Have you ever rolled out of bed the morning after a wonderful day in nature and realized that – instead of the peace and calm that forest bathing is supposed to bring – you’re going to be having a different experience for the next 1-2 weeks? Oozing secretions, raised red skin, and the urge to scratch in odd places in front of strangers – all because of poison ivy!
As miserable as poison ivy is, there are many home remedies that work better than the “scratch and suffer” approach.
In herbalism, remedies are chosen to counteract the current complaint and bring the body back into balance. If someone is hot, a cooling remedy is chosen. If someone is stimulated, a relaxing remedy is chosen. For the wet oozing phase of poison ivy, home remedies need to be drying. For hot, over-inflamed itchiness, cooling anti-inflammatory remedies are relieving. Once the oozing stage is over and your damaged skin needs healing, moistening remedies are more useful.
We’ll dive into the remedies soon, but first let’s talk about two common poison ivy questions . . .
What are poison ivy symptoms?
A poison ivy rash is caused by an allergic reaction to an oil – urushiol – that is found in poison ivy, oak, and sumac. Not everyone is sensitive to the oil, but most people who are exposed to urushiol will experience:
Since urushiol is found in poison oak and sumac, these remedies are helpful when you’ve come into contact with those as well.
Important note: Burning an area to get rid of poison ivy will cause urushiol to be released into the air, which can travel to the nasal passages, throat and lungs, causing breathing difficulty. If this occurs, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately. Instead of burning, opt for a method like the salt and vinegar solution recommended by Farmer’s Almanac.
Can poison ivy be prevented?
According to Dr. Martz of the University of Massachusetts, “If urushiol is washed off the skin within an hour or so, the reaction can be largely prevented.” (1) Soap and water is recommended, but alcohol such as rubbing alcohol or vodka is also an effective solvent for urushiol.
Drying home remedies for poison ivy
If you walk through a poison ivy (or oak/sumac) patch without noticing early enough to wash it off, the first stage of poison ivy reaction you’ll notice is a wet and oozing rash. Here are some remedies that can support recovery in that phase:
Apple Cider Vinegar or Vodka/Isopropyl Alcohol
Both apple cider vinegar and alcohol (either isopropyl alcohol or vodka) support healing by helping to break down urushiol. Soak a cotton ball and dab the area.
Bentonite clay is a great home remedy for poison ivy because it is so drying. Clays bind to other molecules, pulling out the aggravating urushiol faster than it would normally leave the body. Just plaster the clay on the affected areas. You can leave it as is, or cover it with a bandage if you need to be more presentable. Wash (with water or even better, apple cider vinegar/vodka (see above) or calendula tincture (see below) and reapply as needed.
Activated charcoal works in the same way as clays, but it’s a bit messier. If the black mess doesn’t bother you and charcoal is cheaper or more available, use it instead.
If you grow/harvest calendula or have it around for use in other home remedies, calendula tincture is perfect as a home remedy for poison ivy. Alcohols are drying to the skin and penetrate deeply. Calendula is drying, anti-inflammatory, and vulnerary (healing to the skin), giving your calendula tincture a quadruple whammy against poison ivy. Follow this tincture recipe using calendula instead, or buy pre-made calendula tincture. Apply directly to the poison ivy and reapply as needed.
If you want to skip the tincture-making step, you can just plaster powdered calendula directly on the skin.
You might be wondering why you wouldn’t mix calendula powder with clay or charcoal if the calendula is so helpful. Remember, clay and charcoal are binding to everything, so mixing clay and charcoal with herbs renders both the herb and the clay/charcoal useless. The clay/charcoal binds to the calendula, making the clay/charcoal unavailable and the calendula unavailable. If you want to use all of the poison ivy home remedy tools in your tool box, it’s best to rotate them individually.
Essential oils for poison ivy
Lavender is wonderful for soothing itchiness and tea tree is helpful for drying out the affected area. To use these during the first phase of healing, just add 12 drops total of either lavender or tea tree (or a mixture of both) to two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, isopropyl alcohol/vodka, or calendula tincture and mix well with a fork before dabbing on the area with a cotton ball.
Moistening, healing home remedies for poison ivy
Once the oozing stage of the poison ivy is over, your dry, damaged skin needs moistening and healing. At this stage, you can use
- aloe vera gel with lavender (I use 1/4 cup of this aloe vera gel with 24 drops lavender essential oil)
- calendula salve,
- calendula oil, and/or
- this aloe/plantain/jewelweed poison ivy remedy
to speed the recovery of your skin.
Putting it all together
To paint a poison ivy protocol picture, after your dreadful morning poison ivy wake-up call, you might
1. plaster your skin with clay or charcoal and leave for 30min-1hour,
2. rinse liberally with apple cider vinegar, isopropyl alcohol/vodka, or calendula tincture (infused with essential oils if you have them on hand)
3. plaster with calendula powder,
4. repeat steps 1-3 until the oozing stage is over,
5. heal with lavender-infused aloe vera, calendula salve, calendula oil, and/or plantain/jewelweed.
Voilà! Kiss your poison ivy problems goodbye (but only after you know for sure it is really gone!).
When to see a doctor
According to the Mayo Clinic, you should see a doctor if:
The reaction is severe or widespread
You inhaled the smoke from burning poison ivy and are having difficulty breathing
Your skin continues to swell
The rash affects your eyes, mouth or genitals
Blisters are oozing pus
You develop a fever greater than 100 F (37.8 C)
The rash doesn’t get better within a few weeks (2)
1. Martz, Eric. (1997) Poison Ivy: an Exaggerated Immune Response to Nothing Much. Retrieved from https://www.bio.umass.edu/micro/immunology/poisoniv.htm
2. Mayo Clinic. Poison Ivy Rash. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/poison-ivy/symptoms-causes/syc-20376485