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DIY Skin Care from Medicinal Plants: Easy, Affordable, and Way Cleaner than Clearasil

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Plants have been used as medicine the world over for thousands of years. Making your own botanical-based remedies is easier than you think. The recipe for this fresh plant tincture for skin care treatments comes from a class on “Making Simple Plant Medicines” offered at Colorado's annual Crested Butte Wildflower Festival.

My mother used to tell me that I was born at the dermatologist. From the time I was three months old, I’ve suffered from uber-reactive skin. It’s manifested in the form of eczema, cystic acne, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Pretty, right?

Although I’ve tried calendula ointment and arnica gel (the later for muscle pain) in the past, I’ve never really been sold on the plant medicine thing for my skin or other ailments. It’s not that I think it’s bunk, exactly, but when it comes to treating volcanic zits, I tend to go for the big guns.

That said, I have a longtime interest in foraging for edible plants, so when an opportunity came up to attend the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival (held every July), I eagerly signed up for a class on “Making Simple Plant Medicines.” Despite my dubiousness, I do try to avoid beauty products made with petroleum, parabens, and other eco-unfriendly ingredients, and the hypocritical part of me is drawn to skin creams with botanical ingredients. I just wasn’t sold on pure plant extracts as medicinal agents.

Our instructor, Christina MacLeod, is a licensed acupuncturist and medical herbalist from Westcliffe, Colorado. Through her business, Three Sisters Medicine, she also offers wildflower hikes, and produces a line of herbal apothecary products. MacLeod grows many of her own botanicals for her products, and keeps bees, using the wax salves, and brought bunches of fresh rosemary, nettle leaf, and culinary sage to class for use in our recipes.

It’s important to note that MacLeod stresses that novices to plant medicine use caution. “I emphasize the growing and use of nutritive plants and try to discourage self-diagnosis and self-treatment using the more complex plant chemistries—some of them can be toxic, and need to be prepared and dispensed by someone with a lot of clinical experience. My best advice is to study with a professional or at least take a class with someone knowledgeable.”

Additionally, she suggests that while you should read books on foraging and plant ID, “Never rely on pictures (EVER!!) to identify a plant for internal use. People must know or positively identify what they want to make medicine from. I like to encourage people growing their own medicinal herbs.”

In fact, harvesting medicinal plants, as well as wildflowers, is a practice that’s discouraged by the festival in general. Better to cultivate them if possible, which prevents overharvesting, prevents accidental ingestion of pesticides or misidentification, and provides additional habitat for important pollinators like honey bees (which, let’s face it, can use all the help they can get), ants, and butterflies.

MacLeod began her three-hour class by providing us detailed handouts with recipes, and walking us through the various types of herbal remedies. Most people are familiar with infusions (tea, which uses leaves and flowers, being the most ubiquitous), but I’d never heard of a decoction. It’s a tea made from roots, bark, fruit, seeds, or twigs- in Chinese medicine, it’s known as a “soup.” Decoctions may be used to treat any number of ailments, from gastrointestinal disorders to breaking a fever. Ginger and dandelion root, astralagus, osha, elderberry, and marshmallow are all commonly used decoction ingredients.

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We also learned about vinegars, tinctures, oil infusions, compresses, poultices, salves, soaks, inhalation steams, homeopathic medicines, flower essences, and essential oils. All have their specific uses, and their strength varies depending upon quantity, solvent (the agent, such as water, oil, alcohol, or vinegar, used to extract the healing agents from the plants) and how they’re dispensed.

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Vinegars, for example, are useful as digestive aids, and are prepared as a food—they may be consumed by the tablespoon, or used in vinaigrette. Explained MacLeod, “They’re intended to be nutritive because the acid pulls the minerals out of the fresh leaves.” We made a sage vinegar, but other good plant leaves to use include kale, nettles, spinach, and beet, mustard, dandelion, or turnip greens.

Salves are perhaps the most commonly-sold “plant medicines” on the market. They contain an emollient base that may include beeswax, shea or cocoa butter, and/or coconut oil, and the botanical ingredients are often infused in pure olive oil.

Mosquitoes and other forms of flying, biting evil have always been drawn to me, thus, I tend to scar heavily after outdoor adventures. An April trip to Paraguay had left me with nasty mosquito bite scars on my upper arms, which had defied fading, despite my using every OTC and prescription in my arsenal.

The salve we mixed up in class contained the aforementioned moisturizing ingredients, as well as oil infusions of arnica, nettle leaf, yarrow, and a few others. Lo and behold, when I took my tin of MacLeod’s “Oh Bee Joyful” mixed herbal salve (a pun on a popular local hiking trail) and rubbed it into my ugly, scarred-up arms; I was stunned when I awoke the next morning with a significant reduction in inflammation, and noticeable fading. I’ve continued to use the salve twice daily for over a week now, and the scars are almost gone.

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I think it’s safe to say I’m sold on the efficacy of at least certain forms of plant medicines; I still need to let my vinegar and tincture age for another few weeks, but I’ll keep you posted. Or, you can trying making your own tincture, provided below.

Looking for a good reference guide to help you learn the medicinal properties of various plants? MacLeod suggests The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine, by Brigitte Mars, and Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, by Michael Moore, and The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants, by Guido Masé.

Fresh Plant Tincture

Recipe courtesy of Christina MacLeod, Three Sisters Medicine

This “folk method” recipe will vary depending upon whether you’re using aerial parts of the plant or roots, the strength of the solvent--40% alcohol (brandy or vodka) or 90% (ethyl, or grain alcohol). The solvent must then be diluted with water. Professional herbalists use a standardized method calling for 1:2 (fresh plant to solvent ratio) or 1:5 (dried plant to solvent).

Fill a pint or quart Mason jar about ¾ full of freshly chopped herb of your choice (we used rosemary, which is said to increase circulation and improve memory; other good plants to use include nettle leaf, red clover, alfalfa, oatstraw, chamomile, and the mint family.

Add enough solvent to cover the herbs, and fill the remainder of the jar with water. Seal jar with lid, shake, and store on a sunny windowsill for six weeks. Shake jar daily. Strain and decant, and store in an airtight container in a dark place. The tincture will keep indefinitely, but be sure to label it with date and contents. Dosage will vary depending upon body weight and ailment; for an average-sized adult female, start with one teaspoon, taken daily.

Images: Hamed Saber (top); Laurel Miller (rest)

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