What is a salve? A salve as defined by dictionary.com is “a medicinal ointment for healing or relieving wounds and sores.”1 Many over-the-counter remedies are salves such as Neosporin®. Lip balms are also a form of salve, so a salve doesn’t have to be medicinal, just nourishing to the skin. Salves in general are a simple formula with just a few ingredients. They generally include an oil and a wax to create a semi-solid material. Today people use the terms “lotion bars” or “balms” to also describe salves.
These oil-rich salves are used to nourish and protect skin. They lock moisture in, keeping skin soft and smooth throughout the seasons. Salves can be made as thick as a bar of soap. A salve will remain in a solid state at room temperature, only melting with body heat when rubbed on the skin. Salves are gaining popularity due to the possibility of being low or zero waste products.
Carrier Oils for Salves
There are many carrier oils that can be used as a good base for salves. The following oils have benefits without infusing or adding more ingredients:
• Almond (Amygdalus communis) oil is light and emollient. It is rich in vitamin E and other compounds to soothe the skin. It also contains phytosterols which provide anti-inflammatory properties.2
• Apricot Kernel (Prunus armeniaca) is like almond oil but lighter. It is a good choice for mature skin because it has nourishing and revitalizing properties. It also contains phytosterol beta-sitosterol which is anti-inflammatory in action. It soothes irritation and supports the protective barrier of the skin.2
• Avocado (Persea americana) oil has two varieties. One is extracted from the fruiting body that surrounds the seed. A less common variety is pressed from the pit and is used exclusively for skin care due to a reportedly bitter taste.2 The oil is high in vitamins A, B and E. An action of this oil “increases water soluble collagen content in the middle layer of skin, the dermis.”2 This helps strengthen the skin and reduce age spots and weakening of the skin.2
• Coconut (Cocos nucifera) oil has gained popularity over the years due to its high content of medium-chain saturated fatty acid content known as lauric acid. When lauric acid converts in the body to monolaurin it can destroy viruses and harmful bacteria. There are several types of coconut oil including “Coconut 76,” virgin coconut oil, and fractionated coconut oil. Make sure you know which variety you are purchasing. Some people find coconut oil drying to the skin.2
• Olive (Olea europaea) oil is high in oleic acid which makes up about 70% of the oil content. The acid assists in the breathing process and sebum production of the skin. This and other properties in the oil assist in the repair of damaged dry skin.2
The variety of carrier oils is endless. These are just a few which are beneficial to include when making salves.
Herb-infused Oils for Salves
If you are looking to increase the healing or soothing properties of your salve, consider making an herb-infused oil. You can utilize all the above carrier oils; you just need to consider the shelf-life of the oil and how you will create the infusion. The most common oils used for infusing are olive oil or a fractionated coconut oil due to their long shelf life and higher heat tolerance. You will first want to wilt or use dried herbs because moisture can promote mold growth or cause the oil to go rancid.
How to Infuse Herbs into an Oil
Double Boiler Method
This method works particularly well for infusing roots. Always ensure you label and date your infused oils.
Place your chopped herbs of choice into a pan.
Cover the herbs with up to two inches of your chosen carrier oil.
Place the pan inside of another pan with water, resting just above the water to allow the steam to slowly heat up the herbs and oil.
Slowly simmer the herbs and oil for 30 to 60 minutes.
Check the oil frequently during the process. The oil will become herby in aroma when it is done.
When the oil is ready, strain out the herbs using a stainless-steel strainer and cheese cloth.
Solar Infusion Method
For this method you will need a wide mouth canning jar and some sun!
Place your chopped herbs of choice into the jar.
Cover the herbs with your carrier oil of choice, leaving an inch over plant material.
Place the jar in a warm sunny spot for two weeks.
After steeping, strain herbs with a stainless-steel strainer and cheese cloth.3
Herbs for Oil Infusion
Some plants to consider using for oil infusion are:
• Chickweed (Stellaria media). Often mistaken as a weed, this herb is hardier than you would expect. It soothes dry, irritated or itchy skin when added in a salve. There are no safety precautions associated with the use of this plant.
• Comfrey Root (Symphytum spp.) is a powerful herb that can be used to support wound healing. There is some debate about potentially toxic alkaloids when using comfrey, but most sources I have researched state that it is safe for external use.
• Goldenseal Root (Hydrastis canadensis) has antibiotic properties. However, this herb has been overharvested and its current status is endangered in the wild.4 Make sure you harvest from ethical sources.
• Oregon Grape Root (Berberis aquifolium) has been shown to have antimicrobial properties.5
Beeswax for Herbal Salves
The second main ingredient of any salve is generally beeswax (Cera alba). The bees create this wax when making honeycombs. To obtain the wax the comb is removed from the hive and the honey extracted. The wax is then boiled and filtered and cooled. It can then be used for cosmetics or in candle making.
Vegan Alternatives for Beeswax
Some people prefer to use a vegan alternative for beeswax. One option is carnauba wax (Copernicia prunifera). The wax is derived from a coating on the leaves that protects them from dehydration in the local Brazilian climate. This wax can be sustainably harvested from mature trees.6
Reasons to Use Herbal Salves
Salves provide you with a wide range of options for use. They can be used daily with a blend of carrier oils which supports your goals and objectives, such as skin care or pain. The herbal infusions add a beautiful gentle scent. The gentle support of herbal salves can help to maintain healthy skin throughout any season. I also find salves a gentle option that I can use with my animal friends. The gentle nature of most carrier oils means that they are safe even if a pet licks them.
Carrier oils and herbal-infused oils are a gentle option for everyday use. As mentioned, with plants such as comfrey root, some plants do have some safety precautions, so take some time to explore each plant. Many people are aware of the precautions with essential oils, but it is important to understand that the chemical makeup of the plants themselves is different, depending on how the plant is used. So, don’t assume the precaution for using an infused oil is the same as for using the essential oil.
For an acute situation, consider creating a stronger formula for your herbal salve by adding essential oils. This formula will generally be used for a short amount of time; for example, one to two weeks. Add the essential oils at the end of a salve making process. The heat required to melt the wax may alter the essential oil properties.
Take some time to test out different options to find your preferred blend. Since salves are solid, use different molds to create fun shapes and sizes. It is also fun to place some flower petals or herb leaves within the bar before it solidifies.
How to Make a Simple Salve
Melt 0.5-oz. of beeswax (Cera alba) on the stove using the double boiler method.
Take the beeswax off the heat and combine it with one cup of carrier oil.
Pour into appropriate size containers (with lids) and label.
Leave to harden before using.
You can adjust the amount of beeswax to create different consistencies in the salve. More beeswax will create a harder salve whereas more carrier oil will create a softer salve.
Cayenne Salve for Sore Muscles
My family has had success with this salve for sore muscles after a long day of gardening.
½ cup olive (Olea europaea) oil
2 TBSP. cayenne powder
0.5-oz. beeswax (Cera alba)
Directions for Making: Combine the olive oil and cayenne powder and follow one of the methods in this article to make an infused oil. Melt the beeswax on the stove using the double boiler method. Take the beeswax off the heat and combine it with half cup of the infused oil. Pour into appropriate size containers (with lids) and label. Leave to harden before using.
Instructions for Using: Rub a dime-sized amount of the salve onto sore muscles once or twice a day. Test on a small area for sensitivity first. Avoid rubbing your eyes or delicate parts of the body after use.
1. Dictionary.com online, Salve, accessed 1/9/2020 from: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/salve
2. Parker Susan M., 2014, Power of the Seed US: Process Media
3. Gladstar, R., 2012, Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, US: Storey Publishing
4. United Plant Savers website, Goldenseal – Hydrastis canadensis, accessed 1/9/20 from: https://unitedplantsavers.org/goldenseal-hydrastis-canadensis/
5. Mountain Rose Herbs website, Herb infused oils, accessed 1/16/2020 from: https://blog.mountainroseherbs.com/making-herbal-oils
6. Cox, J., “Herbal Lotion Bars & Balms,” Herb Quarterly Winter 2019 Page 25-28
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