By Maria Noël Mandile
Poison oak and ivy rashes are caused by potent urushiol oil. As little as one billionth of a gram of urushiol can irritate sensitive skin, and the oil stays active on unwashed clothes and dead plants for up to five years. If you think you’ve come into contact with poison ivy or oak, immediately wash your skin and clothes in cold, soapy water. Use a drying soap, like Fels-Naptha or Burt’s Bees Poison Ivy Soap, recommends Nancy Phillips, co-owner of Heartsong Farm Healing Herbs in Groveton, New Hampshire, and co-author of The Village Herbalist (Chelsea Green, 2001). If you already have a rash, anything hot will irritate it.
“When blood goes to the surface of your body, the itchiness gets worse,” 7Song explains. “When you flush, you itch. If you keep yourself calm and cool, in the shade with a little bit of water, you’ll have less itchiness.” Avoid spicy foods, the sun and hot water. Sip some cool, mildly sedating teas, such as skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) or chamomile (Matricaria recutita), recommends Margi Flint, owner of Earthsong Herbals in Marblehead, Massachusetts. These will be especially helpful if you’re emotionally worked up from the itchiness.
Grindelia (Grindelia spp.). While working first-aid tents at events like the Rainbow Gathering, 7Song turns to grindelia for cases of poison ivy. He says grindelia, a perennial herb native to the southwestern United States, works for most people. Kathy Abascal, director of the Botanical Medicine Academy in Vashon, Washington, and co-author of Clinical Botanical Medicine (Mary Ann Liebert, 2003), adds, “It seems to reduce the itching and the inflammation.” Grindelia is not well studied, so we don’t know how it specifically works. Apply grindelia tincture straight on the rash or dilute it slightly with water. This should make the itching stop immediately, 7Song says. If it doesn’t, time for another trick.
Jewelweed (Impatiens spp.). This well-known weed tends to grow near poison ivy and historically has been used in all stages of treating a poison ivy rash. Many people simply pick a branch of the juicy herb, crush it up and apply it to the affected area. However, Susun Weed, director of the Wise Woman Center in Woodstock, New York, and author of New Menopausal Years (Ash Tree, 2003), has found another method she says works more effectively. Pick the whole plant — roots and all — and simmer it over the stove for 15 to 30 minutes until the water turns orange. This color is from the reddish roots, which contain chemicals that appear to act like the anti-inflammatory steroid cortisone. Once you strain out the herb and cool the “tea,” you can freeze it in ice-cube trays and apply directly to your skin.
Green or bentonite clay. Rosemary Gladstar, the Vermont–based founder of United Plant Savers and author of Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal (Storey, 2001), once used her toothpaste in desperation on a nasty bout of poison oak. It worked better than her tried-and-true remedies. The toothpaste company is no longer in business, but you can make a paste yourself by mixing green clay, salt and white vinegar, then adding a few drops of peppermint essential oil.
Clay can be used in many ways. Any type will help draw out irritating oils and soothe your itch. Even mud will do in a pinch, says Andrea Candee of South Salem, New York, and author of Gentle Healing for Baby & Child (Pocket Books, 2003). 7Song generally uses bentonite (available at health-food stores and herb shops) because it is strong and cheap. Mix it with your choice of soothing and disinfecting herbs, like slippery elm and goldenseal. Gladstar sometimes adds a few drops of tea tree or lavender essential oil. “You can make [the clay] ahead of time. It won’t dry out as long as the lid is on tightly,” Gladstar says. Spread the damp clay on your rash as often as needed and let it dry there. You also can use this clay on mosquito and black fly bites.
Oatmeal works well for any itchy condition. It soothes irritated skin while also drawing out any remaining toxins. An oat bath is ideal for a large rash that already has settled in. “Make a big pot of soupy oatmeal, strain it into the tub and put the rest in a sock,” Phillips recommends. You will want the bath water to be tepid or cool because hot water can further irritate poison oak and ivy. Use the goopy sock like a sponge and let the oat slime ooze over your rash. “Or grind up the organic oat flakes and make a cold paste and smear it on,” Flint says. “As the oats and water dries, it pulls out the oily exudate into the oat particulate. Your rash won’t spread, and it gives you relief.”