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Friday, January 21, 2011

Herbal Medicine Chest #1 - Herbal Salves, Ointments and Balms

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.
Click the button to the left to see all the articles in the series.
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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 (once scab has formed), abrasions (not for open or weeping wounds)*, 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.

*while the healing properties of your salve may be just what a cut or scrape needs, the waxy/oily film that the salve creates also encourages infection because open wounds need protection but they also need oxygen!  The salve makes an anaerobic seal on the wound, possibly sealing in bacteria and preventing the body from creating it's own cover...a scab.  Try using a wash or tincture on the wound until it is dry.  Then your salve will encourage healing and help keep the scab soft to prevent scarring. 

If you like what you've read here, please visit the other articles in the series by clicking on the Herbal Medicine Chest button below.


This post is linked to
Strangers and Pilgrims on Earth
Simply Homemaking
Simple Lives Thursday
Homestead Revival
Wildcrafting Wednesday
Show Me What Ya Got #58

Natural Living Mamma
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  1. Hi Sharon! I think this is a wonderful thing! I know quite a few herbs but didn't realize how simple it is to convert them into healing remedies for your family. I have started to move in the right direction over the past year with the help of my two good bloggie friends who are both into foraging and herbs. I am linking up my first attempt at making a syrup of rose hips which is a pain reliever and a great source of vitamin C. The flavor is delicious too! I will share your new herbal linky on my thoughts on friday at a moderate life this coming friday! All the best! Alex

  2. Hi Sharon, This is so interesting. My husband and I find plain shea butter very healing and soothing. I am wondering if we could make healing salve using the shea butter and the herbs that you mention. Thanks for the fascinating information!

  3. Hi, I'm happy to share one of my very favorite herbs - hops. They are a very gentle way to induce sleep or ease nerves.

    I'm so excited to be in touch with someone else who enjoys making home remedies. I just got into it last year, and am surprised over and again at how effective they are.

    I'm your newest follower :)

  4. I've decided to continue the same linking tool with every Monday's Blog Hop Post so everyone can see all the remedies that folks have shared in one place. So, please, share as many as you like and don't be afraid to add more each week. I love hearing from you!

  5. Hi Sharon,
    Wow this is an excellent idea, great to have a bunch of remedies all in one place! So helpful. Great info on how to make remedies too, I hope it helps to inspire us all to get involved with the wild nature more!

  6. Thanks for all your support, Ladies! Come on back each Monday for the newest article in the Herbal Medicine Chest series. And Alex, thanks so much; any boost in traffic would be greatly appreciated.

  7. Wonderful Blog Hop! Thanks so much for inviting me over!!! So glad to be a part of this. I added my recipe for a healing comfry-calendula salve. I use it for cuts, scrapes, stings, cuticle cream, and even a heavy hand cream. Enjoy!

  8. Thanks for sharing, Melissa. I hope you'll keep coming back! I love making new friends!

  9. I am one of those people prone to headaches, migraine and colds. Usually, my first recourse is White Flower Embrocation (, also called White Flower Oil

  10. @ Jane- I'm not familiar with that one but I'm going to check it out. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Very educational. Thanks for sharing! :)

  12. Wow! This is sooo interesting! My sweet MIL used to make salves.

  13. These looks so interesting. I have never tried to make one.

  14. What a great idea for a blog hop. My grandma used to make mustard plasters for our bronchitis and cayenne ear plugs for our earaches.

    Both worked!


    PS. I've bookmarked your site.

  15. Lot of really interesting information! I just love herbs, and this is really the type of information I like to collect.

  16. I used to think about making my own salves and ointments. Looks like you've got me thinking about it again. I'm looking forward to exploring your blog further.

  17. happy alphabe-thursday
    very interesting post
    i'm all for anything lavender =)

  18. What a superb stop on our little journey through Alphabe-Thursday's letter "S".

    I have always been fascinated with herbs, salves and ointments. I used to make a lot of 'remedy' type 'recipes' when I lived in Ohio and had extensive herb gardens.

    I think I'm going to give these a try again.

    I will be back to visit further on your blog.

    I find this subject matter quite fascinating.

    Thank you for linking.


  19. Again, Thanks for the encouraging comments! I love hearing from all of you!

  20. I'm a little late and linked a super easy peppermint oil that we use for our kids stuffy noses. I really need to restock on my lotions and rubs and this blog hop is just what I needed to pull my stuff out and make some more. Thanks for hosting!

  21. Oh what a wonderful blog!! Its awesome! Lots to learn. You explain everything so well, you must have studied for years and years to be so knowledgeble. thanks for sharing, I am an devoted follower now. Marla

  22. @Mountain Blessings
    Welcome, Marla! Thanks for your kind comments! I have been studying for a long time on my own. Working on becoming a certified family herbalist now and moving on from there. It's helping me pull everything I've learned together.

  23. Thank you for this post. I love herbs and herbal supplements, but I haven't gotten into making my own herbal medicine. I would like to though.

  24. So informative, what a great read.
    Thanks for sharing on Natural Living Monday!

  25. Such a great post! We use herbal salves all the time in our home.

    Thanks for sharing on Natural Living Mondays! I am excited to see what you have to share this week.

  26. Thanks for Sharing With Natural Living Monday! It was great to see this linky again! So many familiar faces that i have thought about in a long time!

    You are one of our featured posts this week! I hope you join us again! :)

  27. Nice Informative Blog having nice sharing..

  28. There are herbal remedies that work to ease arthritis pain a bit. For example, guyabano leaves (soursop leaves) help.

  29. When i was a little girl my mother always uses some lemon balm on my insect bite. ^_^

  30. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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