The saying “what’s old is new again” certainly holds true for this month’s musings: hot and cold compresses. This therapeutic and beautifying “water therapy” dates back to ancient Egypt, and it is experiencing a resurgence in the wellness and beauty sectors. Headache, fever, toothache, bellyache, joint or muscle ache? Compress. Lackluster skin? Compress. Swollen, itchy or bruised tissues? Compress. Puffy or irritated eyes? Compress. All of these conditions (and more) benefit from the placement of a hot or cold compress—a simple, yet brilliant remedy.
Hot & Cold Healing Benefits
A compress is an excellent way to apply a remedy to the skin to accelerate the healing process for both external and internal afflictions alike. When applied, their gentle action swells the outer dry layers of the skin, allowing skin to soften and become more receptive to treatment with certified organic essential oils and herbs, which are transported into the skin’s tissues. And there certainly are organic essential oils and herbs for practically every type of condition or ailment.
Hot compresses will relax muscles and tissues and can treat joint or nerve pain, muscle aches, and injuries (after acute phase of 24 to 48 hours) and localized infections. They generally promote tissue healing by increasing blood circulation to an area, reducing inflammation (which both help alleviate pain), and relieving congestion. However, if you’re dealing with an excessive amount of inflammation (as in a recent injury), avoid a warm compress. Heat opens up blood vessels, increasing blood flow, which may be contraindicated depending on the injury or condition being treated.
Cold compresses will constrict blood vessels, control swelling, calm inflammation, and reduce pain. They’re helpful with conditions such as rashes, insect bites, sunburn, and minor sprains. Although the hot and cold compresses work well on their own, you can really ratchet up the therapeutic power by infusing with essential oils or herbs. The water draws out the healing constituents of the herbal/botanical remedies, which are absorbed into the skin.
How to Make Your Own Compresses
It’s easy to make an herbal compress of your own. In essence, you’re making a tea with essential oils or herbs and dipping a cotton cloth in the hot or cold infusion. I personally enjoy using both, but essential oils can be the quickest technique. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Therapy recommends lavender, valerian, and chamomile for their soothing, balancing, and muscle-relaxing benefits. Following are directions for creating a hot compress using essential oils; just substitute cold water for a cold compress.
Fill a small bowl with very hot tap water. Make sure the bowl is large enough to dip the cloth you’re using (choose/create based on area being treated). Add 6 to 12 drops of the selected organic essential oil(s). Swish through the water to disperse the oil.
Take a clean absorbent cloth, such as cotton, wool, or linen, and dip into the infusion. Wring out and place the cloth (as hot as tolerable) onto the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes.
Judiciously apply pressure to the compress dependent on the condition being treated, especially if looking to reduce the level of blood flowing into an area. Repeat as needed.
For a hot or cold herbal compress, make a tea of the desired organic herbs (one ounce of loose herbs to one quart of water), strain it, place the tea in a bowl (or cool), and proceed from there with the cloth (you may opt to use tea bags or a tincture of your chosen organic herbs).
As heat enhances the action of the herbs, either change the compress when it cools down or cover the cloth with plastic and place a hot water bottle on it. All vulnerary herbs (those used to heal or treat wounds, like echinacea) make good compresses, as do stimulants (increase energy and activities of the body, or its parts or organs, and most often effect the respiratory, digestive, and circulatory systems) and diaphoretics (promotes sweating) in many situations.
So from cramps to swollen feet, toothaches to bloodshot eyes, eczema to muscle aches, acne to bruises, mosquito bites to burns, consider hot or cold compresses and realize natural relief from what ails you. As always, please consult with a medical practitioner as required. The information provided here is not meant as a replacement for a doctor’s diagnosis and care.
A Few of My Favorite Herbs & Oils
I love my lavender compress to start off my weekly home facial (rose is also lovely!) and my chamomile compress for reducing eye puffiness. A eucalyptus compress is amazing for sinusitis. Try using essential oils of rosemary, wintergreen or cinnamon for muscles aches. Echinacea and calendula are marvelous for inflamed skin. Hot ginger tea or castor oil compresses can ease cramps or any form of gastro-intestinal upset. Castor oil compresses are also marvelous for joint and muscle pain. A lobelia tincture compress can soothe a toothache. Herbs like burdock, red clover, cleavers, and nettles are all very helpful for skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, or eczema. Black cohosh, oats, and valerian root are all excellent for pain, while arnica, rosemary, and St. John’s Wort work wonders for burns and bruises.
Mary Beth Janssen is a highly respected beauty and wellness educator, certified mind-body health educator for the Chopra Center for Well-Being, and the author of six books. To send her your questions, write to Marybeth@organicspamagazine.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Organic Spa Magazine.