mix is soft enough for the blender to work with at room temperature. (The day I made this cream the wood fire in our house was really roaring.)

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