Please join me for the first week of the Herbal Medicine Chest where we'll celebrate the healing properties of herbs. Each Monday for the next several weeks, I'll be talking about different methods used to prepare herbs for medicinal use.
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Salves, Ointments and Balms...What's the difference? Among the herbal community, it seems that some view these terms as interchangeable while others distinguish between them. The big difference seems to be the consistency and aromatic qualities. Here's my view:
Balm- a balm is a mixture of herbal infused oils, some form of wax and essential oils. To explain the texture best, think of a preparation that is stiff enough to be used in a twist up dispenser like a lip balm tube or twist up deodorant stick. The ratio of wax to oils would be highest in a balm, usually 1oz. wax to 1 cup oil. Balms tend to be more aromatic because the higher amount of EOs used for their healing properties releases a cloud of soothing vapors upon application.
In beauty products, lips balms, lotion bars and deodorant sticks are really balms with additional ingredients. But in this article, we're simply thinking about our herbal medicine chest.
Salve - also a mixture of herbal infused oils and wax but contain little or no EOs. The consistency is one that could be used in a small container, like a tin, that the salve could be dipped into with a clean finger, a cotton swab or a small cosmetic paddle. The texture is easy to smooth over the injury without the pressure required to apply a balm. Also call unguents.
Ointment - again, a mixture of herbal infused oils, wax and possibly EOs, the big difference (if there is one at all) between salves and ointments is the texture. I think of ointments as a softer, more loose, yet oily preparation that is best stored in a tube or jar with a screw on lid to prevent spills in warm weather.
That being said, they are pretty much interchangeable in their healing nature and preparation with the big difference being their texture based on how they'll be used and ease of application. All of the above herbal preparations are for external application. Because our skin absorbs most oils quickly, the oil and it's healing herbal ingredients are drawn into the body where they can begin to work while the wax and some of the oils form a protective layer on the skin's surface.
These herbal remedies can be prepared using one herbal ingredient that may or may not be enhanced by the addition of the same EO. Or they can be prepared using a combination of herbs and EOs for a specific or personalized application.
One variation on the above information is that a solid or semi solid (at room temp.) oil or fat can be used without the addition of wax. One example is lard. I don't use animal lard because it has a tendency to become rancid much quicker than vegetable based oils. Vegetable lard is sterile but it is hydrogenated oil so I don't recommend using it either. However there are other oils such as coconut oil and butters that can be used here. We'll talk more about them in the body care section because they often bring healing qualities of their own which may or may not be needed in a first aide situation.
Some recipes call for a few drops of tincture of benzoin as a preservative. However, it can cause or increase irritation on tender skin.
The contents of a vitamin E capsule can be used to help preserve your preparation if desired.
Here's where the alchemy or creativity comes in...based on the ailments or injuries you're interested in treating, you can pick and choose which combination of herbs or their EOs have the healing properties you're looking for and keeping your proportions equal to the recipe, create your own unique herbal blend. Some of my favorite herbs for balms and salves are:
Chickweed - drawing for splinters or stings, infection - burns and scalds - itching - eczema
Plantain - great healer for sores and wounds - stings - burns - acne - hemorrhoids
Comfrey - rapid healer and cell prolificator - use only on clean wounds to avoid trapping infection or dirt. Use for minor fractures that would not be cast (i.e. broken toes or ribs or hairline fractures) - sore or damaged muscles - osteoarthritis - bruises - sprains
Lemon Balm - relieve painful swelling - gouty inflammation - sores - insect bites - insect repellent
St. John's Wort - antiseptic and styptic for cuts, scrapes, ulcers, sores - localized pain like sciatica, cramping, breast engorgement during lactation, sprains, burns, aching joints
Stinging Nettle - insect bites - wounds - arthritic joints - gout - sprains and other localized pain
Rosemary - headaches - painful joints and muscles - rheumatism - cramps - acne
Calendula or pot marigold * - heals wounds - acne - varicose veins - inflammation - dry skin - vaginal yest infection - eczema - sunburn - scalds and burns - sore nipples from breast feeding - diaper rash
Here's a list of some EOs I keep on hand: all should be diluted before use unless noted.
Rosemary** - See above - analgesic, antirheumatic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent - aids memory -clears thinking - sore muscles - cold feet - gout
Lavender**, *** - analgesic, antirheumatic, antiseptic, antifungal, antispasmodic, antiviral, decongestant, sedative - headaches - eczema - burns and scalds - muscle pain - insect bites and stings - chest congestion - sunburn - diaper rash - acne - cramps - insomnia - lice and removing nits. We use it neat as a treatment for migraine headaches by rubbing a small amount on the temples. This is a must have for your Herbal Medicine Chest.
Eucalyptus - expectorant, decongestant, insecticide, analgesic, antirheumatic, highly antiseptic - great for chest rub to relieve congestion in respiratory ailments - painful joints - burns - cold sores - arthritic pain - insect repellent - aids concentration
Tea Tree*** - highly antiseptic and antifungal, antibiotic, antiviral, bactericide, expectorant, insecticide - cuts and scrapes - wart removal - cold sores - nit removal - vaginal yeast infection - acne - itching - reduces scarring - athletes foot - dandruff - insect repellent. A must have for your Herbal Medicine Chest.
Fir Needle - analgesic, antiseptic, deodorant, expectorant - chest rub - arthritis and rheumatic aches - sore muscles - acne - chest congestion - pain reliever
Peppermint** -Cooling, analgesic, antispasmodic, anesthetic, decongestant, febrifuge, insecticide, stimulant - clears thinking - discourages fever - travel sickness - digestive, relaxes stomach muscles - pain relieving - discourages nausea - travel sickness - headache and migraine - toothache - muscle and joint pain - insect bites and other skin irritations including itching - repels vermin
Pink Grapefruit - antiseptic, disinfectant, stimulant, antidepressant - can reduce cellulite - acne - migraine - PMS- deodorant
*(not to be confused with French marigold used in herbicides and pesticides)
**CAUTION: avoid high doses during pregnancy
***Can be used neat or straight.
See a more complete list of Essential Oils on Herbal Medicine Chest - Essential Oils (Still under construction)
Don't let this list overwhelm you. You can start as small as you like. Just a few EOs can get you rolling with very effective remedies right from your own kitchen!
Basic Preparation of Salves, Ointments and Balms
1 Cup oil (Olive, Sesame or Almond are good choices)
1 Cup of chopped fresh herbs or 1/2 cup crushed or powdered dried herbs (either a "simple" ~ singular herb or a blend) and/or 1 tsp.of EO (see below).
Gently warm oil and herbs in a container for 2-3 hours. (Either in a warm oven that has been turned off, in a pot on the stove over very low heat, in a slow cooker set on low or in a jar placed in the sun.)
Strain to remove plant parts or "marc" from the oil infusion and discard. (The worm bin!)
If you're adding Essential Oils to your product, add them to the warmed oil just before adding the wax to avoid losing much of their value through evaporation. Then quickly move onto the next step to reduce the temp.
Another method would be to create several "simple" or single herb infused oils that can be combined at a later time to suit your needs. Of course if you're using EOs there's no need to make ahead.
Add to warm oil blend:
approx.1 oz. Beeswax for balms
3/4 oz for salves
1/2 oz for ointments
Adjust the amount to suit your application. When you need it, you're not going to care what it's called, only if it works!
Stir in beeswax until melted.
Pour into small containers. Allow to cool, cap, label carefully with ingredients and instructions for use and store in a cool place out of direct sunlight or intense heat (like your glove box!)
Use externally as needed for minor skin irritations, insect bites, cuts, abrasions, sore muscles, chest congestion, sore throat, even helping broken bones to mend (after they've been set by a doctor, of course.) Again, these remedies are meant for minor injuries and ailments; not to replace proper professional medical attention when necessary. We use them successfully in our home based on research, historical empirical evidence and our own experiences. Based on lore and history, many of these plants have been used for healing since the beginning of time.
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Show Me What Ya Got #58
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