How to Properly Prepare Fomentations, Poultices, Plasters, and Salves

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While countless diseases can be treated with simple herbal infusions and decoctions, if you’re only utilizing internal methods of delivery, then you’re missing out on a number of treatments that could be quite beneficial to you and your family onc

When chosen and prepared properly, the curative powers of herbs can be truly miraculous.

From building one's immunity to resist colds, to alleviating the symptoms of arthritis; dealing with stress and insomnia to defending the body against cancers, herbs have proven healing powers that equal and often exceed those of synthetic drugs. And indeed, the tenet most herbalists adopt is that nature provides a cure for most any ailment humankind can suffer; it’s nature’s way of maintaining balance.

But, while countless diseases can be treated with simple herbal infusions and decoctions, if you’re only utilizing internal methods of delivery, then you’re missing out on a number of treatments that could be quite beneficial to you and your family once you become accustomed to their preparation and application.  And indeed, these preparations can replace many topical over-the-counter products you currently use.


Fomentation is an external application of herb(s) used to treat swelling and join pain (symptoms of arthritis or sprains), colds and flu, as well as detoxify the body.  A standard home remedy used throughout the world for thousands of years, fomentation can be a very effective way to treat dozens of everyday ailments.

To prepare a fomentation, begin by brewing the appropriate herbs(s) either by infusion or decoction (whichever is appropriate), then while still hot, soak a towel or clean cloth in the brew and apply the towel directly to the affected area (as hot as can be tolerated without burning). Then cover the towel with a dry cotton or flannel cloth to keep in the healing properties. Repeat this process several times as needed (usually when cloth becomes cold). 

For colds and flu, place the fomentation cloths directly on the chest or upper back. (Eucalyptus, mustard, and horehound have been known to be very effective for colds, but if this method of application is new to you, be certain to choose your herbs wisely).


Another ancient application still used by many cultures today, a poultice is used to reduce swelling (such as from sprains or broken bones), treat acne, alleviate congestion, or rid the body of toxins after prolonged illness, achieved by applying a warm mass of powdered, moist herbs directly to the skin.

To prepare a poultice, add just enough hot water to make a thick paste of the chosen herb(s), then apply directly to the affected area of the body.  Then cover with a hot, moist towel and leave on until it cools.  Repeat several times. To draw toxins out of the body, comfrey or plantain poultice works very well for many. To relieve pain in joints or muscle spasms, lobelia, kava kava, catnip, or valerian are commonly used with great results (but do your independent research).

Should any ill-reaction occur, immediately wash off the poultice and apply a thin coat of petroleum jelly to the affected area.


Very similar to a poultice, an herbal plaster is placed between two layers of cloth (cotton or flannel is best) and applied directly to the affected area. This method can have remarkable affects on pulled muscles or over-worked parts of the body. And since the paste does not come in direct contact with the skin, it will not further exacerbate any pre-existing skin condition.

One of the most well-known and effective plasters used throughout history is one made from crushed mustard seed. Used for loosening congestion from the chest or relieving severe muscle strain, nothing works better for many (but do your homework, and wash off immediately should the skin ill-react).


Salves can be very handy and effective. Like any topical rub used to treat wounds, sore muscles, skin rashes, or headaches, salves can allow you to apply healing herbs directly to the problem, and once prepared, can be stored for continued use.

To prepare a topical salve, use three tablespoons of powdered herb(s), eight ounces of pure vegetable shortening, and one ounce of beeswax (add more if the consistency turns out too thin).  Blend all the ingredients in a small, clean glass pan over low heat for 1 to 2 hours (until well blended), stirring occasionally with a chop stick or wooden spoon.  Remove from heat, set aside and allow to congeal. When firm, it’s ready to use.

To store salve, use small glass containers that have been thoroughly washed and dried or sterilized in boiling water.  Store in the refrigerator.  (With practice, this method can even be used to prepare topical antibiotics using garlic and/or honey.)

Note: As with any herbal application, these methods must be used wisely and thoughtfully.  No herb is “one size fits all.”  Never use without first choosing the correct herb(s) and method of delivery.  Herbs can be very powerful but like any curative--natural or made-made--there are those who will have a negative reaction, so have a contingency plan in place.

I am a lifelong herbalist with 35 year experience, as well as a certified herbologist.  Feel free to contact me with related questions. 


Culpepper’s Complete Herbal

Back to Eden, J. Kloss

A Modern Herbal, M. Grieve

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