Super Salve: Make Your Own Herbal Ointments
While there are many recipes available for home preparations of salve-from-scratch-in-an-afternoon, I believe that with a bit more time and attention, you can turn your quick salve into a ‘super’ salve.
Your goal should be to make a high quality salve. As organic gardeners, farmers and consumers, we have ready access to the ingredients that will produce the finest of herbal salves.
What is a salve?
Salves are medicinal ointments which are applied externally to the skin. Herbal salves are oil-based herbal preparations that are thick like heavy cream and solid at room temperature. Depending upon the ingredients, they can be used to:
- heal and soothe the skin,
- draw inflammation or toxins from wounds,
- hasten wound healing,
- ease scarring and neuralgia (nerve pain),
- soothe sore muscles,
- soften rough or dry skin, and
- treat a variety of skin conditions, including rashes, itchiness, boils, blisters, shingles, diaper rash, cold sores, scratches, eczema, psoriasis and cradle cap.
Super salve recipe
1¾ cups herbal oil
½ teaspoon benzoin tincture or ¼ teaspoon
essential oil of benzoin (optional)
½ cup beeswax (or combination of beeswax and another thickener)
Few drops of essential oil(s) of your choice (optional)
Making salves at home
Making a top-quality salve at home is a cost-effective and immensely satisfying way to become familiar with the medicinal properties of many common herbs, and to expand your own options for organic self care. There are two basic steps. First, you carefully prepare an herbal oil. Then you use this oil, in conjunction with other simple ingredients, to make your salve.
An all-natural, organic salve has only five ingredient categories: 1) the carrier oil(s) 2) the herb(s), 3) the thickener, 4) the scent, and 5) the preservative. The last two ingredients are optional. Nothing else is needed!
Effective herbal preparations
Plants have therapeutic properties because they contain a variety of biologically active substances. An effective herbal preparation ‘captures’ these compounds. Skill and patience are necessary to achieve this.
Plant compounds ‘dissolve’ most readily into water and acid (for example, vinegar or alcohol). Teas/infusions and tinctures are two common herbal preparations made from water and alcohol, respectively.
Oil is not as effective at extracting the medicinal compounds from plants, and that is why skilled herbalists and herb-product manufacturers “digest” herbs to make strong medicinally-active herbal oils for their salves. Digestion involves cooking finely chopped plant material (I use a food processor) at a low temperature (around 100OF) for 1–2 weeks. This low, steady heat helps release the medicinal compounds from the plant material into the oil, resulting in a high-quality final product.
Carrier oils: The carrier oil(s) you choose will have a great impact on the quality and efficacy of your final product. You can choose from a range of oils for your salve, from poor quality imports to high quality local and/or organic oils. Spend the money on great oils—cheap ingredients create an inferior final product. I tend to use virgin cold-pressed olive oil for most of my salves. Virgin olive oil is slightly more acidic than extra-virgin, and acidity is helpful in extracting certain constituents from plant material. I also like olive oil for its long shelf life, high nutritive profile, availability and reasonable price (even for very good quality cold-pressed olive oil).
Herbs: The plants you incorporate into your salves will determine how and where you apply the salve. Certain herbs are general wound-healers and anti-inflammatories. Others are good for nerve pain, infection, muscle tension, bruising, acne, etc. Once you use a basic all-purpose salve you have made from scratch, my guess is that you will be so impressed and delighted, you may experiment with making other, more specific salves. In our household, we use about five different salves frequently, so I keep those pots well-filled. These include an all-purpose general skin salve, a burn salve, a tender-skin salve, a cold and congestion chest salve, and a pet/animal salve.
Thickeners: The thickener solidifies the oils so that the consistency is semi-soft and not runny. Thickeners are all solid at room temperature. I use beeswax produced by one of our farm neighbours. Coconut oil and/or cocoa, shea and mango butters may also be used as thickeners, though these tend to be more expensive and are imported. I recommend using local beeswax as your primary thickener, using the others as only a portion of the total quantity in the recipe.
Scents: I make many unscented salves, but use essential oils in others. Essential oils have aromatherapeutic benefits from their scent alone (and they make people feel so good!), and many essential oils have wonderful skin-healing properties. Lavender, tea tree, geranium, bergamot, eucalyptus, peppermint, patchouli, sweet orange and chamomile are at the top of my list for salve use. Do not use any synthetic scents or perfumes in your all-natural salves.
Preservatives: The final ingredient you may choose to add to your super salve is a natural preservative. In many cases, this will not be necessary. Olive oil salves have a stable shelf-life of at least one year, and refrigeration can further extend the life of your salves. However, if you use chickweed (or any other ‘wet’ herb) in your salve, and/or a short shelf-life carrier oil, I recommend adding a natural preservative. Good options include:
- tincture of benzoin (made from friar’s balsam and found at a drug store),
- benzoin essential oil (thick and goopy, needs to be ‘spooned’ out with a toothpick),
- rosemary oil extract (different from rosemary essential oil, the extract is sold as a natural preservative only),
- grapefruit seed extract, or
- vitamin E (a few drops of vitamin E oil added to a batch of salve also acts as a skin restorer).
I use either of the two benzoin preparations, and add vitamin E to several recipes.
THICKENERS FOR SALVES
HERBS FOR SALVES
Besides your ingredients, you need:
- a sharp knife/food processor
- a measuring cup
- a slow cooker
- a wooden spoon
- a candy or meat thermometer
- a large glass jar, measuring cup, bowl, or glass pot (something see-through)
- a second bowl
- a stainless steel pot
- a chopstick
- a gravy pourer or other small tool for pouring hot liquids
- clean jars with lids
- a small pot and a half-cup measuring cup dedicated for the beeswax (they are very hard to clean once they’ve been coated in beeswax, so consider buying a second-hand pot and measuring cup just for beeswax and forget trying to clean it).
Making herbal oil
Effective herbal preparations
Plants have therapeutic properties because they contain a variety of biologically active substances. An effective herbal preparation ‘captures’ these compounds. Skill and patience are necessary to achieve this. Plant compounds ‘dissolve’ most readily into water and acid (for example, vinegar or alcohol). Teas/infusions and tinctures are two common herbal preparations made from water and alcohol, respectively. Oil is not as effective at extracting the medicinal compounds from plants, and that is why skilled herbalists and herb-product manufacturers “digest” herbs to make strong medicinally-active herbal oils for their salves. Digestion involves cooking finely chopped plant material (I use a food processor) at a low temperature (around 100OF) for 1–2 weeks. This low, steady heat helps release the medicinal compounds from the plant material into the oil, resulting in a high-quality final product.
The first step in making a beautiful herbal salve from scratch is to make a pungent, strong, effective herbal oil. This is where my recipe differs from many of the ‘salve-in-
a-day’ recipes. While it is possible to make a salve quickly, it is doubtful that many therapeutic properties from the herbs will be present in the final product if the
herbs are warmed or steeped for only a matter of minutes or hours.
To make a truly effective herbal salve, you need to patiently allow the oil and plant material to steep together. My tool is a slow-cooker with a ‘warm’ setting. (Slow-cookers with only ‘low’ and ‘high’ settings don’t work—even the ‘low’ setting brings the oil temperature up too high). You can mix all the herbs you have chosen together to create one mixed batch of oil, or you can create several batches of herbal oil, one herb at a time. You can make a batch of mixed herbal oil in July or August, since several herbs used in salves are ready to harvest at the same time of year. You can also use a mix of high quality dried organic herbs and make a single mixed batch of oil any time of the year. At Pumpkin Moon Farm, we sell an herbal oil starter kit of mixed dried herbs.
When using fresh herbs, harvest them early in the morning, after the dew has dried but before they have received too much direct sun. Leave your herbs in a basket or bowl for a few hours. The herbs respire some of their water content as they wilt, and reducing the water content in your fresh herbs helps minimize the sediment that will form. Chop herbs very finely with a sharp knife or pulse in a food processor until minced. Place two cups chopped herbs in the slow cooker and toss lightly with your fingers so they are not packed down. The same amount of dried herbs can also be placed in the slow cooker and tossed in the same way. Now, cover the herbs with your oil(s) of choice, adding two cups of oil until all of the plant material is submerged. Use a wooden spoon to stir and push the herbs lightly to ensure there are no air pockets. Once the herbs are covered in oil, stir thoroughly and add a bit more oil or herbs (if necessary) to create a thick herb-oil mixture. Make a tea with any leftover herbs.
Natural healing takes time, and quality products are made from cooperating with nature, not by rushing her.
Next, turn your slow cooker on to the ‘warm’ setting. Don’t put the lid on the crock—the temperature of the oil will get too high with the lid on. Throughout the day, stir the oil gently and check the temperature. If the oil goes above 110O F, turn the slow cooker off and place the lid on. After a few hours, take the lid off and turn the slow cooker back to ‘warm.’ There is a bit of a song and dance to this—it’s more art than precision. Rarely will the oil come to 100OF and stay there. Often, throughout the 10–14 days that it takes me to make a batch of oil, the temperature will get too high and I’ll need to turn the slow cooker off for a while. I also turn mine off overnight and leave the lid on.
I would like to find a slow cooker with a temperature dial that I could set to 100OF, but so far, I have not found a unit like that. Until I do, this patient caretaking of each batch of oil is a wonderful teacher, reminding me that natural healing takes time, and quality products are made from cooperating with nature, not by rushing her.
After 10–14 days (go to 14 days if you’ve left the slow cooker off for any long intervals or if you are using dried herbs), strain your oil through cheesecloth into a glass container. Squeeze the cheesecloth tightly to extract all the oil. Let the oil sit for several hours or overnight. The next day, you will see some sediment at the bottom. Carefully pour off the clear oil into a second bowl, making sure the sediment remains behind. I often strain mine two to three times—the sediment gets stirred up as I pour, and I need to let it re-settle before pouring off the last of the clear oil. Once all your clear oil has been poured off, compost the remaining cloudy oil/sediment mixture.
Congratulations! Now you have a glorious, pungent herbal oil and you are ready to make super salve! At this point, if you are going to store your oil for making salve at a later date, pour it into a glass jar, label with the name of the herb, carrier oil and bottling date, and store in a dark, cool cupboard or basement. Use it within a year.
Making super salve
Place 1¾ cups of your herbal oil (or a mixture from various batches) into a stainless steel pot. If you are using a natural preservative, add it to the oil and stir with a chopstick. Warm the oil slowly on the stove on medium-low heat.
In a separate small pot, melt beeswax and/or thickeners on medium heat. Be careful not to overheat the beeswax. Add ½ cup to the herbal oil when melted. (Any excess will re-solidify so leave it in the pot to cool and store in a cupboard until next time). Continue heating oil until beeswax is melted, stirring often with a chopstick. Remove mixture from the heat. Add essential oil(s) if you want. Stir.
Using a gravy pourer, pour hot mixture into clean jars, filling right to the top. Place filled jars on the counter, cap lightly, and allow to cool for a few hours. When cool, wipe down the outside of the jar, cap tightly and label. Store away from light in a cupboard or medicine cabinet. Use it within two years.
Michelle Summer Fike is the owner of Pumpkin Moon Farm, an organic herb and seed farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. To find out more, go to www.pumpkinmoonfarm.com.
Photo credits: Deborah Nicolson, www.dnphotoworks.com