By Deborah Cooper
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, October/November 2003.
On a sunny windowsill are rows of glass containers. The liquid within them glows in delicious shades of smooth yellow, warming amber and fiery red. Some jars contain fluids that look like they were squeezed directly from the earth — juicy greens and dense ochre. The contents resemble something an ancient alchemist whipped up with thunderbolts and lightning. But looks can be deceiving. Herbal oils are remarkably simple to create, requiring only a little patience and some basic cooking utensils.
“I love the process of infusing oils,” says Tricia Watters, a massage practitioner in San Francisco, who’s been blending oils for four years. “I like to stir them and smell them every day and see the colors that the herb turns the oil. The whole process helps me to get better acquainted with the herb.” There’s great pleasure in making herbal oils to use in your practice. They not only look beautiful, but by using them regularly in combination with your bodywork you can add another healing dimension to your practical skills.
Herbs are versatile and can be infused singly or in combination, depending on their intended use. It may be easier to remember which oil to reach for by considering the particular characteristics of each plant. The following is a guide to help get you started. You can discover more about the uses for these oils through studying their properties and working closely with clients.
Skin Healing Herbs
Three herbs top the list when it comes to healing a variety of skin problems: Calendula, St. John’s wort and comfrey. All three grow easily in a household garden or are readily available from most herb suppliers. Highly revered for their centuries of use without adverse reactions, this trio has a powerful effect on anything from small scratches to chronic conditions.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) — Calendula is one of nature’s “cure-alls” for many kinds of skin maladies, but is specifically renowned for healing burns (even severe ones), cuts, bruises, skin infections, bleeding wounds, rashes and stings.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) — This oil is prized for its stunning red color, making it one of the most beautiful oils to have in your practice room. St. John’s wort is another excellent plant for skin ailments, including burns, wounds, sores and bruises. This oil should be made from fresh flowers for the highest content of hypericin, its primary active constituent.
Symphytum officinalis) — Comfrey is a centuries-old remedy for broken bones, but its use now extends beyond that to the healing of deep wounds, scars, cysts and even chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Comfrey’s renowned skin-healing properties are attributed to its ability to stimulate the growth of new, healthy tissue.
Relaxing and Skin-Beautifying Herbs
Clients often seek out bodywork as an escape from the stress of their daily lives. Practitioners can increase relaxation with several herbal oils known to promote stress reduction and rejuvenation. And while the familiar scents of lavender, chamomile and rose are not strongly transferred to herbal oils, their ability to soothe, comfort and beautify certainly is.
Lavender (Lavandula officinalis)— If it’s scent you’re after, then this is probably the only oil that will retain traces of the herb’s familiar aroma. However, the oil is useful for more than its bouquet — lavender is not only relaxing and sensuous, but its antiseptic properties make it invaluable for repairing skin lesions, infections, improving the tone and texture of the skin in conditions such as cellulite, relieving migraines, stress reduction and increasing a sense of overall well-being. Lavender may also be combined in an oil with the more stimulating herbs mentioned below.
Other herbs to choose in this category are rose (Rosa spp.), which has a long folk history of use for improving skin tone and texture, and chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla and Anthemis nobile). Chamomile oil is not only used for its sedative and tonifying effect, but also for its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Herbs for Bruising and Physical Trauma
Don’t let a reputation for gentleness fool you. Massage oils infused with specific herbs are useful allies when clients present with acute injuries. Keep the following herbs handy for treatment:
Arnica (Arnica montana) — Arnica is an herb that is only used externally. In the homeopathic form, it is well-known for the healing of acute physical trauma. Infused arnica oil will assist with the repair of bumps and bruises, inflammation and external skin irritation, as well as soothe sore muscles. A major disadvantage of arnica is that it must be made from the fresh flowers (or recently dried flowers that are no more than one to two days old), but it is easily grown and found in herb stores.
Other herbs to consider in this category are plantain (Plantago spp.), stinging nettle (Urtica ferox; the dried herb contains no sting) and calendula (Calendula officinalis).
Stimulating and Circulatory Herbs
Herbs are a safe and reliable option when a stimulating effect is needed to increase circulation and accelerate healing. Highly potent plants such as cayenne, rosemary and peppermint are the practitioner’s choice when joints or knotted muscles need concentrated attention.
Cayenne Pepper (Capsicum annuum) — Cayenne is becoming increasingly well-known for improving circulation and easing stiff joints. It is also useful as an analgesic.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) — Not just for use in the kitchen, rosemary is another versatile herb to infuse. Its stimulating and warming properties will help relax clients and ease tired muscles. Rosemary oil will also help relieve the symptoms of colds and flu, clear sinuses and soothe headaches.
Other herbs to consider in the warming and aromatic category are: Peppermint (Mentha piperita), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and
Carrier Oils to Consider
Another great benefit of herbs is that they aren’t particularly fussy about which oil they are paired with. However, as a practitioner you may wish to keep in mind the specific properties of the naked oil itself. For example, grapeseed oil is easily absorbed by a majority of skin types and is known for its antioxidant effect. Olive oil is a favorite among many bodyworkers because of its long shelf life, its traditional skin-enhancing characteristics and its safety as a non-allergenic oil. If you want to save costs and use what you already have sitting in your office, rest assured that any common massage oil can be enhanced through herbal infusion.
How to Make Your Own Herbal Oils
There are two common methods for making herbal oils. The first is considered a “folk” method, in that there are no really precise measurements required. This method involves harvesting the herb and drying it, or, buying freshly dried herb from a supplier. Use an immaculately clean glass jar (not plastic). Canning jars are easily available but any glass container that has been rinsed and has no residue of the prior contents can be used. Finely chop the herb or crush it in a mortar and pestle, then place it in the container. If you use newly harvested herb, be certain that it is completely dried. Any residue of moisture may promote the growth of mold and will quickly turn the oil rancid. This is especially important with herbs such as calendula where the center of the herb is quite dense and may take longer to dry than the petals. Next, pour the oil over the dried herb. It’s important to completely cover the herb and not have any of the material emerging over the top of the oil level. About an inch will provide adequate coverage. Some herbalists suggest the addition of vitamin E oil (400 International Units), which acts as a natural preservative and contains its own antioxidant properties beneficial for the skin.
Place the glass container on a windowsill with plenty of light, but do not place it in direct sunlight, as this will spoil the contents. Remember to gently shake the contents every day to ensure that all the herbal matter is properly infused. There’s no exact length of time for leaving the jar to sit but most herbalists recommend a minimum of five days to two weeks. For some oils such as calendula and St. John’s wort, the changing color of the oil as it infuses provides some measure of its readiness.
If you’re short on time, an alternative method is to heat the herbs and oil. To make two cups of infused oil, use two cups of dried herbs and four cups of oil. You’ll need a double boiler, or a small saucepan placed inside a larger one filled with boiling water. Place both the oil and herbs in the saucepan. Gradually bring the mixture to a very low simmer and heat slowly for two to three hours. A crockpot is also ideal for the long, slow cooking required in this method. If at any time the oil starts to bubble, reduce the heat or remove the pan altogether until it has cooled down.
When the time’s up, line a mesh strainer with cheesecloth and strain the oil. Squeeze the cheesecloth thoroughly when done to extract the most oil from it. Using a glass measuring cup, pour the infused oil into a glass bottle and try to fill it as close to the top as possible. Seal the bottle tightly, label and store in a cool, dark place away from direct heat and sunlight.
Practical Application of Herbal Oils
The application of herbal oils will depend to some extent on the client’s needs. If the client is looking for a relaxing, comforting experience, then oils such as lavender and chamomile will take effect immediately. However, if a client presents with something that requires deeper healing work (for example, a wound, injury or chronic skin condition) then several applications over a number of bodywork sessions may be necessary. “In my experience with applying herbal oils to wounds, they are most effective when used two to three times daily,” Watters says.
Whenever you intend to use herbal oils, it’s a good idea to let the client know at the beginning of the session. Some people may dislike the feel of oils on their skin, or have sensitivities to the aromas.
There are hardly any drawbacks to using herbal oils but there are a few cautions to note. Some carrier oils are derived from nuts, which may affect people with nut allergies (almond oil, peanut oil, apricot kernel oil and kukui nut oil). Generally, people with a nut allergy know about it and will inform you ahead of time, but it’s probably just as well to ask on the client intake sheet.
The majority of the herbs themselves have no history of causing allergic reactions with the exception of the more stimulating herbs, notably cayenne pepper. According to Jeanine Sofra, a massage practitioner and herbalist with more than 17 years of experience, redheads and lighter-skinned people tend to be the most sensitive to cayenne. She suggests doing a patch test so that any adverse reaction will manifest as a burning sensation and turn the skin red. If you’re still unsure, “It’s best to use the more volatile herbs sparingly unless you know your client’s body well and how it may react,” Watters says.
Some massage therapists may worry about the long-term use of any substance especially with petroleum-derived products such as mineral oil. Since herbal oils are completely natural you don’t have to worry about their effect on your own hands. In fact, you stand to gain as much from their use as the person you are working on. “My hands love the oils I work with,” Sofra explains. “They help them to stay supple. Otherwise you would notice my big massage callouses.”
Some clients prefer to receive bodywork without the use of oils. So what do you do with your freshly infused batch? There’s no need to throw it out, as the uses for the infused oil extend beyond just the oil itself.
With heat and the addition of a little beeswax, herbal oils are easily transformed into salves. “The soothing salves I make keep any inflammation away and soothe tired hand muscles,” Sofra says. Practitioners can also apply the salves when working on clients, and they’re especially useful for concentration on small areas of the body.
When making facial creams and body lotions, the plants’ medicinal properties can change them from something ordinary into effective and gentle skin-enhancing products. Where recipes call for plain olive oil or other base oils, simply substitute the herbally-infused version. For practitioners who enjoy offering their clients something to use at home, these herbal salves, creams and lotions can really expand their product line.
Herbal oils are incredibly effective and versatile tools to have handy. There’s a special warmth and vitality inherent in using something so purely natural. “I love to help people feel good and nature does a good job of helping us do that,” Sofra says. Some herbalists even enjoy creating a ceremony around the process of infusing oils to further strengthen their positive, healing energies. By making infused oils a regular part of your practice, you help to reinforce the timeless bond between Mother Nature, the practitioner and perhaps, most importantly, the people who seek renewal and healing in your hands.