The stinging nettle is a fantastic herb with many uses – ranging from the clothes we wear to the skincare we use. As nettles emerge first thing in Spring, I thought this would be a good beauty herb to profile now. You might be a little apprehensive about the idea of using nettles on your skin, but let me assure you that this herb is packed full of skincare goodies… and they won’t sting!
The nettle (Urtica dioica) is probably one of the plants we are most likely to call a ‘weed’. It grows vigorously and successfully in most places and likes to colonise disturbed ground. Nettles produce hundreds if not thousands of seeds that scatter to the four winds and invariably find themselves a nice little home somewhere in your garden. However, instead of being upset at finding this weed in your garden, the HerbBlurb would like to encourage you to make use of this lovely beauty herb.
Nettles for Clothing, Food & Medicine
Its common name is thought to be derived from Anglo Saxon “noedl,” meaning “a needle,” alluding to its sharp sting or use as a thread for sewing before the introduction of flax. Nettles have been used for their strong fibres in making cloth and cord since at least the Bronze Age. During the First World War, nettle fibre was collected on a huge scale in Germany and Austria to make military uniforms. During the Second World War, green dye prepared from nettles was used in the UK for camouflage uniforms. There were even plans for the construction of aircraft wings from nettle fibre (Hatfield, 2007).
Nettles can also be eaten. Traditionally people would go out to forage the young emerging tips and cook with them, much like you would cook with spinach. The nettle’s sting disappears if you cook or dry the leaves but if you fold the leaf the right way you can actually eat them raw! (I have tried this and it was surprisingly OK.) Spring is the best time to eat nettles as they are packed with vitamins and minerals and people would often go out to forage this lush green herb to give themselves a boost after the long dark winter. Once the plants become older and start to go to seed, their leaves should no longer be eaten as they contain gritty particles that can irritate the urinary tract.
As a medicine, nettles are good for treating anaemia because of their high iron content. This herb is also used treat arthritis and rheumatism. Other traditional folk remedies include using nettles to treat nosebleeds, burns, rashes, insomnia, obesity, cleaning the kidneys and lung disease.
High Levels of Antioxidants in Nettles
Just when you thought you couldn’t get any more uses out of this wonderful herb, here I am to tell you about the wonderful skincare properties of nettle. It is anti-inflammatory, astringent, bactericidal, healing, mildly deodorant and stimulating. It is high in phenols, which give nettle powerful antioxidant properties and help keep the free radicals under control when used in skincare. Research has also found high anti-microbial activity in nettle extracts (Gülçin, 2004).
Nettles have been used in skincare remedies for a long time. In an article from 1854, a Dr. Joseph Buller describes replacing the use of liquor arsenicalis (essentially a poisonous ‘medicine’ used in the 1800s to ‘cure’ all sorts of ailments) with nettle decoction or extract. Virtually all of his patients were cured of their chronic skin diseases, despite the fact that – in his words – this knowledge was passed down by “the class of peasantry usually termed ‘old women’“.
Nettle extract is also used in the treatment of scalp problems and incorporated into a variety of hair products. Nettle roots are used to relieve eczema and dandruff and are reputed to stimulate hair growth. Today, nettle root extract is commonly found as a component of many shampoos and conditioners.
So what are you waiting for? Next time you see a nettle growing in your garden, don’t despair – this ‘weed’ may yet bring you lots of medicinal and cosmetic benefits.
Research and Further Reading
Buller, J. 1854. The use of an extract and decoction of the common stinging nettle in some chronic skin diseases. Assoc Med J. 1854 November 10; 2(97): 1010–1012.
Gülçin, I., Küfrevio O.I., Oktay, M., Büyükokuro, M.E. 2004. Antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiulcer and analgesic activities of nettle (Urtica dioica L.). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 90 (2004) 205–215.