Comfrey’s historical uses
Comfrey’s reputation as a healing herb dates back to 400 B.C. The ancient Greeks used it to stop heavy bleeding. Greek physicians of the first century prescribed the plant to heal wounds and mend broken bones. Decoctions of the comfrey roots have been used topically in England since the mid-1600s to aid in wound healing.
Comfrey’s botanical name comes from the Greek word that means “to unite.” Comfrey, native to Europe and Asia, is also known as knitbone, bruisewort, and knitback, all names referring to its use as a wound-healing herb. It has a long history of use for fractures, bruises, and burns.
Nicholas Culpeper, a seventeenth-century herbalist, recommended comfrey poultices for gout, gangrene, and pained joints. He further stated that comfrey root put in a pot of boiling water with “severed flesh” will join it together again. Since 1887, similar uses were also reported in the United States.
For cosmetic purposes, tannins in comfrey have important application. Comfrey’s high tannin content is anti-inflammatory and astringent and thus aids in closing wounds and pores.
Comfrey’s remarkable power to heal tissue and bone is due to allantoin, a cell proliferate that promotes the growth of connective tissue, bone, and cartilage and is easily absorbed through the skin. Comfrey’s reputation goes beyond reweaving broken bones to healing skin lacerations and reweaving collagen. It appears allantoin in some way affects the multiplication of cells and tissue growth. Wounds and burns do heal faster when allantoin is applied. Besides its tissue-regenerative abilities, it seems to be effective in destroying harmful bacteria. Scientists have found allantoin in mother’s milk.
The ethnomedical uses of comfrey root are also explained by the allantoin and mucilage content. Allantoin is a white crystalline powder that dissolves easily in hot water. It can be made synthetically or it can be extracted from a tincture. There is much data touting comfrey as a cell proliferate, which is why it has been used for so long for chronic burns, wounds, and ulcers. According to Macalister’s British Medical Journal, January 6, 1912., allantoin in water solutions in strengths of 3% has a powerful action in strengthening skin formation and is a valuable remedy for external ulcerations.
The mucilage found in comfrey is also said to help new flesh grow and knit together. I suspect that the mucilage creates a gel or gum that pulls the flesh together and reconnects it. Certainly, the long reputation of comfrey as a curative has been considered due to its capacity to reduce the swollen area in the immediate neighborhood of fractures, causing union to take place with greater facility. John Gerard, a sixteenth-century British herbalist, affirmed that “a salve concocted from the fresh herb will certainly tend to promote the healing of bruised and broken parts.”
Interestingly, comfrey also contains a small amount of necrotic properties that helps remove dead skin.
Is it possible comfrey works to heal in this way?
- The necrotic properties help remove the dead skin.
- The tannins reduce inflammation.
- The mucilage pulls the severed skin together.
- The allantoin increases the reproduction needed to make the mend.
If allantoin is a cell proliferate—meaning it increases and supports the healing process and cell reproduction—as folklore suggests, what could possibly be a better ingredient to include in anti-wrinkle products, lotions, creams, and astringents?
It is said that pouring a fluid extract of comfrey into a wound will often close the wound, avoiding stitches. Might that same extract help heal stretch marks, wrinkles, pimples, scars, and other blemishes?
We at Lily of Colorado use comfrey in many products very successfully. It is probably one of the most important herbs in cosmetic formulations because of its ability to re-knit collagen. It is valuable in any product that touches the skin. We put it in our herbal astringent, herbal moisturizer, botanical moisture mist, and botanical enzyme exfoliant mask.
Caution: Taking internally has been deemed potentially dangerous.
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