How to make herbal salves
It might look tricky, and — depending on the method you use — it can take some time, but making herbal salves is actually very simple. Here are step-by-step directions, as well as some tips that might come in handy.
Salves are usually a combination of beeswax and oil. In fact, you can make a very simple lip salve by simply combing warm olive oil and melted beeswax (about 5 parts oil to 1 part beeswax). To make an herbal salve (and incorporate the properties and benefits of herbs), the oil is usually infused with herbs as a first step. Other ingredients, such as essential oils, vitamin E oil, lanolin, and glycerin, are also often added to salves for added benefits. (Essential oils can contribute scent, botanical, and aromatherapy properties; vitamin E is thought to be beneficial for the skin and may help preserve the salve; lanolin makes a salve creamier; and glycerin adds moisture and may help prevent rancidity).
Step 1: Making an Herbal Infusion
The first step in making an herbal salve is to infuse your oil. There are several ways to do this.
No-cook methods for making an herbal oil infusion
The heat of the sun can help you make an infusion.
- Fill a glass jar with herbs.
- Cover with oil, leaving about one-inch headroom.
- Stir, place lid on jar, and place in the sun (outdoors or on a windowsill inside, if the weather is cold) for about three to four weeks. Tip the jar upside down every day or so during this time.
- When the infusion time is up, strain the oil through cheesecloth. Squeeze the cheesecloth to get all the oil out, and then discard (compost, if you can) the herbs.
You can use your oil at this point, or (to make a stronger infusion) you can repeat the process again and again, putting the oil back in the jar with fresh herbs and placing in the sun for another three to four weeks at a time.
Another no-cook option is to place the jar in a cool, dark place (rather than the sun) for about six weeks. Tip the jar over once in a while to disperse the herbs through the oil. When time is up, strain the oil through the cheesecloth, squeezing the herbs.
You can even infuse your oil in a crockpot. Just place your herbs in the bottom of the pot, cover with oil, and heat on low for about eight hours. (Don't try this unless your pot has a low setting.) You can also place the herbs in a jar, cover with oil, and place the entire jar your crockpot. (This method is good for infusing several different herbs in oils at once; just put the jars in the crockpot next to each other.)
Stovetop method for making an herbal oil infusion
Heat the dried herbs and oil (to cover) together for an hour or so over very low heat (a double boiler is handy to prevent scorching). Turn off the heat, and let the mixture sit for a couple of days. Strain through cheesecloth for your final step.
Step 2: Mixing the Salve
Combine the infused herbal oil and beeswax (either beeswax beads or beeswax shavings that have been grated from a block) in a saucepan, and heat gently until the wax is melted. (Use about 1/4 cup of beeswax shavings or beads per cup of oil to start with and adjust as needed.) Remove from heat and stir in optional ingredients. Pour into sterilized containers and let cool.
Alternately, some salve crafters like to melt the beeswax in a separate pan and stir it into the oil. Experiment to see which technique you like best.
The quickest method for making herbal salve combines the infusion and salve-mixing steps into one. Combine your herbs and oil to cover in a saucepan. Simmer for about half an hour (don't overheat). Add melted beeswax (about 1/4 cup per cup of oil) to the oil. Stir, cool slightly, and strain through cheesecloth. Add essential oils and other ingredients, if desired. Mix well, pour into containers, and let set.
Helpful hints for herbal salves
- Choose herbs that suit the purpose of your salve. Popular choices include arnica flowers, calendula, coltsfoot leaf, comfrey leaf, echinacea, elder flowers, German chamomile flowers, goldenseal, horsetail herb, lavender flowers, lemon balm, marshmallow root, mullein leaf, plantain leaf, roses, Saint John's Wort and yarrow herb.
- Rub dried herbs gently between your palms before infusing in the oil. If using fresh herbs, allow them to wilt for a couple of hours (place on paper towels), to remove moisture.
- Various oils can be used to make your herbal infusion, including olive, sesame, sunflower, coconut, sweet almond, and other skin care oils.
- For added benefits, combine more than one herbal infused oil in a single salve.
- Always sterilize all of your containers and utensils.
- A double boiler is handy for keeping wax and herbs from burning, but another good option is a heatproof glass measuring cup inside a pan of water.
- Use only enamel or stainless steel (not aluminum or Teflon) pans and measuring cups and spoons. Wooden spoons are good for stirring your recipe.
- Water will promote mold growth, so don't let even a drop get in your salve (if using a double boiler, for example).
- The consistency of your salve can be adjusted, based on the ratio of ingredients. For a harder salve, add more beeswax; for a softer salve, add more oil.
- To test for consistency, remove 1 teaspoon of the oil/beeswax mixture and blow on it or refrigerate it until it hardens. Test with your finger.
- Wipe your pans and measuring utensils with a paper towel before washing. You don't want to get beeswax in your sink drain, because it can solidify in there and clog the drain.
- Even after washing, the beeswax will leave a film, so use pans and utensils that are old or designated for salve making.
- Some essential oils (such as grapefruit and tea tree) may help prevent rancidity.
- Salve will start to harden as it cools (immediately), so pour into your containers as soon as it's done; don't let it sit on the stove too long.
- Your salve should last about 6 months (even twice as long if refrigerated).
Herbal Salve Recipe
You don't really need specific recipes to make your herbal salves. Just choose herbs to suit your purposes and follow the directions above. To get you started, though, here's a balm that you might find pleasant and useful.
Plenty of Purposes Balm
Use this general-purpose balm to calm skin that's irritated or‚ for whatever reason, just needs some TLC.
2 cups olive oil infused with lemon balm
1 cup olive oil infused with calendula
3/4 cup beeswax shavings or beads
2 drops lavender essential oil
- Combine the infused oils and warm over very low heat.
- Add beeswax and stir until completely melted.
- Test the consistency (see tips above) and adjust by adding more beeswax or more oil.
- Remove from heat, stir in essential oil(s) and pour into containers.
- Let set, then cover.