A friend recently asked how we had helped my son’s spider bite a few years ago and I told her our protocol of poultices of activated charcoal, baking soda, bentonite clay and plantain (alternating). She said: “Great, but what is a poultice… is that recipe on your blog?”
I realized it wasn’t and I can’t believe I’ve never shared how to make a poultice before. They are an age-old remedy that has been largely forgotten in modern times.
What is a Poultice?
Poultices are one of my favorite ways (and safest ways) to use herbs and other remedies on the skin and we use them for a wide variety of things. They provide the benefits of the herbs but aren’t as concentrated as essential oils or tinctures.
A poultice is basically a paste made of herbs, clays, activated charcoal, salts or other beneficial substances that is wrapped in a piece of cloth and placed on the skin. Often, a waterproof layer of plastic or waterproof cloth is added and the poultice is left on for several hours at a time and changed several times a day.
This can be done with fresh or dried herbs or other beneficial substances. The benefit is that the body gets constant contact with all of the beneficial parts of the herb or plant for an extended period of time. Poultices are often used to help boils, burns, splinters, infections and other skin problems. Some poultices can even be used externally to help internal problems.
Last time I talked with my Amish friend, she mentioned using a poultice on a burn and I asked her about all of the different poultices she used with her family. She shared some of her favorites and I wanted to pass them on to you, along with some of my favorites.
Like any natural remedy, these are not meant to be a substitute for medical attention but only an addition or for use in minor cases where medical attention isn’t necessary.
How to Make a Poultice
As I mentioned, a poultice uses the whole herb, plant, clay, salt or other remedy. A compress, alternately, uses a liquid extract of an herb or remedy.
The herb (or remedy) is made into a thick paste with hot or cold water. Hot water is usually used for poultices that are trying to draw out or remove an abscess while cold water is used in poultices for inflammation.
Traditionally, a fresh or dried herb is ground with a mortar and pestle and mixed with water to form a paste. These days, a blender or mini food processor can also be used to smash the herb. Ground dried herbs can also be used.
I prefer to pour a tiny amount of really hot water over any fresh or dried herbs to help extract the beneficial properties and then let them cool to the desired temperature before applying to the skin.
The thick paste can be applied directly to the skin or wrapped between two layers of clean cloth before applying (depending on the herb). Cheesecloth or thin, organic cotton are great choices for this, but it is just important to have a cloth that won’t absorb too much liquid or that is too thick to let the herbs come in indirect contact with the skin.
Last time I used a poultice for a burn on my wrist, I wrapped the herbs between two layers of cheesecloth and placed directly over the burn. I then wrapped it with plastic wrap to keep it on the skin. If I’d know about it, I would have used this reusable waterproof food wrap instead of the plastic wrap and I’ve since added some of these to our first aid kit for this purpose.
With our son’s spider bite, I covered the poultice with some waterproof gauze and taped it into the skin since it was on his upper leg and there was no easy way to wrap it completely around his leg. The specifics will change based on the remedy being used, but the basic method is the same: thick paste, inside cloth, on wound.
2-3 tablespoons (or more as needed) of fresh or dried herbs, healing clays or activated charcoal as needed
Enough hot water to form a thick paste
Organic cheesecloth or cloth for covering
Waterproof covering to keep poultice on
Make a thick paste with the desired herb, clay or charcoal and water.
Apply directly to the wound or place between two layers of cloth and apply the cloth to the wound (depending on the cloth and the wound). Leave for 20 minutes to 3 hours as needed and repeat as necessary.
Types of Poultices
I’ve used a variety of different poultices over the years, from ones as simple as chewing up plantain leaf and spitting on a bee sting to take away the pain and ones as elaborate as an 8 herb and clay mixture. These are the ways I’ve used poultices (plus the ones my friend shared):
Spider bite: Alternating activated charcoal and baking soda poultices on a spider bite – We alternated these two every 3 hours for the first 24 hours, at which time the bite was noticeably better. At this point, we switched to alternating bentonite clay and plantain poultices for another two days until the redness was completely gone. The doctor was not sure what type of spider bite it was and we weren’t able to catch the spider to bring with us. It had cleared by the time we went back for a follow-up so we never knew for sure.
Onion poultice for illness: There are many remedies that I would use that are not recommended for children, but one easy remedy that seems to work incredibly well is an onion poultice on the feet. This one was recommended by my Amish friend and while I don’t do it unless it is really needed (because it smells and is a lot of work), it hasn’t failed me yet. It is made by slicing or dicing an onion and lightly sautéing with a tablespoon of water just until the water evaporates. Then, placing a slice or paste of the onion between two layers of cloth. I apply this to the feet and wrap in waterproof cloth/plastic and cover with socks. I leave this on for half an hour and repeat every 3 hours as needed until the illness is gone. This can also be applied to the chest or back for coughing and congestion. A friend used a smaller version of this over the ear (being very careful not to get anything in the ear and to have cloth between the onion and the ear) for an ear infection with success.
Insect Bites: Plantain poultices directly on the skin are great for bee stings and insect bites. In the summer when plantain is growing all over our yard, I use fresh, but I also keep dried plantain on hand in the winter because it is so inexpensive and useful. This poultice is also said to be helpful for boils, though I haven’t tried this myself.
Cabbage for Mastitis: I got mastitis for the first time when our last baby was about a year old and we were traveling. I didn’t have my usual remedies with me, so I used what I could find in the small town where we were staying. Organic cabbage leaf poultices helped with the pain but to step things up, I added garlic as well. I would place a cabbage leaf directly on the sore area, then place 2 sliced garlic cloves and then a piece of cloth and then my bra. I was able to avoid antibiotics.
Garlic for Warts: Another one that my friend suggested but that I’ve never tried is using a fresh garlic poultice for removal of warts. She said she made a paste of fresh garlic and applied just enough to cover the wart but not the healthy skin around it. She then covered with a bandage and left on for several hours a day until the wart was gone.
Clay for Splinters and Boils: Bentonite clay and other healing clays are often used in a poultice to draw out splinters or to help resolve a boil. I have personally tried this for a particularly stubborn splinter and was able to get it out much more easily. This is made by making a thick paste of water and clay and applying directly to skin and then putting the cloth over the clay.
Salt or Magnesium Poultices: My friend also recommended salt or epsom salt poultices for drawing out infections or abscesses. We used this recently when my daughter skinner her toe outside and got a big scab. We cleaned the area well, but there was a tiny rock that had gotten into her toe. A few days later, her toe was swollen and hurting. While we waited to get in to the doctor, I applied poultices of epsom salt and baking soda (between layers of gauze) and we cleaned it gently. After a few hours, it popped on its own before it had to be lanced by the doctor, and about a tablespoon of pus came out. I would not consider this an alternative to medical care, especially for abscesses like this, but rather a remedy until it can be looked at by a doctor to make sure the infection has not spread. She did not need any further treatment.