For years, the most complicated poultice I found myself needing in my own home was a simple plantain leaf applied to an insect bite or nettle sting. The first time I used a larger, more intentionally formulated poultice, my husband had just whacked his shin bone with a shovel and a goose egg at least the size of a golf ball was quickly forming on his leg. We were evaluating whether he had injured himself badly enough to need a trip to the doctor while I quickly prepared a poultice for him to use in the meantime and I remember thinking, “I hope this helps to bring that swelling down and that nothing’s broken, but it really doesn’t look good.” Thankfully, the swelling did go down fairly quickly once we applied the poultice and he didn’t end up having a more significant injury. Watching that poultice work so quickly to help reduce the swelling and the pain he was feeling made me a fast believer in poultices! Let’s talk a little bit more about them and how to prepare them vs. compresses.
All About Poultices
A poultice is a topical application of herbs that is used to help address skin issues, injuries, pain, stagnation and inflammation. You can make a poultice using fresh or dried herbs, powders, and even non-herbal products like clays, honey, salts, charcoal powder and resins.
Make a Poultice with Fresh Herbs
To make a poultice with fresh plant material, harvest material from the plant you want to use (let’s use plantain as an example), bruise it a bit until it starts to look like it’s wet (add a little bit of pure, warm water if you’re working with a drier plant), then apply it directly to the skin in the affected area. A mortar and pestle can be really useful when making poultices, but won’t always be necessary. If I just need a single plantain leaf to use as my poultice, I can harvest and crush it with my fingers, then apply it directly to the skin. If you’re working with more fibrous plant parts, though, you’ll want to use something like a mortar and pestle to help you break down the plant material.
Make a Poultice with Dried Herbs
To use dried herbs, you need to rehydrate your plant material first. Use pure, clean, warm water, especially if you are going to apply the poultice to broken skin. Using warm water makes it more pleasant to the touch when you apply it to the skin and it may be more effective than cool water.
Make a Poultice with Powdered Herbs, Clays, or Other Powders
If you’re going to use powdered herbs for your poultice, or other powders like clay, you’ll want to hydrate them prior to use with a bit of pure, warm water. I like to mix in a little bit of honey when I’m using powders. It’s antimicrobial and it helps to keep the powdered poultice from falling apart as it dries.
How to Apply the Poultice
Once you have your plant material ready, there are two ways you can apply your poultice. You can either spread it directly onto the skin or you can spread it onto a thin layer of muslin or cotton fabric laid across the skin to keep a barrier between the plant material and the skin (this is especially useful if the plant you’re using can be a little irritating to the skin). Once the plant material has been applied, it is covered with a layer of gauze or fabric to keep it in place and the entire poultice can then be secured with a piece of cloth loosely tied around the entire area to keep the poultice from moving. (Tie it tight enough to keep it secure but not tight enough to slow circulation to the area.)
If the poultice is being applied to your back, it’s unlikely that you’ll be needing to move around while it’s applied and you can skip the securing step, but if the poultice is on your arm and you plan to do other things while the poultice is working, you should secure it to keep it in place.
A hot water bottle can be applied on top of the poultice if extra warmth or circulatory effects are needed. When heat is added to a poultice (either as hot water included in the poultice or as something hot applied over top of the poultice), it is technically then classified as a fomentation.
Replace the poultice with fresh plant material either when it cools completely or as needed throughout the day.
All About Compresses
A compress is similar to a poultice in that we are applying plant products to the skin, but it is more focused on liquids than solids. Rather than applying the herb directly to the body, we are applying a cotton flannel cloth soaked in a very strong herbal infusion.
To make a compress, prepare a strong infusion or decoction of your plant material. Dip a clean piece of cotton flannel into the tea as it cools to a temperature that won’t burn the skin. Wring out the cloth gently, just enough so that it won’t drip, then apply to the skin. Cover it with a piece of dry, warm cotton flannel and allow the compress to remain on the skin until it starts to feel cool. Replace it with a fresh, warm compress as needed.
Why Use a Poultice or Compress?
Poultices and compresses can be used for a wide variety of ailments, including:
- insect bites and stings
- skin irritations
- minor cuts and scrapes
- muscle aches
- splinters (choose drawing herbs, like plantain)
- joint pain
- menstrual cramps
- stagnation or lack of circulation
- lung congestion
- strains and sprains
Have you ever made a poultice or compress? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section at the bottom of this post!