HEAL: Making Herbal Balms & Salves - Part 2
In Making Herbal Balms & Salves - Part 1, I provide details on selecting oils and herbs that are commonly used in medicinal herbal balms and salves. In Part 2, I provide instruction on making herbal balms and salves.
I recommend starting with an all-purpose wound healer (often called Boo-Boo Balm). I keep a jar of this in my kitchen because I am remarkably good at cutting and burning my fingers on a weekly basis. I keep a smaller jar that I use on my dogs and their assorted boos-boos. Another a small tin stays in my purse and another one in my travel/camping first aid pouch. The best thing about this all-purpose salve is its versatility: it can be used on cuts, dry skin, chapped lips, burns - all from one jar! The recipe for the all-purpose wound healing salve is below.
Equipment & Materials
Start with gathering the equipment and materials needed for herbal balm making. Most of the equipment can be found in your kitchen:
- A double boiler set-up (I use a pot with a metal bowl on top)
- Glass measuring cups (large and small)
- Glass jars with lids in different sizes (I use Mason jars)
- Coffee filters/rubber bands (for fresh plant infusions)
- A large strainer with small mesh and/or cheesecloth or muslin
- A grater reserved for grating beeswax (see my note below)
- Scale for weighing beeswax
- Containers for your final products - If planning to make several different balms with a group of people, you could share the costs of purchasing 1 oz and 2 oz amber glass jars and/or metal tins. (I order from Specialty Bottle). Recycled baby food jars and small canning jars are other options.
- A notebook for recipes and notes about medicine-making
- Labels of some kind & protective tape (I use clear packing tape)
- Herb-infused oils
- Beeswax - I bought a brick of beeswax because it was the least expensive way to buy bulk but grating beeswax is time-consuming. For a bit more money, you can purchase beeswax pastilles which are little pellets and make balm-making a lot easier.
- Essential oils (optional) - If you don't use EOs, your balms' scents will reflect the combination of the oil and beeswax.
- Vitamin E oil, rosemary antioxidant extract or cottonwood oil - Adding a 1/2-1 tsp of any of these in your salves will help preserve the shelf life of your salves and guard against bacterial growth. I love the smell of cottonwood and use it exclusively in all of my salves & balms.
Five Tips for Making Herb-Infused Oils
1) Make small batches. Oils can go rancid, develop bacteria and lose medicinal value. Pint sized canning jars are ideal for making a variety of plant oils; their small size also makes it easy to store in the refrigerator. Never use oils that smell bad.
2) Invest a bit of time in record-keeping. Jotting down exact amounts, oil combinations and troubleshooting problems is the best way to create a fool-proof recipe.
3) Always label and date your oils. Yeah, you think you will remember it but you won’t. Use transparent tape over your labels because drips almost always aim for the label.
4) Ideally, designate a metal or glass bowl, pot/pan and utensils for oil and balm making. Sterilize in boiling water or dishwasher before use.
5) Practice ethical wildcrafting; take only a little and move on. I highly recommend using pesticide-free plants and avoid collecting from busy roads, sprayed areas and areas frequented by domestic animals.
Infusing Herbs in Oil
The first step is to infuse the selected herbs in oil. There is some debate on whether to use fresh herbs or dried. I use both fresh and dried depending on the plant, the season and what's available.
Fresh herbs can increase the chance of bacteria to develop because fresh plant material contains water. Herbs have varying levels of moisture so allow freshly picked plant material to wilt which means to sit for 8-24 hours (larger leaves = more time). Wilting allows for some of the plant’s moisture to evaporate. If there is an excessive amount of water in the fresh plants, it will gradually sink to the bottom of the jar and the oil must be carefully strained without the water.
Given the potential for bacteria and excess water, when using fresh, beginners may want to start with dried herbs. And of course, during the winter months, dried is all you will have. For most plants, fresh or dried are equally effective. There are three plants from my plant list in Part 1 that best used fresh for infusing oils: chickweed, St. John''s Wort and cottonwood buds. When using dried herbs, be sure they are freshly harvested and dried. Avoid using powdered herbs; they can be difficult to strain out of oils. (Though I make an exception in one recipe.)
Avoid combining different herbs in one jar. For reasons of flexibility, it is easier to infuse one herb per jar rather than combine several herbs to make a blended oil. Blend the oils when making a balm.
There are two primary methods for extracting the medicinal constituents of plants in oil:
Solar infusion involves placing wilted and chopped fresh plant material in jar; filling loosely about 3/4 full. Pour oil to completely cover the plant material (push down to ensure that all plant material remains covered - chopsticks are perfect for this).
Do not use a lid to cover; the remaining plant moisture needs to evaporate. Instead, place a coffee filter or cheesecloth as a cover, secured with a rubber band and place it in the sun for two to four weeks. Regularly check on the oils, pushing down plant material that is not submerged and looking for any sign of bacterial growth. Be sure to protect from rain, curious critters and children.
A faster and more reliable method is to gently heat your herbs in oil on the stovetop using a double boiler set-up. Avoid high heat as it can increase the speed of rancidity. Keep the water at the lowest simmer possible for 45-60 minutes (around 100°F). Do not allow the oil to simmer or boil. Most herbs will create a green or yellow colored oil. Remember to add more water over this time period to the bottom pot. When I have an abundance of plant material I often do this a second time; using the same oil with a fresh batch of wilted and chopped or dried plant material will increase its potency.
Though I have read of people using crockpots to infuse oil, crockpots at the lowest setting are above 100° so I choose not use them. I have also heard of placing jars of infusions in dehydrators that have a temperature control. In the late months of winter, I sometimes infuse my fresh cottonwood buds for several days in their designated bowl on my wood stove.
Once infused, oils need to be stored away from heat and light and ideally, in the refrigerator. Check frequently for moisture, bacterial growth or mold and a bad smell and toss if detected. Balms and salves should be stored away from high heat or they will liquefy. Keep this in mind when shipping handcrafted salves to family members who live in hot regions (I say this with much authority). Adding more beeswax will keep balms harder during hot weather. If properly stored, the salves will be effective for one year.
Finally: Make a Balm or Salve
Thoroughly strain oil through a cheesecloth or muslin, hand squeezing to get all of the oil. Be sure to remove all plant material from oil. Place oil back on the double boiler (low heat) and add grated beeswax, stirring just until melted. DO NOT LEAVE UNATTENDED! Remove from heat. If adding essential oils, wait until the oil/wax combo has cooled enough to put your finger in it. Stir EOs in (do not add extra EO much, more is not better) Pour immediately into sterilized and dry containers. Loosely place cover on top of container until completely cooled and hardened. Be sure to label with ingredients and date (e.g., comfrey (dried), olive oil, Lavender EO - August 2018) and put labels on after the salve has hardened.
To make a soft salve use 1 cup of oil and 1 oz. (by weight)of grated beeswax. To make a harder balm, increase beeswax to two parts. You may need to play with this a bit; if too hard add more oil.
Too Soft or Too Hard?
Balms are easy to troubleshoot: re-melt the balm in the double boiler and add a bit more wax to make it harder or a bit more oil to make it softer. Before pouring into containers, you can test the hardness of your salve by dipping a metal spoon into the liquified salve, place it on a plate and put in the freezer for a quick cool down. After several minutes, check the firmness and adjust if necessary. Remember that a salve that will go on painful areas like wounds, cuts and burns and should be softer than balms.
In your notebook, record the recipe you used, noting any changes you made, whether you used fresh or dried herb, problems you experienced and the date you made it. The more details the better for the next you make the recipe.
All Purpose or Wound Healing Salve
1 cup infused herb oil (combine any of the vulnerary herbs listed below)
1 oz. grated beeswax or pastilles
- Optional: 4-8 drops lavender or tea essential oil
Pour into eight 1-oz or four 2-oz containers (or any mix of containers). Label and date.
Plantain and chickweed have been used for centuries as wound healers. Combined, these two plants make a simple wound healing salve that cools inflammation, moistens damaged skin and provides relief from insect bites. Calendula, yarrow and comfrey could also be used.
Aches & Pains Salve
I don't know anyone who doesn't have occasional muscular aches and nerve pain. This salve is the answer to immediate relief. I make a batch of this several times a year. My mother uses it on her feet for neuropathic pain, and I use it with my occasional bouts of sciatica, overworked muscles, and my slowly developing arthritis in my hands.
- 1 cup St. John's Wort infused oil
- 3 tablespoons cayenne powder
- 1 tablespoon ginger root powder
- 1 oz. grated beeswax or pastilles
- Optional: essential oils for fragrance or for additional pain relief
Put oil, cayenne and ginger in a double boiler set-up. Heat until oil is warm. Turn off heat and let it cool down for 15 minutes and then repeat the heating and cooling cycles for at least one hour. I often let it sit overnight and make the salve first thing in the morning. Strain the infused oil through cheesecloth and return to double boiler. Heat and add beeswax. Pour into 2 oz. or 4 oz. containers.
Why it works: Cayenne pepper works on your nervous system by blocking Substance P, which is a neurotransmitter that signals the brain that pain is being experienced. Ginger is warming, helping to relieve muscular tension by aiding circulation. St. John's Wort also works on the nervous system and reduces inflammation. If you don't have St. John's infused oil, you can use olive or almond oil.
Do not use internally and do not apply to open wounds, on your face or any mucosal membranes because it will cause burning in those tender environments. When applied to achey muscles or areas of pain, you will experience a pleasant warming to the area. Do remember to wash your hands immediately after applying.