This article was co-written by Tina Sams and Maryanne Schwartz and ran in the Jul/Aug '08 issue of The Essential Herbal Magazine, where there were several pictures and recipes accompanying these instructions.
MAKING SALVES AND BALMS
One of the most basic ways to use herbs medicinally is in a salve or balm. These preparations are carriers of the herbal properties and enable the user to apply those properties to their skin in an appropriate formulation. We consider a salve to be softer (like Vicks), while a balm is stiffer, like a lip balm, and holds its shape if removed from a container. Many times the terms are used interchangeably.
Both salves and balms are made by combining oil and wax. The amount of wax used determines the hardness of the final product. Less wax equals a softer product, more equals a harder product.
Many different oils can be used. Olive oil is the most common. Jojoba oil might be chosen for its long shelf life. The list goes on and on, with choices like butters (shea, mango, cocoa, etc.), solid oils (coconut, palm, soy), and liquid oils (sweet almond, apricot kernel, avocado, etc.), and various blends. Rendered animal fats like emu oil and bear grease are considered to be very healing all by themselves. Keep in mind that anything made from wild animals may not be sold in any way, shape, or form.
Herbs and their healing properties are added to the salves by infusing the oil(s) prior to blending with wax.
There are a lot of different ways to infuse oils. Many people have specific ways that work very well for them, and like old family recipes for that special dish, they are all considered to be the best. Considering that plants come to us with different strengths and potencies based on growing conditions, etc., infusing is something we don’t stress over much, worrying mostly about avoiding things like mold. Infusing fresh herbs can be tricky because fresh herbs contain water. Water in oil can provide a medium for bacteria to grow. Because of that (and because we are time-impaired herbies), we prefer to wilt the herbs well to evaporate some of the moisture and then use low, gentle heat to infuse, the heat removing the rest of the moisture. Some infuse herbs for weeks, months, and even years, but using gentle heat can provide good infusions overnight.
We usually make our salves when the plant is growing and make what we expect to use that year until the next growing season.
Additionally, essential oils can be added to salves/balms with great results.
Some herbs commonly used in salves and balms:
St. John’s Wort
Balm of Gilead (Poplar buds)
Once the oil(s) has been chosen , infused, and well strained, it is time to warm it with beeswax and create the salve.
For a firm balm, use 1 part wax to 4 parts oil. For a looser slave, cut the wax to 1:6 up to 1:8. If using solids like butters, very little wax is required.
Heat only until wax is melted and blend well to avoid separation. Add any essential oils just before pouring into wide-mouthed jars or tins, blending well prior to pouring.
Prepared in this way, your salves and balms should hold up through the year with no need for refrigeration.