Rubefacient Herbs: How Rubefacients Heal the Human Body

Rubefacient Herbs: How Rubefacients Heal the Human Body
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Stimulating, Irritating Herbs

Rubefacient herbs are a class of healing plants which have a unique effect on the body when applied to the skin. They are all powerful stimulants; some have a ‘warming’ effect, and others a ‘cooling’ effect. Regardless if they are hot or cold, or simply irritating, they all have an intense, localized impact where they are applied.

These herbs are not solely rubefacients. They all have many other medicinal properties, most of which are effective when taken internally. When being used externally for their rubefacient properties most of these plants must be in a workable form, such as a poultice, compress, or oil. Some plants, such as stinging nettles, can be used when fresh. They produce a hot, cold, or even painful feeling on the area being treated.

Healing Action

What do these herbs do that is so beneficial? Rubefacients stimulate the dilation of capillaries. Blood is drawn from deep within the body, increasing circulation around the area of concern and speeding the healing process. This form of treatment is good for treating the pain due to minor injuries, such as muscle sprains and soreness. It is also beneficial for arthritic pain. While initially the sensation may be overwhelming, and with some herbs, painful, it is ultimately an energizing, healing action.

List of Herbs

All of the following are in the class of rubefacient plants and can be used topically for pain relief and faster healing:

  • Nettles
  • Black mustard
  • Cayenne
  • Garlic
  • Horseradish
  • Ginger
  • Peppermint
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Cloves
  • Pine
  • Eucalyptus

How to Use

How to use rubefacient herbs depends on the plant. For herbs such as cayenne, ginger, and black mustard, the powder of the dried plant can be mixed with a small amount of warm water to form a paste. Apply a thin layer of olive oil on the skin, and then gently rub on the herbal poultice. For rubefacients such as rosemary and nettles, the dried herb can be used in the same way, by mixing with warm water, or apple cider vinegar to form a paste. To make a compress, make a concentrated infusion of a dried herb by infusing one-half tablespoon of dried herbs, such horseradish or ginger root, with two cups of boiling water. Soak a clean cloth in the infusion and then apply to the skin for relief. Rubefacients, such as peppermint, pine, and thyme can also be purchased as herbal oils. Dilute with a carrier oil, such as avocado or jojoba, and apply directly to the skin.

While dried nettles can be used to make a compress or poultice, the fresh herbs can also be used as a traditional remedy for arthritic pain

stinging nettles

called urtication. The leaves and stems are slapped against the skin wherever the pain exists. The purpose of this technique is counter-irritation. In the case of nettles, the small, hair-like ‘stingers’ on the plant also supply hundreds of tiny injections of phytochemicals such as histamines and acetylchoine. These chemicals, combined with the stimulus from the action of the plant, energize the circulatory and nervous systems. People who have tried this archaic technique have reported remarkable results.

Using these herbs for healing is a safe and effective treatment for conditions such as arthritis, sciatica, and muscle injuries. There may be localized irritation during use. If irritation persists, discontinue use. Be sure to consult a medical professional if unsure about using rubefacients, and be cautious in cases of sensitive skin and skin allergies.


Hoffmann, David. “The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies.” (Element Books, 1996).

Weed, Susan S. “Healing Wise.” (Ash Tree Publishing, 1989).

“Sciatica.” (MotherNature)

“Herbs and Their Many Uses.” (Natural Cures Remedies)

Photo Credit

photo by: Vasya Artemov (CC/flickr)\_obed/507575950/

photo by: Andy Rob (CC/flickr)


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