An herbal liniment is a liquid herbal preparation for rubbing into the skin. In an emergency preparedness scenario, liniment-making is a good skill to have in order to provide extra comfort for burns and sunburns, strains and sprains, and injuries from accidents or trauma.
Witch Hazel: A Versatile Herb for Liniments
Rubbing alcohol, vinegar, or even vodka can be used as the base for an herbal liniment, but witch hazel extract is one of the most popular bases. And, even though other herbs are often added to the witch hazel extract to make a more sophisticated herbal liniment, even a simple witch hazel preparation makes a great liniment on its own.
A tea made from witch hazel (properly called a decoction in herbal parlance) was used by the Menominee as a rub down for the legs, and to “cure a lame back”; and the Iroquois used it for bruising. For more information on the ethnobotanical uses for witch hazel, type in witch hazel’s botanical name, Hamamelis virginana, over at the University of Michigan-Dearborn online database.
Witch hazel also has several other uses that are good to know. First, it is a natural astringent. Folk uses of witch hazel include soothing burns, insect bites, and stings; as a styptic to astringe tissues and slow bleeding. These are some of the most common uses that have entered into the practice of modern herbalism. Native American tribes used witch hazel for many other purposes, including as a tea for colds, for cholera, and asthma. Liniment ingredient aside, it’s an herb with a long tradition of many different uses and well worth studying.
If you want to know if witch hazel grows in your area, the USDA Plants Database has excellent information on range, habitat, and identification. Witch hazel can also be added as a landscape plant in many areas, and bears unusual yellow flowers during winter when nothing else is blooming. It would be an excellent choice if landscaping with an eye towards herbal emergency preparedness!
Making Witch Hazel Liniment
The advantages of making an extract from witch hazel include adding a longer shelf life, and being able to create more complex liniments using witch hazel extract as the base. This easy recipe for witch hazel extract can be scaled up or down based on the amount of witch hazel bark that is available. This is a different method of preparation than typically used to make tinctures (which are also referred to as extracts), but it works very well and will yield a similar product to the witch hazel extract that you can pick up at your local pharmacy.
- Minimum 3 oz of witch hazel bark
- Enough clean, potable water to cover the bark by two inches in a saucepan with lid
- Vodka (acts as a preservative)
- Place the witch hazel bark into the saucepan and add enough water to cover the witch hazel with two inches of water.
- Bring the pot to a boil, then cut the heat back and allow the witch hazel bark to simmer for 20-30 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and allow the witch hazel decoction to cool to room temperature.
- Strain the decoction through cheesecloth, a coffee filter, or a fine mesh strainer and then measure the remaining liquid.
- For every two ounces of witch hazel, add one ounce of vodka. This extends the shelf life of your witch hazel preparation by about a year.
Other Liniment Herbs
Now that you know how to make your own witch hazel extract, you might be interested in making other, more complex liniments. Some herbs that are excellent for this include:
Goldenrod (Solidago spp) – Goldenrod, a common weed in much of North America, is ideal for a liniment to soothe muscle related injuries like strains and sprains.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) – Comfrey is a good herb to include in a liniment for broken bones and blunt force trauma.
Plantain (Plantago spp) – A popular herb for many different skin discomforts, plantain complements witch hazel’s soothing capacity on insect bites and stings. Combined with jewelweed, some herbalists have reported success in dealing with poison ivy.
Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) – Wormwood has an affinity for fatigue related pains. Mugwort liniments are great after a long day of hiking or hard physical labor.
Arnica (Arnica montana) – Another excellent choice for general muscle related pain, arnica is often used in oil-based preparations but is equally as useful as a liniment.
St. Johns’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) – This can be especially useful for injuries involving nerve pain. Be aware that St. John’s wort has a reputation for increasing the sensitivity of the skin to sunlight, so you may need boost your sun protection while using it.
Other popular liniment ingredients include warming herbs that increase circulation, such as angelica, cayenne, and ginger.
How to Make an Herbal Liniment
When making a liniment, you may find that you have the best results from using dried ingredients. Extra water content from fresh herbs may make your liniment spoil sooner.
Here’s how to make a liniment:
- Choose a few herbal ingredients to include in your recipe. One to three herbs is a good place to start. Think about the intended purpose of your finished liniment and focus on herbs that are a good fit.
- Fill a glass canning jar half-full with the dried herbs you chose in step one.
- Pour enough witch hazel into your jar to cover your herbs with one or two inches of liquid and place a lid securely on the jar.
- Gently shake the herbs each day for two weeks, and add more witch hazel extract if needed to make sure the herbs stay covered.
- After two weeks, strain the herbs out of the witch hazel extract and bottle your liniment for later use. Be sure to include a date, the ingredients, and “For Topical Use Only” to remind yourself that your liniment is meant to be applied topically, not ingested. If you like, you can put your liniment in a mister or spray bottle to make applying it easy.
As you begin making your own liniments, you will quickly realize that adding this skill to your herbal bag of tricks can make everyday life, as well as extraordinary circumstances, much more comfortable.
Further reading on Liniments and Witch Hazel