Q: With just a few weeks until my three sons (ages 7, 10, and 12 … lucky me!) are released from the constraints of academia and officially placed in my hands for the summer, I’ve been surveying the family medicine cabinet and thinking about all the sunburns, scrapes, scratches, bug bites, bumps and blisters I have coming my way.

Normally, I rely on drugstore-purchased balms, ointments, lotions and potions to help sooth my sons’ frequent “ouchies” but I’m interested in trying out natural antiseptics that are cheap, effective and might already be in my home or garden, just not in the medicine cabinet. I’m not exactly keen on holistic stuff and alternative medicines — again, I’m a drugstore-kind-of-mom — but was curious to pick your brain on the topic.


In need of some natural first aid aid,


Rory — Bryn Mawr, Penn.

Hey Rory,

I’m glad you asked since I realize how easy it is to wipe away the tears, grab a tube of Neosporin, cover that “ouchie” with a bandage, and send ‘em back outdoors. First off, I’ll start by distinguishing antiseptics from antibiotics since the two are often referred to interchangeably: An antiseptic is a solution, commonly isopropyl rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, applied to the skin that kills microorganisms and prevents infection. An antibiotic does pretty much the same thing — annihilates infection-causing microorganisms — but it works inside the body and is most often prescribed in pill form by a doctor à la penicillin. However, you may be familiar with topical antibiotic creams, like the aforementioned Neosporin, that are available over the counter. It sounds like you’re mostly interested in topical remedies so I’ll focus on natural antiseptics just to keep things cut and dry.

The first natural antiseptic that comes to mind, Rory, is big-in-Australia tea tree oil. A potent, broad-spectrum natural antiseptic, tea tree oil appears in all sorts of personal care products like shampoo, body lotion, toothpaste and more. For treating minor bites, burns, and bang-ups, I recommend going straight to the source and applying pure tea tree oil directly to the wound. Or, dilute it with a carrier oil and apply. Also, tea tree oil-based creams and ointments made specifically for antiseptic care may be a bit more up your alley since you’re used to working with packaged, pre-concocted remedies. Thursday Plantation is a reliable brand to keep an eye out for. And like tea tree oil, essential oils of lavender and eucalyptus are both miracle workers when it comes to healing skin irritations.

You mention two key phrases in your letter: “cheap” and “already in my home or garden.” The next time one of your sons comes in screaming bloody murder with a minor skin abrasion or irritation, direct them toward the kitchen instead of the medicine cabinet. They might think you’re crazy (or think that you’re making tea) but both lemon juice and honey have potent antiseptic properties. I’m a big fan of healing lemon balm.

This may be a bit too esoteric for your liking, but if you grow thyme, carrots, garlic and other assorted veggies and herbs in your garden, you can use ‘em for medicinal purposes. And two kitchen staples that you should already be using around the house for non-culinary purposes — baking soda and vinegar — can be used to treat “ouchies.” I remember that my very first bee sting was treated with a baking soda paste.

That said, I’d use discretion when experimenting with natural antiseptics. If one of your sons appears with a particularly gnarly looking gash, I’d do what you feel comfortable with — either using a drugstore solution and/or consulting a medical professional — before you sprinkle it with lemon juice and call it a day.

Hope this helps, Rory. Take a gander around your local natural foods/wellness store (or your back garden) to see what appeals most to you. Personally, I’d always keep a bottle of rubbing alcohol around but for light burns, boo-boos, bites, stings, and scrapes, a natural antiseptic is certainly worth looking into. Godspeed this summer!

— Matt 

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Have any recommendations for an effective, natural antiseptic?
Matt Hickman might be able to save you a trip to the drugstore the next time your kid shows up with a scraped knee.