HEAL: Making Herbal Balms & Salves - Part 1
Summer is prime medicine-making time – the plant community that surrounds us is thriving, whether cultivated in your garden, growing wild in your lawn or out in the forest. With a little investment in time and a few supplies, you can create several traditional herbal remedies that are non-toxic, affordable and safe to use for everyone in your family.
What kind of balms and salves do you use? I make and use topical remedies for healing cuts, muscular pain relief and for my hard-working, often roughened gardening hands. I also make and use lip balms, facial creams and oils, body lotion and occasionally indulge in some luscious body butters.
Topical salves and balms are easy to make and can be used in a variety of ways. Making salves is a great group project for all ages; gather friends, children and neighbors and make an assortment of healing salves and then share extras with those who could not join in the fun. Making herbal salves and balms is a great way to introduce some basic chemistry to children.
Salves and Balms
What’s the difference between a salve and balm? There’s no official difference that I am aware of but the two words are used interchangeably to describe a topical application that is made with oil and wax. I think of a salve as a remedy that has a softer consistency (less wax), which makes it ideal for applying to tender wounds & cuts. Balms have a harder consistency (more wax) and need to be applied with some pressure which makes them ideal for applying to sore muscles, back pain and of course, lips. The larger amount of wax in balms offers additional protection against harsh elements like sun and wind.
Investing money in supplies and setting aside time to make items that you can easily purchase at your local drugstore might have you wondering why you should bother. So let's start with some motivational reading.
Most of the commercial products use ingredients that come from the petro-chemical industry. Many of those chemicals have now proven to be harmful to humans as I describe below. Those moisturizers that never seem to fully moisturize your dry skin? They likely contain an alcohol-based drying agent that helps the moisturizer evaporate sooner and of course, nudges you to use more. Then there's the cost: last year, I was with a friend who bought her favorite body lotion at a department store where she paid $55 for 16 ounces! (For less than $100, I can make a year's worth of facial cream/oil, lip balms, healing balms, moisturizers and body butters for and have a few extras to give as gifts.) My friend's expensive product claimed that it was all "natural" and had a long list of herbs and vegetables as well as a long list of synthetic chemicals. Did you know the word "natural" has no legal or scientific definition in the world of food, supplements and cosmetics? The word natural has become a marketing term - completely unregulated. Organic body care products can contain as little as 10% of organic ingredients and petro-chemicals can be still be used under the natural and organic labeling.
The FDA Approved the Product, right?
Consumers mistakenly believe that if it is being sold by retail outlets that it is safe to use and approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Unfortunately, that is not the case. The FDA is the regulatory agency that is assigned to regulate cosmetic products (i.e., body care) but it does not have any pre-approval processes in place for products. The FDA relies on companies and an industry review panel to monitor associated claims about their products and in its 30-year history, the panel has declared only 11 ingredients as unsafe. Meanwhile, the European Union has banned over 1000 ingredients from cosmetics!
According to the Environmental Working Group, some of the most frequently used ingredients in body care products are also some of the most toxic. Here's the lowdown on some of the more common ones:
Propylene glycol - Found in moisturizers, makeup products, shampoos and sunscreens, this alcohol can cause skin irritations including dermatitis and hives.
Formaldehyde (and its associated preservatives) - A terrific preservative for no-longer inhabited bodies but do I really want this human carcinogen (according to International Agency for Research on Carcinogens) in my body washes, shampoos, conditioners, cleansers and nail products? It can cause allergic skin reactions, and may affect immune systems.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) / Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) - If you have commercial personal care and cleaning products, chances are one of these is an ingredient in most of them. They can irritate skin, eyes and lungs and have the ability to mix with other chemicals to form a carcinogenic composition.
Phthalates - Women beware! These are known to be endocrine disruptors and are linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive birth defects in both sexes. Sometimes they are listed but most times not as they can fall under a ridiculous FDA loophole of proprietary formulas that does not require certain ingredients to be disclosed to the consumer. You are most likely to find them in deodorants, perfumes, hair sprays and moisturizers.
Fragrance - How could something as simple as fragrance be so potentially dangerous? When companies concoct a "secret fragrance formula" it can include a variety of hazardous chemicals that do not have to be disclosed to the consumer. What could happen? Allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and effects on the reproductive system have been reported and researched. Where will you find them? In just about every personal care product made.
Synthetic colors - These additives are derived from petroleum or coal tar (I don't even know what that is) and are used in both food (labeled as F & the color) and drug and cosmetics (D or C & the color. They can cause skin irritation, are considered a human carcinogen by the European Union (where they are banned) and have been linked to ADHD in children.
Parabens - One of the most common preservatives used to prevent bacteria, mold and yeast in body care products like makeup, deodorants, shampoos and body/facial cleansers. But these chemicals act like estrogen in our bodies and are associated with increased risk of breast cancer. They are so prevalent and so easily absorbed that they have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumors.
Sunscreen chemicals - Oh, the irony! You slather these on to prevent skin cancer and it turns out, they can cause celluar damage and cancer within the body and are identified as endocrine disruptors. Common names are benzophenone, PABA, avobenzone, homosalate and ethoxycinnmate. My advice is to instead wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and a long sleeved shirt when out in the sun, or at best, avoid long exposures in the sun during the middle of the day when clothed in skimpy summer attire.
Herbal Balms and Salves Basics
Balm: an aromatic ointment or preparation used to heal or soothe skin that is firmer than a salve
Salve: a looser ointment used to promote healing of the skin or as protection
Uses: medicinal, protective, moisturizing, decongestant, relaxation/massage
Common applications: body skin, facial skin, scar healing, boo-boos of all kinds, sore or tender muscles, lymphatic drainage, nerve pain, mucous membrane lubrication & moisturizing
Basic Ingredients: Oils (or animal fat), beeswax, essential oils (optional), butters (optional) plants with medicinal properties
Below is a basic review of common ingredients used in herbal balms and salves.
A carrier oil is the solvent that is used to extract medicinal properties from plants. The oils also provide an emollient base that can provide comfort and healing. Oils can vary widely in their greasiness: I use olive oil for wound healing recipes but prefer "drier" oils for my facial and hand balms. I highly recommend organic oils as toxins like pesticides and herbicides can follow the plant through the oil-making process.
Extra Virgin Olive – cold expeller pressed with a distinct fragrance
- Very accessible including organic; great for beginners
- Long shelf stability; ideal for boo-boo salves
- Leaves a greasy film; takes longer to absorb
- Some initial research suggests that it might help with osteo-arithitis
Sweet Almond - light, with a faint or no fragrance
- Specific for chapped or irritated skin
- Shorter shelf stability
- Less greasy; penetrates quickly and efficiently
Apricot Kernel Oil – light; full of fatty acids
- Easily absorbed
- Very nice for facial oils
- Works especially well with mature, dry and/or inflamed skins
Coconut Oil (unrefined or fractionated)
- Absorbs easily; considered less greasy than others – nice for massage oils
- Fractionated has no smell; unrefined has the distinctive fragrance of coconut!
- Will not go rancid; unrefined remains solid until melted or warmed (at 76°)
Jojoba – actually made of liquid wax
- Highly suitable for cosmetic applications; natural moisturizing and healing properties
- Medicinal use for some dry scalp & skin problems; also for acne
- Because it is a wax, it does not go rancid
- Faint nutty smell; ideal for creating scented oils
Rosehip Seed Oil – The Queen of Oils!
- Very delicate; rich in fatty acids: linoleic and linolenic
- Regeneration of cells & repair of damaged tissues
- Slows aging of skin
- Excellent for scar healing; reduces thickness
- Should be refrigerated; goes rancid quickly
Other oils like sunflower, grapeseed, sesame and castor are refined which is usually done using chemicals. They are less expensive.
* Note that some people may be allergic to nuts and their oils.
Essential Oils (EO)
Created from the distillation of flowers or leaves essential oils (EO) are not necessary but can be added for specific medicinal properties and aromatic purposes. Essential oils are potent and should be carefully researched before use. Never apply directly to skin. Never take internally. Be careful with use during pregnancy and while nursing. Do not use with children under 5 years of age. Artificially scented oils are not essential oils! Add EOs after blending and heated wax and oils have cooled a bit or it will dissipate.
Lavender EO: $ broad appeal, antiseptic
Rose EO: $$$, skin healing, floral scent
Tea Tree EO: $$, anti-microbial, anti-fungal
There’s a good chance you have some weedy medicine in your backyard. Be sure you have positively identified a plant before using it medicinally. If you aren't sure, don’t use it.
Avoid using plants that have been treated with synthetic chemicals (fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide).
Many plants offer specific medicinal properties called constituents.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
- Traditionally used for skin inflammation and used on sunburn and rashes, including diaper rash.
- A powerful vulnerary (wound healing) with antibiotic and analgesic properties, it's used to soothe and heal burns, cuts, insect bites, bruises, swelling and sprains.
- Can also be used for fungal infections.
- Annual; easy to grow; blooms continuously if deadheaded
- Pick flowers in bud or when first opened and include the entire flower. Resin is located in the bottom of the flower. Dry or wilt for several days before infusing.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Traditionally used for skin inflammation and irritation
- Annual; easy to grow; reseeds
- Use flowers when first opened.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
- A European native that is found throughout the US and is considered a weed; one of the early spring plants. Prefers cool and moist conditions - I always have a patch growing next to my shaded compost bins. Harvest the tips.
- A vulnerary, offers cooling and soothing relief to inflamed and dry skin; relieves itchiness from dryness, insect bites & stings, and eczema
- Contains high amount of water - wilt for 12-24 hours before infusing fresh
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
- Powerful plant with anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory and demulcent properties
- Contains allantoin – a protein that helps generate new cell growth which is ideal for wound healing.
- Also contains rosmarinic acid which can help with mild pain relief.
- Shown to be effective for treating osteoarthritis pain.
- Perennial; can be harvested multiple times in one season;
- The leaves contain a high amount of water; wilt for 24 hours before infusing.
Cottonwood (Popular spp.)
- Offers anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, & analgesic (calms pain) properties and useful for would healing, burns, sore muscles
- Cottonwood has preservative powers and could be included in most balms & salves.
- Harvest begins in late winter through early spring. Use barely opened buds.
- My absolute favorite plant aroma! I have dabbed cottonwood oil on my wrists as a perfume.
- Very sticky; filled with red resin which is the medicine. A metal bowl will need to be dedicated to cottonwood infusing.
Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
- Antimicrobial, antiseptic and analgesic (calms pain)
- Useful for wounds, acne, cold sores, eczema, insect repellent, burns, soreness.
- Easy to grow woody perennial
- Use buds that are barely open and dried.
- Lavender essential oil added to healing salves offers both medicinal and aromatic benefits.
Plantain (Plantago major and lanceolata)
- Another weed…look in your lawn or fields. Use the leaves.
- Has drawing properties; useful for insect bites & stings.
- Treats inflamed skin; helps with healing including bleeding hemorrhoids
St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum)
- Often found along roadsides and fields. Use only fresh buds and flowers which bloom around the summer solstice. Flower stains red when squeezed (only European species that is considered invasive)
- Anti-inflammatory; useful for sprains, strains, bruises & muscle soreness
- A well-known nervine, it can reduce nerve pain including sciatica and neuralgia. Helps with both pain and healing of shingles sores.
- Considered a vulnerary - an herb that assists with healing wounds
- Infusion should be done with fresh flowers and as a solar infusion (oil becomes deep blood red)
Yarrow (Achillea millifolium)
- Grows wild/weedlike throughout the world and has a long history of medicinal use
- Called woundwort; highly effective at healing wounds and is antiseptic.
- Some evidence of reducing inflammation of wounds.
Are you ready to make an herbal salve?
In Making Herbal Balms & Salves - Part 2, I provide easy directions to infuse herbs in oil, make salves/balms and include several recipes to get you started.