The comfrey plant, also known as black root, slippery root, and Consolidae Radix in the herbology realm, has chemical properties that make it effective for reducing soft tissue pain and skin irritation.
Comfrey is a perennial plant native to parts of Europe and Asia that prefers dark, moist soil. It contains poisonous substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are toxic to the liver; as such, oral products containing comfrey are banned in the U.S. and most of the world. Topical products (ointments, liniments) such as Kytta-Salbe (Merck) and Res-Q (Burt’s Bees) contain between 1-20% concentration.
The good stuff? Comfrey roots and leaves contain allantoin, a substance that helps new skin cells grow, along with other substances that reduce inflammation and keep skin healthy. It is especially helpful for moisturizing skin and softening it by promoting the shedding of old skin and stimulating growth of newer cells underneath. Allantoin is also thought to combine with irritants of inflammation and neutralize their effects. It is found in many cosmetic products including skin lotion, lipstick, toothpaste and shampoos.
Comfrey ointments have been used to heal bruises as well as pulled muscles and ligaments, fractures, sprains, strains, chafed skin, itching and osteoarthritis.
Guidelines for using Comfrey-containing products:
- Never give a child comfrey by mouth. Do not put creams or ointments with comfrey on a child’s skin.
- Never take comfrey by mouth. Severe liver poisoning and even death may occur.
- When using herb and leaf ointments, creams, and other preparations for the skin, follow these safety recommendations:
- Never apply comfrey to broken skin.
- Use only small amounts of creams with comfrey for no longer than 10 days at a time.
- Do not use any comfrey product for more than 4 – 6 total weeks in a year.
- Comfrey has toxic substances that can cause severe liver damage and even death. You should never take comfrey by mouth.
- The toxic substances in comfrey can be absorbed by the skin. Even creams and ointments should be used for only a short time, and with your doctor’s supervision.
- Do not use comfrey on open wounds or broken skin.
- Do not use comfrey if you have liver disease, alcoholism, or cancer.
- Children, the elderly, and pregnant or breastfeeding women should not use any comfrey products, even ones for the skin.
- Because it may raise the risk of liver damage, comfrey creams or ointments should not be used with other medications that may also affect the liver, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol). If you take any medications, whether prescription or over the counter, ask your doctor before using comfrey.
- You should not use some herbs that have also been known to cause liver problems, such as kava, skullcap, and valerian, while using comfrey ointments or creams, due to their additive effects.
So, if you recently sprained your ankle, stubbed a toe, developed tennis elbow or have general joint pain, give comfrey a try, but make sure to follow the above guidelines for usage. I recommend you use it in conjunction with ice and heat– be careful not to overdo it, though.