Getting Started with Herbs: Hygiene

A good herb cabinet or hutch

The word hygiene is derived from the name of the Greek Goddess of healing and health, Hygeia

“I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asklepios, and Hygeia, and Panakeia, and all the gods and goddesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this Oath … “

~The Hippocratic Oath~

Hygiene is the conditions and practices that promote health, and good hygiene is essential for any practicing herbalist.  You will need a clean area in your home in which to work. I don’t mean fanatically organized, alphabetized and categorized, simply a very clean area and a clear work surface.

Your Work Area

In an ideal world where money and space in your home are not issues, a hutch, buffet or cabinet similar to the one pictured would be ideal.  The countertop like drop-leaf shelf can be covered in a piece of glass to protect it from spills. A local window store or glass cutter will make a custom piece for about $30 or less. Holes can be cut in the back of the unit to allow electrical cords for coffee grinders and blenders to be threaded through. The smaller shelves above will hold many jars of herbs and the larger shelves or drawers below will accommodate larger bowls, bulky herbs, and other utensils. New designs in office furniture made to accommodate computers can also be fantastic herbal cupboards.  These computer “armoires” usually fold open to reveal shelf space in the doors and a large work surface.  This allows you to store your herbs in clear jars while closing the cupboard to keep out the light when not in active use.

You certainly don’t need to purchase a new piece of furniture! Look around your home and see if there is a place you can make into your own little herb corner.  All you really need is a hard, spill-proof surface and a place to store appliances, dishes, utensils, and herbs.  If there isn’t a kitchen cupboard that you can free up or a bookshelf available, look at your local thrift stores and garage sales.

I found my first herb hutch while living on a rural commune.  It was a pie cabinet (also known as a jelly cupboard) that had been abandoned in a field near an old homestead.  The owners of the property had stacked it on a pile of brush in preparation for the burn season.  After asking the property owners if I could have it (and receiving some strange looks) I dragged it out, disinfected it, cut off the rotted legs and painted it. A few years later when I could afford to “upgrade” to a new cabinet, I sold this salvaged hutch for $50 at my garage sale!

Be creative and look around. You’ll find just the right setup for yourself. Remember that you may outgrow one hutch so don’t spend too much money up front. See if you can work with what you have around your home first.  Open shelves tend to collect dust, which carries bacteria, fungi, and other critters with it, so look for shelves with doors or add your own doors to an open shelf.

While searching for a workspace, keep in mind the major causes of herb spoilage: heat, light, humidity, and oxygen.  A dark cupboard may not look as nice as your glass curio cabinet, but it may be better suited for herb storage.

Promoting Hygiene

Now that you have found a work area to keep the dust off of your materials, let us look at some basic hygiene guidelines.  These tips will keep your home and herbalism work safer.

  • Check to see if food in the refrigerator is moldy before you open it!  If you have molding bread in the corner of the kitchen, don’t open the bag! Look through the plastic and “When in doubt, throw it out!” Opening the bag (or container from the refrigerator) will release mold spores all over the house.  These spores can infect other foods, herbs, and herbal creations, especially if you store some of your materials in the refrigerator.
  • When making a potion, keep the windows of your house closed, and avoid working in drafty areas.  Air currents can spread spores and other contaminants from outside and from other areas of your house. Note that if a recipe specifically states to work in a ventilated area, use your vent hood and possibly disregard this window-closed tip.
  • Before you begin any project, clean your work surface with a sanitizing spray, alcohol wipe or disinfecting wipe.  Also, make sure your tools and containers are clean. There are two recipes for sanitizing washes at the end of this lesson.
  • Always wash your hands before you begin a project, and if you are working with irritating oils or herb, wear appropriate gloves.  Some recipes will specifically instruct you to wear gloves.  These “surgical” gloves can be purchased at most drug stores or pharmacies for about a dime (ten cents) per pair. Also check your local hardware store, big box store (in the pharmacy or house cleaning departments) or home improvement center for boxes of these gloves in bulk. A box of 100 gloves is usually less than $10. Select neoprene (usually blue , black or green) or vinyl.  Latex gloves may cause sensitivity in some people, but the reason I don’t use them is that most essential oils and vegetable oils will destabilize latex and make it “melt”.
  • Always remember that just because something is natural or herbal doesn’t mean it is safe.  Some of the most powerful and deadly poisons in the world are from “natural” or botanical sources. Henbane, aconite, foxglove, and belladonna have amazing propeties, but it is all too easy to kill a child, pet, friend or yourself if you don’t know all of their properties.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using clean utensils.  For example, when you are instructed to mix a spoonful of one herb with a spoonful of another herb, don’t use the same spoon!  This is especially true with extracts, essential oils and other concentrated materials.  Keep an eye out at garage sales and thrift stores for extra sets of stainless steel measuring spoons.  You can never have too many of these! (You can use kitchen cup hooks to mount these to your herb hutch such as on an inside door, or near your work area for convenience. I use a large magnet designed to hold chef’s knives.)
  • Store all your creations, herbs and botanicals in clean containers!  The heat sanitizing setting on many dishwashers is perfect for cleaning large numbers of herb jars. If you don’t have a dishwasher, you can dip already clean containers in the disinfecting wash (see the bottom of this page). Allow them to completely air dry before use.  At Wind n Wood, we use the recipes we’ve created at the bottom of the page along with a food-safe glass sanitizer developed specifically for the beer brewing industry.
  • Air Dry Containers & Tools: Towel drying disinfected containers can spread contaminants from the towel onto everything.
  • Keep your dish racks clean. If you have a dishwasher this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you hand wash, be sure to use the disinfecting wash at the bottom of this page at least once a week on your drying racks.
  • Cover your hair.  Opening a beautiful jar of natural face cream is a blissful experience, and one that is instantly ruined when you pull out someone else’s hair from the jar!

General Purpose Sanitizing Spray:

  • 1 Cup 70% Rubbing Alcohol (This is the type sold in most drug stores and pharmacies.)
  • 1 Cup Clean Potable Water such as Distilled, Spring or Tap Water (Potable means safe to drink.)
  • 1 Cup Vinegar or Lemon Juice

Mix all the ingredients and store in a spray bottle.  Spray your work surface with this solution prior to any project and wipe dry with a clean cloth or paper towel.

The alcohol sanitizes and will dissolve many oils, and of course most alcohol-soluble chemicals.  The water will dissolve water-soluble chemicals and aid in the removal of “herb dust” and resin powders.  The vinegar or lemon juice acidifies the solution to help prevent re-contamination and it helps to dissolve acid-soluble chemicals. The acidity will hinder the growth of molds, fungi, bacteria, viruses, etc.  This spray can be used on most hard surfaces and leaves a streak-free shine on glass surfaces.

When I worked as a florist, I used this solution on the many vases and glassware to keep them sparkling and prevent premature die-back on cut flowers in contaminated water.  When used on glass, I add one drop of Jet-Dry® to every 8-10 ounces as a surfactant to improve the streak-free finish.

Disinfecting Wash:

  • 2 1/4 Cups Water
  • 1/4 Cup Household Bleach
  • Optional: 1 or 2 drops of laundry soap or Jet Dry®

This solution is somewhat less environmentally friendly than the sanitizing spray, but should be used when disinfecting is necessary, or when you are directed to use it in a project.  To disinfect your work surface; first, clean it with soap and water or the Sanitizing Spray above. Next, swab the surface with this wash and allow it to stand for 10 minutes. Wipe dry with clean paper towels.

Caution: Make sure you use laundry soap suitable for use with chlorine bleach. Do not use dish detergent or other “soaps” that indicate on the label that they should not be used with bleach. Combining these chemicals causes a toxic chlorine gas to be released.  Jet Dry®and laundry soap help to break the surface tension of the mixture, allowing it to penetrate mold and fungi spores, and cut through oils for better disinfecting.  Use regular, unscented, not ultra concentrated bleach from the laundry aisle in your store.  Do not use this solution in a spray bottle. Bleach can damage sensitive tissue, mucous membranes and the lining of the lungs.  Wear gloves when using this solution. This wash will bleach your clothing so be careful not to spill it!

Although this recipe does contain bleach, it is generally regarded as safer than many of the antibacterial cleaners available. The antibacterial agents in such cleaners have been detected in groundwater, rivers, and streams.  Several antibacterial agents that were in high use in the United States and other countries are now banned, only to be replaced by similar analogs of the chemicals that have not yet been tested for environmental safety.  Household bleach breaks down quickly into sodium and water, and household use in this manner very rarely reaches the environment.  The active ingredient in household bleach, sodium hypochlorite, is considered to be “unstable” because it biodegrades so quickly. That said, this is a disinfecting spray for occasional use only when indicated, or if there is an illness in your home.

Whenever you combine oil with water such as for lotion, cream or even mayonnaise, you invite all kinds of nasty critters to the buffet you have created.  Always disinfect before beginning such oil-and-water projects as sanitizing is not enough.  Also, if you are working in your home kitchen where you prepare food, disinfect before every project.

And finally, three quick safety tips to remember:

  • Try to wear natural cotton, hemp or flax materials that do not readily react with chemicals.  Polyester and nylon can “melt” into your skin when exposed to heat or certain oils and chemicals, and thin, gauzy rayon fabrics are extremely flammable.
  • Get a fire extinguisher and keep it nearby. Read the label carefully to make sure it is rated ABC.  Small fire extinguishers are available in many stores for about $15 to $25.  Mount the extinguisher to your herb hutch or near your stove.
  • Safety goggles. They look funny, they are hot, they suck. Buy them, wear them, love them.  If a recipe instructs you to use safety goggles, don’t ignore the instructions.
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