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What Is Mullein Extract?

By Linda Harris
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Mullein extract is a concentrated oil taken from the leaves and flowers of the Verbascum thapsus plant. It is often used medicinally, either on its own or brewed into a tea, and has been credited with curing or at least alleviating a number of different health concerns. The extract tends to be most popular when it comes to easing respiratory inflammation and relieving the pain associated with earaches and ear infections. It can also have mild sedative effects and is sometimes used as a sleep aid. The plant grows naturally throughout much of Europe and Asia, and its extracts have been used in naturopathic and herbal medicine for centuries. Even though the supplement is usually considered “all natural,” it isn’t always safe for everyone. Medical experts usually recommend that anyone thinking of using this particular extract for any condition, no matter how benign it may seem, first get a consultation with a qualified healthcare provider to talk through the more personalized risks and benefits.

Plant Basics

Verbascum thapsus is a biennial plant with large leaves and yellowish white flowers. It’s commonly known as “mullein” in many places, though it can have a number of different names; lungwort, candlewick, witch’s candle, velvet plant, grandmother's flannel, and bunny’s ears are just a few. Extracts are typically taken only from the leaves and blooms. The seeds are highly poisonous and are not used, and the roots, while dense in mineral composition, don’t typically yield much oil and can make extracts overly bitter and acidic.

Active Ingredients

The active ingredients in mullein include coumarin, rotenone, mucilage, volatile oil, saponins, gum, bitter glycosides, and flavonoids such as hesperidin. Most of these transfer to extracts, but a lot of this depends on how, exactly, the extract was prepared. The precise composition can vary from plant to plant, too. Most experts recommend purchasing prepared extract only from established manufacturers, most of whom have more or less standardized production runs and are usually willing to certify the exact levels of active ingredients in a given product.

How the Extract is Obtained

There are a couple of different ways to get mullein extract, but in almost all cases the preparer starts with leaves and flowers harvested at their peak. These are typically steeped in a blend of distilled alcohol, which breaks down the plant’s core fibers, and water, which typically repels oil and thus forces its separation.

Total steep time tends to vary based on the intended use of the resulting product, but it’s usually anywhere from a few hours to a week or more. Once the leaves and plant particulates are removed, the solution is usually boiled; the boiling concentrates the effects, and also removes the alcohol. Once this is done, the preparer will bottle the extract for use and sale.

Primary Uses

The extract is most commonly used to treat a range of respiratory or breathing problems. Natural medicine experts sometimes advise people to create a tea-like drink by adding four of five drops of extract to a cup of hot water, then drinking it slowly; this is most common as a treatment respiratory problems such as chronic bronchitis, asthma, and croup. The tea may also act as an expectorant that stimulates the cough reflex. Mullein extract typically has a high mucilage content, which is soothing to the respiratory system and reduces inflammation and irritation. It is mildly sedative and is said to promote sleep, which can be very helpful for people kept up by coughing; better rest is usually one of the first things that can help the body build up the strength to fight off problems itself.

People also commonly use the oil topically, particularly as a cure for ear pain. Most of the time, people add the extract to what’s known as a “carrier oil,” usually olive or sweet almond, in order to make it more effective and to help it absorb. Extract blended with oil like this can also be used to treat swollen joints by rubbing it on the affected areas.

Risks and Common Precautions

Mullein extract has been known to cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. Its sedative effect is sometimes more pronounced in certain people, too, which can make in dangerous, particularly when taken during the day. Additionally, mullein might make anti-diabetic drugs ineffective or interfere with prescription diuretic drugs to cause a loss of potassium. In most cases it’s a good idea for anyone interested in the potential benefits of this plant to consult with a healthcare provider before starting supplementation to reduce the risk of bad interactions.

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Discussion Comments

By anon242435 — On Jan 23, 2012

I have used "mullein ear oil" in a cup of warm water to stop my daughter's asthma attack. It worked immediately! She was able to breathe without distress in just a few swallows and was much better after taking the whole cup. We have since bought the tea to drink when having upper respiratory issues and it soothes breathing efforts and has a calming effect.

By JessicaLynn — On Jul 14, 2011

@SZapper - Warming up the drops before putting them in your ears sounds like a great idea! Although, since mullein can cause contact dermatitis I would urge people to definitely test the drops on their skin before putting them in their ears. Contact dermatitis sounds like it would be very unpleasant to have in your ears!

By SZapper — On Jul 14, 2011

@lonelygod - I've used mullein garlic drops in my ears for an ear infection many a time and never had a problem.

What you should do is take the glass bottle that the drops are in and warm it up a little. You can do this by warming up a pot of water and dunking the glass container in the water for a few minutes. Test the drops on your wrist to make sure they're a good temperature.

Then you can either drop a few drops directly in your ears and then put a cotton ball in your ear after. Or, you can put the drops on the cotton ball and then put the cotton ball in your ear. Either way I've found this to be a really effective and problem free treatment for ear infections.

By lonelygod — On Jul 13, 2011

I was really surprised to learn that mullein extract can be added to olive oil to make a soothing treatment for earaches. I am an avid swimmer and unfortunately I tend to get more than my fair share of earaches during the swimming season.

If you are going to use mullein extract in oil as a cure for your earaches do you put it in your ear in drop form, or do you just gently massage it in?

I am always cautious when it comes to putting things into my ear as I once had a bad reaction to some eardrops that made my ear swell. It was a horrible experience I don't want to repeat.

By drtroubles — On Jul 13, 2011

Does anyone have any experience taking mullein extract to help with their breathing issues?

I have been suffering from respiratory problems such as chronic bronchitis for many years and I have been looking for something that would help in a natural way. I also have asthma, which is a big problem because I already take so many medications I don't want anything that would interact poorly with my prescription medications.

I have also read about mullein extract helping with lung congestion. Does anyone know if this is true? I have a lot of congestion when I get bronchitis and find it difficult to get comfortable enough to sleep.

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