Excerpted from Sept/Oct 2020 Essential Herbal Magazine
by Rebekah Bailey
An often overlooked part of the home remedy and self care toolkit is the foot soak. Foot soaks can serve a host of purposes, from simply getting feet clean, to helping with a medical condition. They are easily tailored to meet a specific need, and well suited to the use of herbs and common kitchen ingredients.
Foot soaks can be used for several reasons: to clean, to ease pain and inflammation, to refresh and relax, to hydrate and exfoliate, to cool off or warm up, or to treat a specific condition.
After a day of weeding in the garden, my feet are typically filthy. Scrubbing my feet with a soapy brush or washcloth in the shower gets my feet mostly clean, but still leaves a lot to be desired. A 15 minute soak does a much better job.
I have psoriasis on the bottoms of my feet, which, when not properly managed, leads to painful cracked and peeling skin. In the past, I've tried salicylic foot ointments and doctor recommended treatments with poor results. After a few years of experimentation, I finally found some simple treatments that help keep the condition under control. One of those treatments is a daily foot soak. Each evening I soak my feet in warm water for about 10 minutes, followed by a generous slathering of a cream that I make, and topped off with a comfortable pair of cotton socks. Most evenings it's simply plain warm water scented with a small amount of rosewater and a lemon slice, as aromatherapy can be a helpful component of a foot soak. Two or three times a week, I try to change it up with different ingredients, depending on the type of day I've had.
A few simple guidelines for soaking feet are as follows:
1. Use warm water, not hot water. Hot water can dry and irritate skin. I only use hot water when dealing with extremely sore painful feet. I have found that a combination of Epsom salt and heat can sooth my feet like nothing else.
2. Limit soaking time to 10-15 minutes if you soak frequently, as long soaking times can cause dryness. If you only soak occasionally, then longer soaking times are fine.
3. Dry feet thoroughly with a towel, and apply lotion, cream, or balm to seal in moisture.
4. When dealing with dry, cracked skin on the feet, put on a pair of cotton socks after applying a nice thick layer of lotion, and sleep on it.
I'd like to add a little side note on the subject of exfoliating feet. I've seen a lot of recommendations to use a foot file or pumice stone in conjunction with soaking feet. It's something I used to do, but I don't any more. I used to do it regularly, and began to notice that instead of less calloused feet, it seemed like they were worse than ever. Then a light bulb went off in my head. Calluses are the result of friction on the skin. In what universe would applying regular friction (pumice stone or foot file) to skin result in less calloused feet? What I've discovered is that regular soaking, followed by application of lotion keeps my feet in pretty good shape, and callus removal isn't necessary.
The following common kitchen ingredients and herbs are among my favorites for soaking feet, but the list is by no means comprehensive.
Epsom salt is anti-inflammatory, good for pain and swelling, and can help sooth tired sore feet. Epsom salt is also great for reducing stress due to magnesium's activity on GABA receptors. Epsom salt can be drying, so it’s best to reserve its use for treating a specific condition if you soak frequently like I do. Recommended usage rate is 1/2 to 1 cup per basin of soaking water.
Milk contains an alpha hydroxy acid, lactic acid, which helps loosen dead skin cells and promote new skin cell growth. Cultured milk products like buttermilk and yogurt contain even more lactic acid than plain milk. Whole, full fat milk is good for moisturizing and soothing dry, itchy skin. Usage rate is variable. I find 2 cups to every 1 1/2 gallon of water effective.
Raw apple cider vinegar contains alpha hydroxy acid also, so can be used for loosening dead skin cells. Additionally, it is antibacterial and antifungal, so a good choice when dealing with foot odor and fungal infections like athlete's foot or toenail fungus. Recommended usage rate is 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water.
Honey is extremely moisturizing, due to its hygroscopic property, the ability to draw water to itself from the air. Honey is also antibacterial and can aid in wound healing.
I’ve categorized the following herbs and kitchen ingredients for easy reference:
Anti-inflammatory: Aloe, Calendula, Chamomile, Epsom salt, Fennel, Ginger, Green Tea, Lavender, Lemon, Rose, Rosemary, White Willow Bark.
Moisturizing: Aloe, Buttermilk, Coconut Milk, Cucumber, Honey, Milk, Rose, Yogurt
Exfoliating: Buttermilk, Lemon, Oats, Pineapple, Milk,
Alpha hydroxy acids cause skin to be photosensitive, so be conscientious of sun exposure after using exfoliants.
Deodorizing: Eucalyptus, Lovage, Rosemary, Sage
Antifungal: Apple cider vinegar, Calendula, Cedar leaf, Cilantro, Juniper berry, Lavender, Lemon, Oregano, Sage, Thyme, Rosemary
Antibacterial: Apple cider vinegar, Calendula, Cilantro, Eucalyptus, Honey, Lavender, Lemon, Oregano, Sage, Thyme, Rosemary
Stress relieving: Catnip, Chamomile, Epsom salt, Lavender, Lemon Balm
Cooling: Cilantro, Eucalyptus, Lemon, Lemon Balm, Peppermint, Rose
Warming: Cedar leaf, Ginger, Horseradish, Lemon Balm, Mustard
My foot soaking basin is an antique enamel pan that takes 1 1/2 gallons of water to fill to ankle level, so all of my recipes are sized for that amount of water. If you don't like the feel of bits and pieces floating in the water, try placing your herbs in a muslin drawstring bag or large heat sealable teabags. Another option is tying the herbs up in a washcloth using a piece of string or a rubber band.
Oatmeal Milk & Honey Foot Soak
1/2 cup oats, ground to a fine powder (a coffee grinder does the trick)
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup honey
Place ingredients in basin, and then top up with warm water. The milk will most likely be cold from the refrigerator, so you'll want to test the water temp as the basin fills, so it's comfortable, but not too hot.
Fresh Herbal Foot Soak
Stuff a quart jar full of fresh Herbs of your choice. A couple of great combinations are peppermint and calendula or rosemary, or chamomile and lavender, Cover herbs with boiling water and allow to steep for at least 10 minutes. I like to do it in the morning and allow it to sit all day for a strong infusion. Place the strained infusion in your foot basin, and add enough warm water to bring the water level up to your ankles.
To use dried herbs, fill your quart jar only 1/4 to 1/3 of the way with dried plant material.
Rosehip and Shea Cream
For those of you who like to make your own creams and lotions, I'll share my personal recipe with you. I formulated this one early in my career as a soap/lotion making supplier, and over the years, it has remained my personal favorite. Because this isn't an article about lotion making, I'm not going to get into a detailed explanation of the process, and assume that anyone attempting it has a working knowledge of the basic process. I will note that I currently use Jeecide CAP-5 as my preservative, and have used Phenonip in this formula in the past. The instructions on heating are based on the use of Jeecide. If working with Phenonip, heat water phase to approximately 150°F, and add the preservative to the water phase instead adding it during the cool down phase.
8.55 oz Distilled Water
4 oz Rose Hydrosol
2 oz Shea Butter
2.4 oz Rosehip Oil
1 oz Glycerin
1 oz Emulsifying Wax
0.6 oz Stearic Acid
0.05 oz Citric Acid
0.2 oz Preservative
0.2 oz T-50 Tocopherol
Combine distilled water and glycerin, heat to approximately
Combine shea butter, rosehip oil, emulsifying wax, and
stearic acid. Heat until oils and waxes
are melted together. Add T-50 tocopherol
Add oil phase to water phase, blending thoroughly.
As mixture cools, add preservative with blending. Pour into jars, and allow to cool. Makes 20 ounces of lotion, or five 4oz jars.