When I was nine, my parents took my younger sister and me to Disneyland. It was the kind of vacation every little girl dreams of – Main Street Parade, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, pictures with Minnie Mouse, and a teeth-rotting amount of cotton candy.
I know, because there is visual proof of all these activities, carefully organized across my mother’s photo albums. But what do I really remember? What single thing from the vacation made that deep, visceral, never-going-to-forget-this impact that changes a kid’s life?
I’ve been a Northwest girl for longer than I’ve been able to walk, and that California, Disneyland summer sun fried me to a crisp. Even slathered in SPF 10, or whatever skin protection was top-of-the-line in the mid-80s, over the course of a long day of cartoon idol-worship, I turned from my natural just-this-side-of-albinism pinkish pallor to bright scarlet. (If you are nerdy, think #FFFAF0 to #FE2E2E.)
I remember so clearly lying face down on the polyester bedspread of our hotel room. It was black with a Hawaiian flower motif. The bedspread looked shiny and smooth but any touch against my shoulders, chest, arms, or the tops of my feet was like a kiss from the cat o’ nine tails. Even weeks later, I was peeling patches of dead skin off the sunburnt areas.
That experience fused a conviction in my young mind: sun = evil.
And so, for the better part of 15 years, I hardly went outside. I’m not exaggerating. I didn’t play sports, I didn’t go camping, I didn’t hang out at the beach, and I sure as hell didn’t “tan”. In high school, while all the pretty girls got punch cards for strip mall tanning salons, I embraced my naturally porcelain skin as a statement. By this point I was watching My So-Called Life and Daria. I was wearing Dr. Martins and thought Ally Sheedy was cooler when she was wearing glasses and decorating her pictures with dandruff. The whole goth-look skin was part of the package.
Everything might have continued along this way had I not become a gardener and a mom. Now, between planting, playing, harvesting, weeding, and time at the park or beach, I spend a lot of time outside. I still try to cover up, hug the shady spots and stick to the cooler hours of the day, but my knee-jerk reaction to avoid the sun at all costs has changed.
My skin, unfortunately, has not.
Walking my son home from school yesterday (a 20 minute walk even at kid pace) led to a fairly painful sunburn across my shoulders. Luckily, I had a stash of Comfrey Cubes in the freezer.
Skin Soothing Comfrey Cubes
These cubes are my top pick for DIY emergency skin care. Comfrey (yes, the same plant that permies never shut up about. Just kidding, love you guys.) is phenomenally useful for skin care because it’s a rich source of allantoin, a compound that helps skin regenerate, soften, and recover from damage.
Allantoin is quite amazing. Wisegeek sums it up well:
Allantoin is odorless, safe, non-toxic, and non-allergenic in both natural and chemically synthesized form. When sold on its own for use in homemade soaps, lotions, and bath products, allantoin is a white, crystalline powder. It is moisturizing and keratolytic, meaning that it causes keratin in the skin to soften. This property helps skin to heal more quickly and to bind moisture more effectively, making products containing this substance useful for dry skin and for healing wounds, burns, and scars. It is also effective against sunburn, chapped lips, cold sores, diaper rash, and similar skin irritations.
Because of all that allantoiny goodness, these Comfrey cubes are useful for sunburns, regular burns, rashes, abrasions – pretty much any kind of non-puncturing skin damage. Every home should keep a stash on hand.
In my neck of the woods, comfrey is a common weed. When I need some, I just walk across the street and dig. The thick, fleshy roots are what we are after for the Comfrey Cubes, but the leaves are very useful in herbalism too.
Familiarize yourself with this under-appreciated medicinal herb and you may start to see it everywhere, too. If you live someplace where comfrey isn’t available wild, you can substitute 1 oz of dried comfrey root, available online, for the fresh.
DIY Sunburn Soothing Comfrey Cubes
An allantoin-rich skin soother, these Comfrey Cubes are useful for sunburns, regular burns, rashes, abrasions, skin softening and healing. If fresh comfrey is unavailable, 1 oz. of dried comfrey root may be substituted. For external use only, do not take internally.
- 4 oz. fresh comfrey root
- 3 cups water
- Very thoroughly scrub the comfrey roots, then chop them finely, by hand or in a food processor. Add the chopped comfrey root and the water to a medium saucepan. Bring to the barest simmer over medium-low heat, and maintain that temperature for 30 minutes. Remove comfrey gel from the heat, cover, and let cool completely, about 2 hours.
- When the comfrey gel has cooled, strain it through a very fine mesh strainer. It will be brownish and highly mucilaginous (goopy) - this is normal. Use a spatula to push as much of the comfrey mix through the strainer as possible without getting any root bits in the finished gel. You should have about 2 cups of comfrey gel when you are done.
- If you have a sunburn you can smooth a small amount of the comfrey gel right on your skin. To save the gel for later use, pour the cool comfrey gel into an ice cube tray (I use silicone trays like these) and freeze.
- When the comfrey cubes are frozen solid, transfer them to a freezer safe plastic bag, label the cubes so everyone knows they aren’t edible, and keep frozen.
- To use, rub a frozen Comfrey Cube directly onto sunburned skin.
Two words of warning
Any time you wildcraft (harvest medicinals or edibles from the wild) you must be absolutely, 100% certain of your plant identification. If you are uncertain, find an experienced herbalist who can show you what to look for before embarking on the wonderful adventure of wildcrafting.
Comfrey root is not for internal use. There are compounds in comfrey that can cause liver failure if taken in large doses internally. If you have any concerns about limited, external use of comfrey decoctions, talk to a qualified herbalist or doctor before using this gel.12