A bit of folk wisdom for the modern world.
Various herbal salves have been used in folk medicine for centuries and can be easily and cheaply made at home as a substitute for pharmaceutical skin creams. Depending on the ingredients, they can be used to treat dry, chapped skin, minor burns, scrapes, callouses, eczema, achy muscles and tender spots, but they are by no means a substitute for proper medicine when it comes to real wounds or skin damage.
Now, a salve is not a cream, because it has a thicker consistency and consists primarily of oil and wax, whereas a cream has a lighter texture and combines oils with water, which makes the preparation process a bit more complicated if you want it to be durable and safe. All you need to make a salve is infused herbal oil and some wax, while for a similar lip balm you’d also need some nourishing butter, like shea or coconut. I’ll cover lip balms in different post, so let’s talk about salves first.
Making a herbal salve
- Infused herbal oil with dried herbs/flower petals of your choice
- Beeswax or a vegan alternative like soy wax/candelila wax
How to make infused herbal oil
The first step is to make the infused herbal oil by soaking your chosen herb in oil for a while. You’ll need to pick a carrier oil, which is usually something like olive, sunflower, hemp, coconut or almond oil. It’s called a carrier oil, because you’re using it to extract the herb’s beneficial properties by soaking it in the oil, which will likely change colour and smell by the time it’s done. You want to be sure you’re using a pure, quality unrefined oil for this, but there’s no need to go overboard and buy the most expensive thing out there, just make sure it’s not an unidentifiable blend of different oils.
Next you need to soak the herbs in the oil. You’ll need about twice as much oil as the volume of the herbs you’re using and you want to make sure all the herbs are completely submerged in oil. In terms of specifics, for my calendula salve that’s about 10-15 g of dried flowers and 570 g of olive oil (0,6 l). Then you can either leave the whole thing in a jar in the sunlight for about 2-3 weeks or up to 6 weeks in the dark, shaking it occasionally to stir the herbs; or you can speed up the process by heating the oil and the herbs in a double broiler (a bowl in a hot water bath in a pot) for a few hours. Keep it on low heat and make sure the oil doesn’t boil.
After it’s done, strain the oil through a cloth to remove the herbs and store in a jar. It will keep for about a year and you can use it for cooking if the herb is edible or as a topical treatment on its own.
It’s quite important that you use properly dried herbs/flower petals, because the presence of water increases the risk for mould or rot. Oil generally has preservative properties, but bacteria and mould can thrive in small air pockets where water is present, so dry your herbs for at least 2 weeks first. You can use anything from rosemary, thyme and mint to dandelion, calendula etc., depending on the effect you want, so I recommend checking the Internet for exact recipes and ingredients. Personally, I like this blog.
How to make a herbal salve
After your infused oil is done, you’ll need to mix it with your wax, which literally takes 10 minutes. 🙂 Again, you want to be sure that you’re using quality wax, which is suitable for skin care. You’ll need about 1 part of wax to 4 parts of oil, but you want to find an exact recipe to get the right consistency of each individual salve, because all oils and waxes act a bit differently.
Heat up the wax in a double broiler or directly in a small pot on low heat. When it’s melted, reduce the heat to minimum, add the oil and stir to mix evenly. Make sure the mixture doesn’t boil! When it’s done, pour into your containers and leave it out to cool. It will harden into the herbal salve, but getting the right consistency might take some trying.
You can test the consistency by dripping a small drop of the mixture on a cold surface, where the wax will harden immediately. If it’s too runny, add more wax, if it’s too hard, add some oil. You can also add a couple of drops of essential oil for fragrance and it’s best to add vitamin E as well to increase the shelf life of the salve, but make sure to add both after you’ve taken the mixture off the heat. Vitamin E should be added at a quantity of about 0.5 -1% of the total salve and is stable up to 140 °C.
When the salve has cooled down, you should store it in a dark and dry place and it will keep for a year, at least. Vitamin E should protect it from going rancid, but if it does, you’ll be able to smell it. Now, as always with natural cosmetics, make sure you do a patch test for allergies before use, particularly if you have sensitive skin.
The first salve I ever made was calendula/pot marigold (calendula officinalis) salve, which is a Slovenian folk classic. Calendula is a vibrant orange flower, which has been used in folk medicine throughout Europe for centuries. You can often find it in hand creams, because it supports skin healing and regeneration and has anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also edible and you can find my recipe for calendula crackers with thyme here. All in all, it’s a staple in almost every Slovenian home, so I figured I’d give it a try after I got some dried calendula flower petals.
Per 100 g of oil you’ll need:
- 22 g of beeswax
- 100 g of calendula infused olive oil (at least a 3 week infusion)
- 1.2 g of liquid vitamin E
100 g of oil is about 105 ml, but I find it easiest to just measure out the quantities on my kitchen scale. Also, vitamin E for cosmetics is not the same as vitamin E in dietary supplements, so make sure you buy the right one.
Turns out that people love homemade salves, so I’ve made several batches of this one since, particularly for my grandmother. I’ve also tried out a chilli salve, which you can find here. Have you ever tried making a herbal salve? What sort of herbs are a staple in your country? Let me know in the comments below.
P.S.: You have no idea how many times I’ve misspelled salve into slave in this post *facepalm*. Also, check out my other post about storing your herbs.