Nurse preparing a compress

From the Herbalists’ understanding, a herbal compress or fomentation (which is another name for a compress) is where a person has taken a piece of cloth, flannel, cotton or similar material and infuses it with ‘herbal solution’, which can be either a tea infusion or decoction, diluted tincture, or an infused herbal oil, or a diluted essential/volatile oil, or just castor oil. Then, it is folded to the size of the area of concern, an externally applied to area of the body that requires some form of treatment.

Some people confuse a compress with a poultice or plaster, but they are different in many ways, but the principle difference is that you are not using any herbal paste or mixture. To give an example, the most basic compress is to dip a towel into cool water, wring it out and place it on your forehead to cool yourself down. A poultice is when you make a thick herbal mixture or paste, possibly adding flours or oils, wrap it in a cloth to protect the skin and place that on the affected area to draw and/or stimulate or soothe.

To add further understanding and depth to this subject, we need to understand that there are both Cold and Hot versions. A cold compress, which is actually called a ‘wrap’, is used on fevers, (remember those old movies of people putting cloths on someone’s forehead?) headaches, skin, muscle and joint inflammation and sore throats, and cold compresses can be left on for many hours or over night. Hot compresses, which are specifically called fomentations, can also be used on swelling/oedema, colds and flu, sore and tired eyes, and much more as we will see.

Compresses are not to be confused with compression bandages, sleeves or stockings, which certainly have there uses to help reduce the swelling of a specific area, keeping fluids from accumulating usually at an injured site. Sleeves are similar, but are considered more ‘long term’ and for blood circulation management, for example, Deep vein thrombosis.

Compression bandages are typically used on sprains such as, wrist and ankles, strain, oedema, varicose veins, bruises and contusions.

Reasons why to use a Compress

A compress has several functions, and they are: to soften tissue, alleviate inflammation, stimulate and to moderate or reduce pain. Compresses can draw, but for serious drawing use either a poultice or plaster.

This treatment can be used for many conditions, such as, angry rashes, acne, irritable and inflamed skin, sore muscles, spasms, sprains and strains affecting muscles, as well as ligaments, tendons, and joints. It can help to move stagnant fluids such as, those around old injured joints that should have healed.

Also assisting in the removal of congestion, phlegm, and mucus, and other respiratory issues such as, coughs, colds, flus, and sore throats, as well as easing asthma and bronchitis. For cramps and menstrual cramps and other pains in the abdomen, lower back pain and pains and even strong pains.

By stimulating the circulation it helps with the conditions mentioned above, plus helping with swelling/oedema. (You wouldn’t use a hot compress on an immediate swelling) And if you know what your doing it can help during labour.

How to do Compresses

There are frankly so many different ways to use and apply a compress due to the many and varied methods, equipment and additives that can be used. So I will suggest some simple solutions, and I hope that they will help you get started, and remember, there are really is no ‘fixed’ way of doing this.

Choice of Herbs for Compresses

There is quite a range of herbs that can be used in compresses, below I have listed some you may want to try. Where it starts to get confusing, is what to use where and when.

Herbal Tinctures, Infused oils, Infusions or Decoctions:

  • Camellia sinensis (black, green or white tea)
  • German Chamomile
  • Linseed
  • Fenugreek seed
  • Plantain
  • Ribwort
  • Chickweed
  • Arnica (don’t use arnica on open wounds)
  • Comfrey
  • Elderberry
  • Irish moss
  • Slippery elm
  • Marshmallow
  • Marigold
  • Mullein
  • Hound’s tongue (Do not ingest Hound’s tongue as it is poisonous)


Any fabric or material that is absorbent:

  • Linen
  • Cotton
  • Cotton wool
  • Flannel
  • Wash cloth
  • Small towel

Compress oils:

  • V-6 oil (A blend of 7 food grade oils, it has no colour, odour or stains.)
  • Castor oil
  • Vitamin E oil
  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Linseed/flaxseed oil

Essential oils:

This can be such a huge range of possibilities depending on what you may want to achieve, especially if you want to add the special attributes of pure essentials oils. As you can influence many different systems, such as the digestive, emotional, hormonal, immune, musculo-skeletal, nervous and respiratory systems as well as the skin.

A short list of musculo-skeletal essential oils could be:

  • Basil
  • Celery seed
  • Citronella
  • Cypress
  • Eucalyptus
  • Balsam, Douglas and White firs
  • Oregano
  • Peppermint
  • Rosemary
  • Lavender sage
  • Thyme
  • Wintergreen
Range and affects of essential oils are great

How to make a basic Compress

Hot Compresses – Basics

Equipment you will need

  • A bowl, basin or suitable container
  • A towel or similar
  • Kettle or saucepan, if you are making infusions, decoctions or applying a hot compress
  • Herb, tincture or essential oil
  • A suitable sized cloth, cotton, flannel and similar, if you were in the bush, could you use bark?
  • Plastic cling wrap or oil cloth
  • Optional: something to hold the compress into place (this is not always needed)


  • Place the towel over the bowl
  • Place your cloth or flannel in the middle of the towel
  • Push the towel and cloth down to the bottom
  • Pour in the infusion, decoction or diluted tincture mix over the top
  • Make sure it is completely soaked, give it couple of minutes
  • Whilst waiting for it to soak, rub some olive oil over the area as this helps with penetration of the heat
  • Bring the ends of the towel together and twist the towel in opposite directions
  • Squeeze out all the liquid
  • Open up the towel and take the cloth out and shake loose the cloth
  • Fold up the cloth to a size to the area concerned
You can now go several different ways:
  • Place the compress onto the area and either you hold or get the person themselves to hold it in place
  • Cover the cloth with cotton wool or similar, then wrap the cloth and cotton to the body with cling wrap or an oily cloth to hold it into place, then place a hot water bottle on top to continue the heat
  • If the person is lying down, then you can just leave the compress on the area and put a towel over that, and then add a hot water bottle

Ginger Fomentation

This one can be used for many of the conditions mentioned above.

Equipment you will need

  • Ginger root, about 5cm / 2″ of grated ginger
  • Saucepan
  • Grater
  • A cloth two to four times bigger than the area or several pieces joined together
  • Hot water bottle or heating pad
  • 2 Towels


  • Make a ginger tea decoction from grated ginger and one litre of water in the saucepan and turn off the heat
  • While still hot, place the cloth into the decoction and allow to soak for 5 minutes
  • Carefully remove the cloth and squeeze out the liquid
  • Fold down to the size of the area
  • Quickly place the cloth onto the area being treated, but make sure its not too hot
  • Cover with cling wrap
  • Place the first towel over the plastic
  • Place the water bottle or heating pad on the area
  • Then cover again with another towel

This can be left on for 20 to 30 minutes, once it becomes cool it isn’t of use any more. Depending on the level of pain, you can ‘up-the-ante’, by making a larger batch, keeping the decoction on a very low heat, and having about four to five separate cloths, rotating these at a faster rate say every 5 to 10 minutes, or whatever the person needs. But try not to burn them!

Castor oil Compress

This can be used for extreme pain in most cases. I have personally applied it during the passing of gall stones. But it can be used on many other conditions, because the affect is deep, such as, cysts, warts, growths, detoxifying, helping liver and bladder disorders, but these will need to be repeated treatments over time.

Equipment you will need

  • Enough folded cloth or even towelling to make several 6mm / 1/4″ cloth pads
  • 500ml to half a quart of castor oil
  • Steamer or double boiler or something to apply heat to several pads in rotation
  • Towel


  • Soak the pads in the castor oil, they just need to be moist, not dripping wet
  • Begin heating up the pads
  • Once they are hot enough, start placing the pads on the area for treatment
  • Cover them with a towel
  • Rotate them as each one begins to cool down

With this process, you will need to make sure you don’t burn the person. If treating pain, keep going to until the pain settles down.

Please remember, severe pain anywhere, should be seen to by a health care professional or please visit the hospital for medical advice.

Cold Compress – Basics

Equipment you will need

  • Cloth at least 2 times the size of the area concerned
  • Balls of cotton wool or cotton gauze approximately the size of the area you want to treat
  • A bowl big enough to fit the Cotton wool/gauze in
  • Cold infusion, decoction or diluted tincture to soak the cotton in


  • Put the cotton wool/gauze in between the cloth and fold the cloth around the cotton, making a thick pad
  • Fully soak the cloth and cotton wool in the cold infusion, decoction or diluted tincture
  • Squeeze enough of the liquid out to prevent mess
  • Place the cloth and cotton pad over the area
  • Either hold the it on yourself or wrap a clean cloth around it to keep it in place
  • Do not wrap plastic around it as this will increase the temperature, when you want to lower it, meaning, you want to keep it cool to cold

Variations of Compresses

There are many, many variations with compresses, ranging from a cloth and cold water to a whole range of herbs, herbal combinations, to carrier and essential oils and application materials. Which means you can design one to suit you and the condition.

If you are using essential oils, there is a system called, ‘layering’, this is where you are attempting to input the affects of several different oils, one after another, ‘creating layers’. There would be no reason why you couldn’t rub on a diluted version to 15 to 30% onto the skin, place on the cloth, and once it has cooled, rub on a different mixture. Usually you would use three different essential oils.

Another variation to the herbal compress is the Thai herbal compress ball, this one is applied with massage. If you YouTube it, be warned, you’ll want one, … massage that is.

Thai Massage ball


Thankfully, Compresses are generally quite safe to use even on babies and young children, and cold compresses are even safer. But there are a few things you should consider:

  • With hot compresses, it must not burn, so always double check the temperature, especially with newborns and infants.
  • Always check for possible allergic reactions, most herbs are safe, but always use caution, particularly if using a new herb or oil. Two examples of this could be an allergy to ragweed, of which chamomile is part of, and peanut oil.

Essential Oils

Never apply pure essential oils directly to a newborn or infant’s skin, it must be well diluted.

  • 1 to 3 drops of oil to 1 tablespoon for infants
  • 1 to 3 drops of oil to 1 teaspoon for children two to five years old
  • Even with adults, essential oils should be used carefully, some can be used liberally, but if unsure, test first.

Please remember, this blog cannot and should not replace a health care professional, and is for informational and educational purposes only and is not for medical advice or treatment, and no cure is implied in anyway. If you have a known serious condition, or are pregnant, please consult your health care professional, before use.

Kind Regards,

Russell a.k.a Herbal Panda


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