Basics of Herbal Body Oiling

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If you’re like me and hold a deep desire to cultivate a lifelong relationship with plants as healers for yourself and your loved ones, particularly your children, then I promise that you won’t regret adding herbal body oiling to your toolkit. There aren’t a lot of things I am willing to describe as “life-changing,” but beginning an herbal body-oiling practice a couple of years ago has already had a profound impact on my relationships with myself, my family, and my connection to plants themselves. I’ve gone from reaching for a salve here and there, like when the kids had a diaper rash or a scraped knee, to having jars and bottles of oil all over my house, in the car, in my purse, and in my pockets. The twins also have their favorites that they ask for when they need them, which makes mama awful pleased.

“Our skin is primed to take in fat-based substances, and the nerves instantaneously absorb the medicine of the herbs.”

eBook: Herbal Body Oiling: Ancient Sacrament, Modern Necessity, Amber Magnolia-Hill3

What is herbal body oiling for?

For myself, herbal body oiling isn’t something I do for cosmetic or fragrance/aromatherapy purposes. I use oils for the purpose of delivering high-quality whole plant medicine directly to the tissues in need of their support. I like using herbs in a way that is supportive to my overall health in preparations that are safe for everyday use such as mineral-rich herbal tea blends that serve as daily tonics, or tincture blends designed to have a trophorestorative (nurturing and nutritive) effect on the body. Yes, there are acute scenarios where I use herbs as well, but what about the in-between times? Turning to herbs only when you have a system in crisis leaves out a lot of plant communion and the opportunity to nudge your overall health into a balanced state. I use oils to care for myself above anything.

Nervous System Support

Listen. Our nervous systems need support, and herbal body oiling is an absolutely wonderful way to offer that to ourselves. Since this is meant to be a very basic introduction to body oiling, and I want to cover several categories for how to use them, I won’t be getting into a full breakdown on the structure and function of the nervous system for you here, but I plan to offer information on that in the future and will circle back for an update. For the purposes of getting started with herbal body oiling, understand that our nervous system as a whole is the primary control system for homeostasis within our bodies, which is why this is my number one use for them. The overall function of our nervous system is to take in information from our surroundings, interpret that information, and then craft the proper response to that stimulus, and by developing a mindful protocol for effectively supporting our nervous system we are benefiting the function of every other system within our bodies from our organs to our muscles.

“Learning how to settle your nervous system in the midst of overwhelm is training for fulfilling your soul’s mission here on earth.”

Asia Suler, Instagram Post from July 6, 2020

Herbalists focus most of their attention on the autonomic nervous system, which is in charge of all of our automatic functions such as breathing, digestion, and circulation, and it does so without our conscious thought. This system is broken into two parts: our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight/flight/fawn” response, while the parasympathetic nervous system is what returns us to a state of calm or a “rest and digest,” state. Both of these systems need to be in balance with one another under the umbrella of the rest of the nervous system in order for the body as a whole to achieve homeostasis. I talk about this more below, but one of the things that really stuck with me from learning about infant massage for preterm infants was that by supporting their delicate bodies through their nervous system, we were helping them sleep, we were helping them heal, and we were quite literally helping their bodies GROW through touch — which is one of the top priorities for preemies so they can go the hell home from the hospital. Similar can be said for children, in that routinely applying body oils can help with sleep as well as emotional regulation in acute situations.

For adults, addressing stress and sleep are also paramount to health. One’s nervous system being in a “sympathetic dominant state,” is a reflection of an overtaxed stress response and/or depleted nervous system. Burnout is normalized in our patriarchal society and most of us have no idea how sick we’ve become through being under the gun all the time for all these reasons for which we weren’t designed. When we apply oils to our skin, even a plain carrier oil by itself, we are sending a signal to our brain through a soothing touch that we are safe, content, and calm. In return, our brain tells a multitude of systems within our body that they can “rest and digest.” If your digestion improves, your nutrient absorption improves; if your nutrition improves, your muscles & tissues improve; if your muscles & tissues improve, you move your body more; if you move your body more, your circulation improves; if your circulation improves, your blood oxygenation improves; if your blood oxygenation improves, your brain (your central nervous system, ta-dah!) improves. It’s obviously more complex than that, and every body is different, but I think that helps illustrate the importance of the role your nervous system plays in the body achieving homeostasis.  

Lymphatic and Circulatory System Support

Your lymphatic system is a network of vessels connecting nodes, organs like the spleen, and other tissues throughout the body, which serves as a detoxification pathway for the bloodstream.4 While the structure of the lymphatic system runs in close proximity to the circulatory system throughout much of the body, this system is unique in that it lacks any pumping mechanism to help move the lymphatic fluid around the body. This means that the movement of lymph fluid is highly dependent on body movement for the system to function properly. In addition to physical activity, massage can play a role in both improving the mobilization of lymph fluid, as well as understanding the landscape and overall wellness of your body.

Lymph is a clear fluid composed of a variety of substances, some of the most important being white blood cells, which functions to sweep the fluid of debris such as dead cells and other waste products collected from the blood before it is returned to the blood via outlets near the heart for recirculation. This is also what ties the lymph system very closely to the immune system, as the lymphocytes which make up the lymphatic fluid are also the primary cells responsible for our immune response.

Within the system of lymphatic tissues there are lymph nodes, which are enlarged organs scattered throughout the system of lymphatic vessels, which act as filtration stations that not only cleanse the blood but activate the immune system in response to pathogens. You may be familiar with them from their presentation as sometimes painful swollen nodules in your neck when you’ve been sick with a cold or flu. This swelling occurs because the lymph system becomes congested during an immune response as pathogens are dying off and more lymphocytes are produced in a rapid fashion.

Massage, particularly with high-quality herbal body oils including herbs that have a specific action on the lymph such as violet, yarrow, and calendula, can be a useful tool for the lymphatic system in a couple of ways. One is for the act of massage to manually assist the movement of lymphatic fluid through the system, which can be beneficial both when you are well or under the weather for keeping your system clear of pathogens. In some instances, your medical provider may advise manual lymph massage or drainage as part of a protocol following something such as cancer surgery where lymph nodes have been removed or during physical therapy for sports injuries. This is typically done under treatment with a massage practitioner, although there are techniques for taking the practice home as well that you can discuss with your provider(s). The efficacy of manual lymphatic drainage isn’t entirely conclusive as a standalone therapy, however, it seems to be agreed upon that there are benefits when included in a management strategy. Which, if you are thinking about health in a holistic manner, you realize there is no such thing as a magic bullet.

While I would encourage folks to discuss regular lymphatic drainage with their medical providers to meet their specific health needs, the one lymphatic system related massage practice I do believe can be practiced by anyone starting at any time are monthly breast self-exams. Being able to detect changes in breast tissues including the skin surface, appearance, and tone/texture of the tissue may be of great importance when it comes to early detection of cancer, as well as the ability for self-advocacy due to a working knowledge of the landscape of one’s body. Both of the twin’s grandmothers had breast cancer at an early age (both survived, although each with their own set of lifelong complications), so it is important to me to stay on top of my own breast health as well as working to impart the wisdom of bodily awareness to my daughters. During one of her Medicine Story podcast episodes, Amber Magnolia-Hill described a visit to the doctor where she was acutely aware of a lymph node in her armpit becoming painfully inflamed overnight. Her ability to address the sudden change was possible because of her regular body oiling practice. Breast self-exam is a safe and low or no-cost means of staying on top of your health. It may be done dry (no oils or lotions whatsoever), in the shower using water and/or soap, or using pretty much any body oil or lotion you prefer. As I mentioned above, there are herbs that have an affinity for the lymphatic system such as violet, calendula, and yarrow, which are worth considering for application to the lymph tissues adjacent to the breasts (toward the top of the breasts on the outside, and extending into the armpit) to help facilitate decongestion of these tissues.

Musculoskeletal System Support

Considering the bulk of this article is addressing massage you can probably deduce by now that herbal body oils are excellent companions for overall body work. I certainly take my herbal oils along with me when I see my massage therapist, as well as using them on myself and my family at home when acute situations pop up and we aren’t able to get to a practitioner right away. While I tend to have lots of random oils around the house, including jars that catch all the leftovers of batches that aren’t enough to fill a bottle to sell and are therefore a mix of things I can’t fully remember, there are also instances where I go in search of a specific plant ally.

In early 2018 we went to the Organic Growers School’s annual Spring Conference in Asheville for the weekend, and despite having built up plenty of strength and agility carrying around two babies around the clock for nearly two years, babywearing the two of them for the better part of 20 hours throughout the weekend triggered such intense sciatica pain generating from the site of the spinal I received during my emergency c-section that it suddenly dropped me to my knees. These incredibly intense sciatic episodes went on for about another two years, although they did start to wane a bit when our babywearing days were well in the rearview. The moment I feel any lower back pain, I slather on the St. John’s Wort oil, which has an affinity for the nervous system and the sciatic nerve in particular, and the relief is quite literally immediate. I enjoy pairing the St. John’s with mugwort & lavender when I’m experiencing lower back pain and abdominal discomfort related to menstruation as well.

Bird's eye view of a person getting a massage. Bare back of person laying facedown on a table with a white blanket over their lower half. The back of the head of the person giving the massage is in the foreground with their right arm massaging the other person's lower back

I also experienced a severe fall on New Year’s Day of 2021, where I slipped on the icy stairs with my lower back and hips landing squarely on the edges of the treads, and nearly breaking my foot. First and foremost, comfrey and arnica came to rescue for the bruising and the initial trauma of the fall. Additionally, I have since developed severe issues stemming from my psoas, which has been causing issues from my hip to my diaphragm that has increasingly become impossible to manage without professional intervention. I’ve fortunately found a wonderful massage practitioner who has helped me regain mobility and dramatic pain reduction in just a couple of sessions. For the sessions where we are focusing on deep work I’ve been bringing along a blend of mostly mugwort and a little lavender in addition to the St. John’s Wort, as the mugwort will not only be helpful for the muscles on it’s own but will also act as a “driver” to carry the benefits of the other herbs deeper into the tissues.

Cottonwood is my favorite for joint and ligament pain. When growing pains wake the twins up in the night, they crawl in bed with me asking for the cottonwood salve. Their dad also uses the cottonwood when his long ago broken and pinned ankle is giving him trouble. I have several customers who love the straight oil for their arthritic knees, and I occasionally use it on my own knees as well.

Skin Support

There are also herbal oils that can be employed specifically to support the skin. From dry skin related to working with your hands a lot or having to wash them frequently in your job, to delicate newborn baby skin, after sun exposure, or even relief from chronic skin conditions such as eczema. Several herbs that are commonly infused in oil such as calendula, yarrow, chamomile, and comfrey are terrific vulnerary (skin healing) herbs due to their ability to promote skin cell proliferation. Again, St. John’s Wort is wonderful here for after sun exposure (I like to combine it with a bit of lavender-infused oil) because even with sunblock the very Irish twins get pink even if it’s just hot in the car!

A very dear friend of mine employs calendula oil in a variety of different forms for relieving the discomfort of her son’s eczema. They have mostly been able to address the underlying causes through his diet, however, when that falls off course from time to time, they lean on calendula in the same ways they did when he was very young. She has never used soap on his skin and instead includes a cap full of calendula oil in his bath, as well as spot treating with calendula-based lotions and balms.

In our household, cottonwood reigns supreme as an all-purpose. Fortunately, no one has any chronic skin issues, but the twins are very active farm kids who fall and scrape, step on prickly things, and so on. Cottonwood salve goes under all the bandages, and due to its analgesic (pain-relieving) properties, it is also nice for taking the edge off of painful road rash, as well as providing anti-microbial protection and vulnerary properties to quickly heal up the skin.

How do I start using herbal body oils?

Grab a roll-on or a 2oz pump bottle and put it by your bed, and then commit to oiling your feet at bedtime every night for a week. It’s best if you oil clean feet, so unless you’re already a nighttime bather or foot washer there will be a little extra work of retraining yourself to also at least wash your feet (maybe a soak, too!) If you have kids, I strongly encourage incorporating it into your bedtime routine either immediately after bath time or after a bedtime story. Kids seem to readily take to the connection that spending just a couple of minutes to do a super simple massage on their feet right when you tuck them in. Mine simply don’t let me forget, and sometimes they even offer to oil my feet in return!

Once bedtime body oiling is established on most nights (likely by the end of that first week!) give a full-body oiling session a try. If you like, you can go all out by setting the mood with candles/lighting, music, incense, and so forth before doing your stretches and possibly dry brushing. I’d recommend laying out an old towel or sheet from the thrift store that you can dedicate to full body oiling sessions, as well as dedicated night clothes or a robe that you’re okay with tossing out within a couple of months. It’s personal preference whether you would like to be totally nude, or work around a robe or other clothing that you’re okay getting some oil on. Most nights I put on a movie or tv program since the window between the kid’s bedtime and when I conk out is the only time I typically do watch shows, and it’s a pretty casual affair.

Woman facing camera with most of her face off screen. She is reaching her right hand around the back of her head and is lightly touching the side of her neck. She is wearing a gold ring and a gold earring is partially visible.

I don’t personally oil my scalp, mostly because I don’t like washing my hair at night and going to bed with wet hair, but you can start there if you like. I like to start at my earlobes and work down my neck, collarbone, and into my armpits, very intentionally and with light to medium pressure working along my lymph. I do the best I can on the back of my neck and shoulders. I mostly slather the oil on my trunk and legs, more than I do any particularly focused massage with the exception of my lower back and hips. Although when I’m feeling like it, I will focus on the lymph areas within the groin region. Basically, it’s a matter of following what feels right for you in that time and place. Linger when and where you want, although take the time to observe how your response to the practice changes over time. Even just slathering the oil on much like you would a lotion is going to provide benefits to the nervous system, and some nights that’s all I care to do myself. Now, once you’re done applying the oil it’s up to you if you want to leave it on or wash it off. The skin absorbs the oil very easily, and whatever is left sitting on the surface of your skin by the time you’ve done your entire body is truly just the excess, so you can hop in a quick shower and wash it off without calling it a sacrifice.

You’ll honestly be surprised how much of a difference you’ll notice by learning to focus on what you can easily reach. Some key spots that are easy to access and that have a high return for me in the “feel less stressed” department are the back of my neck, my jaw, and the area where my shoulder, chest, and armpit meet. These are even spots I have trained myself to oil periodically throughout the day. Incorporating body oiling into your routine can honestly mean little under five-minute bursts of thinking about yourself ahead of others for a beat. Consider putting the bottle near a place you frequently sit during the day such as next to your computer or workstation, or your favorite chair. You can also experiment with putting small amounts of oil in the bath (a little goes a long way, and remember oil will make the tub slippery!), or you can purchase salt or sugar scrubs (coming soon!) or even make your own for use in the shower for exfoliation as well as getting the oil onto your skin while your pores are wide open from the shower steam.

Integrating herbal oils as part of the household culture.

Black & white photograph of a man with a dark beard and hair wearing a light or white t-shirt, and a baby laying on their back while dad holds their feet in play and connection.

My favorite application by far is to end the night by massaging the twin’s feet with oil as I go to tuck them in after our bedtime stories, which is probably what elevates this practice to the life-changing category because herbal body oiling has helped me cultivate something so special and important to me on so many levels with my children. One of the most valuable things we learned while the twins were preemies in NICU for 3-1/2 months in 2016 were the infant massage techniques shared with us by the early-intervention team they had on-site. This team worked with NICU parents teaching them preemie-specific childhood development care as well as connecting us with outpatient support for staying ahead of developmental challenges. While we didn’t come away as massage therapists by any stretch of the imagination, the primary takeaways were the benefits of massage on the babies’ nervous system and brain development through touch, as well as a couple of other more specific techniques such as helping to relieve gas and constipation through belly massage for example. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of infant massage specifically, this website is absolutely packed with great information that could be employed for any infant or child.

Wooden bedframe with a yellow comforter, blue pillows, and a blue sheet. The feet of two adults and one infant are playfully peeking out at the foot of the bed.

We continued with regular massage for the first couple of years of the twin’s life, usually as a follow-up to bath time, but then a period of growing independence by the twins saw the practice fall away for a while until I started making herbal medicines again and the house began quickly filling up with a variety of oils. Now the twins (6 years old at the time of this writing) regularly ask for cottonwood when they have growing pains that wake them up in the night, lavender on their feet at bedtime, and are beginning to recognize when they would benefit from some St. John’s Wort when they’re “having a tough moment.” Just today I did a belly massage for one of them using a bit of mugwort & lavender because she was really feeling desperate about the tummy pains she was having, and after some questioning, I decided she was probably gassy and/or constipated and the massage definitely helped her move things along.

The twin’s dad also has some favorites that he keeps stashed nearby his favorite sitting places, although he uses them much differently than I do. He likes to use a roll-on bottle of St. John’s Wort along his temples when he feels an ocular migraine coming on, and he’s a huge fan of comfrey for when he bangs and bruises himself, and arnica and cottonwood for pain management.

I think one of the most beautiful and important things about this love affair I’ve developed with herbal oils is the way it’s changed my relationship with myself. Oils are placed strategically around the house so that they are easily and consistently within reach. I put them in clear bottles for a reason, so that the vibrant colors grab my attention when my mind wanders from the computer screen, or when I reach to switch off the bedside lamp, and I’m reminded to take a minute to oil my feet or my ears and neck right then and there. I have them in my bag so when I’m sitting in the car waiting for someone to run in the store or some such they are right there to make the waiting easier. I have them in the bathroom to remind me to drizzle them in the tub if I’m soaking, or to oil my entire body when I get out of the shower or bath.

Herbal body oiling has helped convince me to actually care for my nervous system, prioritize my well-being, and begin repairing my relationship with my body image and self-esteem. I’ve long felt deeply challenged at the idea of yielding to my feminine side due to having never fit conventional beauty standards, and I’ve got a post coming that will speak to all of that in-depth, but body oiling has been a primary component in my maiden to mother journey here throughout my late-30’s. Along with that, this basic introduction held the focus on non-sexual touch due to wanting to stress the points of incorporating body oiling as a practice in cultivating a relationship with yourself first, getting and staying grounded, and integrating this into the family culture in a deeply caring way first and foremost. While there is certainly room for body oils in shared intimacy on the sexual end of the spectrum, which perhaps I’ll find myself speaking to at a later time as well, it is vitally important to establish a foundation of intimacy within relationships that is not sexual in nature. Hint: it all leads back to your relationship with and care for yourself. If you’ve made it this far, know my inbox is open should you care to share what came up for you in the form of questions or anything you’d like to hear me elaborate upon.

“Her entire life has been devoted to healing the deepest, most invasive unseeable scar that one can ever have.”

Tori Amos
A woman's thigh with her hands pressing a heart shape into the leg.

These statements are solely for informational purposes and have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Any recommended products and the information provided on this website are not meant to diagnose‚ treat or cure any disease or medical condition. It is not medical advice and should not be treated as such. Please consult your doctor before starting any exercise or nutritional supplement program or before using these or any similar products. 

Resources:

  1. https://mythicmedicine.love/podcast/herbal-oils
  2. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/53bb49bce4b05c06d49b5aee/t/5987978e86e6c09a29fbf23d/1502058387414/HerbalBodyOiling.pdf
  3. Handcrafted Healing Herbal Oils  – Online Course with Kami McBride
  4. Popham, Sajah – Vitalist Herbal Wellness Program – The Nervous System
  5. Popham, Sajah – Vitalist Herbal Wellness Program – Immune & Lymphatic System
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755111/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4966288/
  8. https://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2014/02/healing-hands–oncology-massage.html
  9. https://stanfordmedicine25.stanford.edu/the25/BreastExam.html
  10. https://www.breastcancer.org/screening-testing/breast-self-exam-bse
  11. https://www.chrichmond.org/blog/the-many-benefits-of-infant-massage
An advertisement for the Handcrafted Healing Herbal Oils Online Course with Kami McBride. To the left is a table with various bowls of herbs, bottles, and a vase. There are white flowers on a cutting board and a woman's hands depicting her pouring a gold liquid from a clear bottle into a jar with some white flowers in the bottom.
If you’re interested in exploring herbal body oils in-depth with my friend and mentor, Kami McBride, you can find more information on her Handcrafted Healing Herbal Oils course by clicking the above image. This is an affiliate link, which means if you click on the link and subsequently purchase the course, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.