How to make an effective healing salve: Home Medicine Cycle 9

Readers of my Home Medicine Cycle are usually looking for simple, practical ways to use medicinal herbs at home. I go to the doctor as do most of you, I expect. There are a great many good things about modern medicine. 

And yet there are a few things that fresh, home-grown medicinal herbs still do better than the pharmacy.

Skin care is one of them.

From supposedly incurable eczema to allergic reactions and small infected cracks that even antibiotics won't heal, I've seen a lot of skin problems that pharmaceutical ointments were not been able to handle. And more often than not, I've seen medicinal herbs from my humble garden clear them up in less than a week.

I say my garden is humble because it is. I don't grow herbs to sell them and I don't sell my remedies. In fact, I have a hunch that purchased herbs will never be as effective as home-grown and home-brewed remedies unless they are from a tiny cottage industry, because any time you put herbs into a big processing system they end up freeze-dried, preserved and over-processed, which appears to significantly cut their medicinal potency. Maybe there's a way to make effective commercial herbal remedies, but I haven't seen it yet. 

I'm a mother doing this for my family and for the odd friend who drops in. I have two beds of herbs and I gather a few others in nearby empty lots. What I do isn't industrial herbalism and anyone with a garden or even a few window pots can do a lot of what I do. That's the whole point of this Home Medicine Cycle. It's about practical herb lore, herbal remedies that just plain work and things you can do to take back your own health. 

So lets get down to business. The herb harvesting season is finally well underway. I'll be posting here more often over the summer and I'll often focus on one herb at a time and its uses and specific recipes. But this time I want to give you a core herbalist skill - the simple method of salve making. 

I first learned this from Jennifer Moore, an herbalist in La Grande, Oregon, and later read about similar techniques in The Herbal Home Remedy Book, which is a simple, practical guide that's easy for non-experts to follow. I've been making herbal salves for a dozen years now and this method simply works. I've perfected a few of the steps based on experience in my own kitchen. I hope that you can try this out and gain a tool for treating common skin problems, bruises, burns and skinned knees. 

Salve making has several steps. There are three basic stages--collecting herbs, making infused oil and cooking the salve.  The first stage takes however long it takes, but often no more than a few minutes if you have started growing your own herbs. The second stage takes from two to three weeks of mostly passive waiting. The final stage will generally take a couple of hours of kitchen time. I'll list the equipment you'll need for each stage in a box.

Collecting herbs

Step 1:  Choosing herbs and essential oils 

There are a great many herbs you can use to make herbal salves. I will go into depth on some of these in other posts and link from here whenever possible. You can even use only purchased essential oils diluted in a carrier oil and leave out the whole section on infused oils, but I recommend using infused oil together with essential oils, because they each provide different types of medicinal benefits and essential oils alone don't appear to provide the same kind of relief of symptoms.

The second stage of this guide will show you how to make an infused oil that is a key ingredient in medicinal salve. Here's a short list you can use to determine which herb or herbs might be most useful for your specific needs.

Herbs for infused oil:

Mint - image by Gogo of Wikipedia

Mint - image by Gogo of Wikipedia

  • Plantain leaves: For an excellent, speedy healing salve and to add to other salves
  • Mint leaves: For an amazingly effective eczema salve
  • Nettle leaves: For anti-allergenic salve (you’ll need gloves to pick and process them but just do the same as you would with other herbs and the result will reduce itching, rather than causing it)
  • The petals of calendula blossoms: For anti-fungal salve and burn remedy to use both to prevent athlete’s foot at the swimming pool and to treat mild sunburns
  • Yarrow blossoms: For a healing and mildly disinfectant salve that slows bleeding
  • Thyme blossoms and leaves: For healing and disinfectant salve to use on scrapes and small cuts
  • Lavender blossoms: For a good smelling salve that helps disinfect and dry out oily adolescent skin
  • Lemon balm leaves: For lip gloss that wards off cold sores with specific anti-viral action
  • Comfrey leaves:  For bruises, sprains and poorly healing (but thoroughly clean) wounds
  • Arnica leaves and flowers: For bruises
  • St. John's Wart flowering tops: For disinfectant salve for cuts and for burns (but keep in mind that the salve will increase the skin's sensitivity to the sun, the opposite of sun screen.)

It's also helpful to add some essential oil to your salve. While you won't need this for a couple of weeks, I'm mentioning these here because you may have to order the right essential oils through the mail and now is probably the time to do that, so that you will have them when the time comes. Choose an essential oil or two depending on your specific needs.

Essential oils for use in salve:

  • Mint essential oil is good to combine with mint infused oil for an excellent eczema salve. Mint essential oil is quite cooling and will help with any itchy condition, so it is good to add it to nettle, calendula and plantain salves that will often be used for itchy things.
  • Pine, sage or thyme essential oils help fight germs, so use them in salves that will be used on scrapes and cuts
  • Lavender essential oil smells wonderful and is mildly disinfectant. Good for anti-pimple face salve.
  • Tea tree essential oil is strongly anti-fungal but it doesn’t smell very good for general use. Use it for anti-fungal salves, such as for athlete’s foot.

Step 2: Collecting herbs

When you go out to collect herbs, make sure that the area hasn't been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. Many of these chemicals are highly toxic and those used on lawns and hedges are often not approved for food or medicinal crops, so they are likely to be even worse than those you find on non-organic produce. It is usually inadvisable to collect herbs in maintained parks or other places with mowed lawns, unless the owner has told you they don't spray (and given you permission to gather). 

In stage one you'll need:

  • scissors and/or clippers
  • a basket or paper bag
  • possibly some diluted geranium essential oil to ward off the ticks (see my post on this) 

The herbs I have listed are among the safest herbs for use in salves. Still, it’s best to choose herbs that you already know and can find locally when you’re first starting out. Check your identification of plants and be aware that while it’s rare, some people do have allergic reactions even to mild plants. 

Most salves use above-ground parts of plants, either leaves or flowers. It is rarely necessary to dig up or pull up the plants and this should be avoided. Use scissors or clippers to cut stems and flowers, whenever possible. This will avoid bruising the plants, which is better for your collected herbs and better for the plants that will grow medicine for you again in a few weeks.

Gather enough of the herb so that you can fill a small canning jar with pieces of it. For a family, one quart jar of infused oil per herb is usually plenty for the year. I sometimes make two jars for my most useful salves because I have a lot of friends who come around asking for them. You can store your herbs in the refrigerator for up to two days before going on to the next stage or you can dry them and use dried herbs for the next step, but I recommend using them fresh whenever possible.

Cutting herbs.jpg

Making infused oil

Step 3: Separating and cutting herbs

Separate small flowers such as yarrow and lavender and small leaves such as thyme from the stems by gripping the stem firmly in one hand and the flower or leaves more loosely in the other and pull the stems to strip off leaves and flowers. Cut large leaves or blossoms into half-inch pieces.

Step 4: Putting the herbs into infusing jars

In stage two you will need: 

  • a knife
  • a cutting board
  • clean glass jars with lids
  • olive, almond or another oil
  • a butter knife or chopstick
  • a spoon
  • sticky labels or paper and clear tape
  • a waterproof, permanent marker
  • a sunny window sill or an undisturbed spot outdoors

Try to use jars that are just large enough to contain your herbs. Your oil will be preserved better if the jar is pretty much full of herbs.

Sterilize your jars either by pouring boiling water over them or by running them through the dishwasher.

Gently pack your chopped herbs into clear glass canning jars. They will stay down correctly in the next step if you have packed them in a bit rather than letting them be fluffy and loose. Your salve will also be more potent.

Step 5: Pouring oil into the jars

Choose a base oil for your salve. I use olive oil because it is cheaper than most and good for dry skin. You can also use almond oil or even lard. It may depend on if you have any sensitivities to certain oils and what is available.

Pour your base oil into the jars until the oil completely covers the herbs. Use a butter knife or a chopstick to stab down into the jar and release air bubbles. This will require you to pour in more oil. Keep topping it off until the air bubbles are all gone and the oil stops trickling down inside the jar. Make sure all the bits of herb are under the oil. It’s important to keep them covered or they can grow mold. Use the back of a spoon to gently press stray leaves and petals down under the surface.

Step 6: Labeling your jars

Write the name of the herb and the date on each jar. Do not skip this step. You really will not remember and the herbs will not look the same once the oil is brewed.

Step 7: Brewing your infused oil

Gently close the lids to your jars. Don’t screw them down tight.

Then set your jars someplace where they will get direct sunlight for at least a few hours of the day. The rays of the sun will both act to preserve the oil and release the medicinal compounds of the herbs into the oil.

Check your oil once a day for the first few days. Stick your butter knife or chopstick down to the bottom of the jar again to release any extra bubbles and top off the oil again. Make sure all the leaves and petals are covered by oil and close it up again.

Wait two to three weeks and your oil will be infused by the energy of the sun.

Cooking the salve

Stage three can be done all in one day or you can strain your oil and keep it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks before making salve.

Step 8: Straining your infused oil

In stage three you will need:

  • a glass or ceramic bowl
  • cheese cloth or straining cloth
  • scissors
  • more clean jars to store your strained oil in
  • A pan (use enamel if possible, otherwise stainless steal, if possible use a pan that will only be used to make salve as it will be difficult to clean)
  • a stove with a low heat setting
  •  bees wax cut into pieces
  • a spoon
  • essential oils
  • liquid vitamin E or large vitamin E capsules and some very sharp scissors
  • new or recycled salve and lotion containers or small jars and plastic containers
  • a ladle or a measuring cup with a spout
  • a funnel
  • Sticky labels or paper and tape, a good permanent pen or a printer

Cut a large piece of cheese cloth for each jar of infused oil. Place a piece of cheese cloth over your bowl and carefully dump the contents of one of your herb-and-oil jars onto it. Grasp the corners of the cheese clothe and lift it so that all the herb material stays in the cheese cloth. Carefully wrap it into a package and wring it out like a wet swimming suit to get all the oil out of the herbs.

Look at the interesting colors of your oil. Some will be very dark green or almost black, others will still be light and golden, some may even be reddish. This depends on which herb you have used.

If necessary, you can store this strained oil for a few days before making salve but you now have to store it in the refrigerator and don’t forget to label it again!

Step 9:  Heating your oil

Pour your infused herbal oil into a pan. You can make several different kinds of salve by heating each type of oil separately, thus intensifying the properties of each herb, or you can make a salve that combines a little of each of the properties of the herbs. If you mix them all together you’ll have a general healing salve, but it won’t be as strong for a specific purpose. Even so, I often add a little plantain to a lot of different salves because it is good for almost everything.

Heat the oil slowly on a low heat while you prepare the other ingredients of your salve. Try NOT to let your oil boil. Some herbs lose medicinal potency if they’re boiled, so use a low heat and keep an eye on it.

Caution: Boiling oil is notorious with good reason. It can spatter, causing significant burns, and even catch fire.

Step 10: Adding wax and testing for consistency

Now is when this starts to look like magic. Once your oil is warm, add some pieces of bees wax to your oil and slowly melt them. The official ratio is about one ounce wax to one cup of oil but this isn’t exact.

I suggest starting with a chunk of wax about as big as a tennis ball for a quart of oil. Let the wax melt into the hot oil. Then turn off the heat and put a small amount of the hot oil onto a spoon and place it in the freezer for 3 to 5 minutes until it is cool but not freezing.

Then test out the consistency of the salve on your skin. You’ll want a different consistency for different things. A lip gloss should be pretty firm and a facial salve will also want a bit of set to it, while a salve for eczema or scrapes will need to be a little softer but still thick enough to hold its shape.

If the salve isn’t thick enough yet, add some smaller pieces of wax, let them melt and try the spoon in the freezer again until you get the right consistency.

Then turn off the heat and take your pan of the stove.

Step 11: Adding good smells and preservatives

This is where you get to use the essential oils you chose in step one.

Both essential oils and vitamin E are heat sensitive, so do this step once the heat is off. Add about 20 to 30 drops of essential oil per half quart of oil. Be careful not to put your face right over the pan while you do this. The vapor from hot essential oil is very intense and can burn your eyes and nose.

Stir and add a teaspoon of vitamin E or cut open and squeeze out five or six capsules of vitamin E. Vitamin E helps to make your salve last longer and it is good for your skin when it’s diluted.

Don’t leave undiluted essential oil or vitamin E on your skin. If you get it on you, wash it off. Even though it doesn’t hurt you immediately, it can cause skin damage.

Step 12:  Pouring your salve into containers

Carefully ladle your oil and wax mixture into salve containers when it is still hot. Don’t let it cool in the pan. The salve will be very hot and hard to remove from skin quickly, so be very careful not to spill it on yourself or on children.

Step 13: Labeling and storing your salve

Let your salve cool and solidify before you move it, but on’t forget to label your salve containers right away. It will be impossible to tell which kind is which later or even to remember what exactly you put in it, even if you made only one kind. Include the date. Salve made like this lasts six months to a year if stored in a cool dark place.

That’s it. You’ve made real medicine that can stand up well in comparison with specialty pharmaceutical salve or ointment for healing ability, anti-fungal action, eczema reduction or allergy control.

I love hearing from you. What are your experiences and experiments with herbs? If you haven't started using herbal medicinals yet, what sparked your interest in this topic? Feel free to comment with the comment button at the bottom of this post on the left or share this post with your social networks using the share button on the bottom right. 

Note:  Please remember that this is not medical advice for your specific needs.