If you search the internet for herbal remedy recipes, you’re sure to find many herbal salves show up in the search results. You’ll probably also notice a few creams or lotions mixed in as well.
So what exactly is an herbal salve, how does it work to bring healing to the body, and how do you make one yourself? How does a cream differ from a salve? And when should you not use an herbal salve or cream on the skin?
These are the questions I’ll be answering in today’s Using Herbs post.
What Are Herbal Salves & Creams?
An herbal salve is a mixture of herbal infused oils that are thickened with some sort of wax (most commonly beeswax) so that it will be in a solid form at room temperature.
An herbal cream is very similar. It begins as a salve but is formed into a cream by blending a liquid into the oils with the help of an emulsifier to keep the two opposites from separating. Creams can vary in consistency as well as in color, but most are soft and off-white.
How Do Salves & Creams Work?
For the most part, salves and creams work locally, meaning their effects are reserved for where you apply them. They’re not going to act systemically like certain topical medications will. I’m not saying they can’t. The skin is a complex organ that’s very absorbent, but it’s also very selective as to what it allows to make it through its layers and into the bloodstream.
There’s a whole process that topical products have to go through in order for their chemicals to get into the bloodstream. What makes it into the bloodstream is nowhere close to what was originally put on the surface of the skin. I recently came across this article over at Herb & Hedgerow that does a great job looking into this topic of the skin’s ability to absorb, how much it absorbs, whether it absorbs everything put on it or not, and what actually makes it to the blood stream. It’s really interesting, and if you’re interested in learning more about toxins and why it’s a good idea to use natural products as a part of your skincare routine, I’d highly suggest reading it.
Because herbal salves are primarily made up of oil and wax, it will sit on top of the skin and take longer to penetrate the layers of the skin. This means that the herbal properties take longer to get into the skin’s tissues. An herbal cream on the other hand will penetrate the skin’s layers more quickly because it contains water. This will help to carry the herbal properties deeper inside the tissues at a faster rate than the salve would.
If you want the preparation to penetrate quickly your best bet is to:
- Use a cream or some preparation that contains water (Remember our examples with herbal compresses and fomentations?)
- Massage the area or apply heat so that blood flow to those tissues are increased.
- Use some sort of catalyst. (A catalyst helps to stimulate an area to increase blood flow, like cayenne pepper, or to help carry the herbal properties deep into the skin allowing for more absorption by the blood stream, like aloe has a tendency to do.)
- Use it on an area with thinner skin. (The thickness of the skin also affects absorption. Thinner skin absorbs better than thicker skin. (Rivas, 2011))
All of these things will help to penetrate the skin faster therefore bringing the herbal properties into the tissues more quickly.
Now, please know that I’m in no ways saying a cream is better than a salve because it gets into the tissues quicker. Sometimes you want those properties to last longer (like with a simple scrape), but then there are other times when you may want faster relief (like when you have a burn). Really, there’s not much room to mess up here. Both preparations help to get the herbal properties into the skin.
When To NOT Use Salves & Creams On The Skin
Like I said earlier, if you’re looking for deep penetration or for properties to be absorbed into the bloodstream so they can have an effect on the whole body, salves and creams aren’t your best option. Teas, tinctures, herbal powders, and liniments seem to be more appropriate.
Another time when you wouldn’t want to use a salve or a cream on the skin is if you have broken skin or a deep wound. Sure, cuts and scraps are considered broken skin and a thin layer of an antibacterial salve is definitely appropriate for that, but I’m talking about cuts that need stitches or big gaping wounds from a dog bite or something similar. Salves and creams have a tendency to block oxygen from getting to the tissues and trap bacteria in deep wounds so its better to use herbal washes and/or herbal oils rather than preparations that contain waxes.
What About Preservation?
When you make anything from scratch, over time, bacteria, yeast, and mold will grow, especially in products that contain water. So when it comes to extending the shelf-life of your products and keeping gross things from growing in them, you have two options.
- Chemical Preservatives
- Natural Preservatives
Chemical preservatives come in many different varieties and are based on the products pH as well as the type of preparation you need to preserve (water, non-water, emulsions). Some partially preserve products while others totally preserve the product. Some contain parabens and formaldehyde while others don’t, and almost all of them are synthetic. I personally don’t use chemical preservatives in the products I make at home, nor did I use them in the products I used to sell in my Etsy shop. There are just too many health risks and allergies associated with them, and I really want the things I make to be 100% safe and good for whoever is using them.
Natural preservatives on the other hand are safe, but they don’t preserve a product the way chemical preservatives do. This means you need to take a few extra steps to discourage bacteria, yeast, and mold from growing in what you make.
- Keep things clean… very clean, before and during the process. This is probably the most important step you can take in preventing contamination.
- Make things in small batches so you use them quickly and be sure to store them properly. Light, heat, and moisture are three things that can compromise products and create an environment where gross things can grow.
- Use natural preservatives (herbs, oils, and liquids that have antibacterial and antifungal properties or are high in antioxidants) to discourage gross things from growing quickly.
Now, some people who make skincare products will stress the importance of preserving your products; however there are some of us who have only used natural preservatives with great success. I’ve seen some of my products go bad (mostly those with high water content) while others have stayed good for many months. In my mind, if you don’t want to use chemicals in your products, there are things you can do to extend your shelf-life and keep your products safe for those using them. You may not be able to mass-manufacture your goods and let them sit in a warehouse or on store shelves for months at a time, but who wants to put old products on their body anyway. I’m all for fresh and natural if at all possible! Do more research on this topic to learn more about what you can do.
Natural preservation (including specific product info about what can be used as a natural preservative) is something I discuss in more detail in the e-book below. It’s a must-read if you want to know more about this topic without doing all the research yourself!
How To Make An Herbal Salve
Now for the fun part. Step-by-step directions on how to make your own herbal salve.
- Start by infusing your choice of herbs into your choice of carrier oils. (CLICK HERE to learn how to make herbal infused oils.)
- Once your herbal infused oil is finished and strained, melt wax in a small saucepan. The typical ratio for oil to wax is 1 ounce of wax for every cup of oil. Of course this will vary depending upon how hard you want your salve to end up, but that’s the general rule of thumb.
- Once your wax is melted, turn the heat off and add your herbal infused oil to the wax. Stir well.
- Bottle in tins or glass jars. Label and store.
How To Make An Herbal Cream
To make an herbal cream you’re going to follow the steps above for making a salve with only a few variations.
- Before infusing your herbs into your oil, decide what liquid you’re going to use in your cream. Water? Hydrosol? Aloe juice or gel? Let this liquid sit out on the counter so it can come to room temperature while you work through the rest of the steps.
- Follow the steps above for creating an herbal salve only don’t bottle the salve up when it’s finished. Leave it in the saucepan to cool. As the salve cools it will begin to thicken.
- Once your salve has thickened but is still warm and very soft, use a silicon spatula to scrap the sides of the saucepan and mix the salve well.
- Next using an immersion blender, slowly blend the salve on low speed while slowly pouring in the liquid you chose earlier. The ratio of salve to liquid for a cream is usually 50:50. If you have 1 cup of salve, then you’ll blend in 1 cup of liquid. This can vary depending on how thick or thin you want your cream to be. It’s also important that the salve and liquid be as close to each other in temperature as possible for the emulsion to occur. If one’s too hot and the other’s too cold, the oil and liquid may not mix at all or may separate later.
- Once the salve and the liquid has been blended together well and there are no salve clumps or liquids rising to the top of your cream, you’re all finished. Simply pour into tins or glass jars, label, and store. Know that your cream will thicken more as it continues to cool.
Learn More About Making Herbal Ointments, Salves, & Balms
If you enjoyed this quick lesson on making basic herbal salves and creams, check out my e-book – Making Herbal Ointments, Salves, & Balms: The Ultimate How-To Guide – to learn about making these herbal preparation.
This book covers the differences in these three herbal preparations, when to use each of them, and of course step by step directions on how to make them (photos included).
Not only will you learn the basic way to make each of these, but I talk about advanced practices that can be used as well such as adding in honey, tinctures, herbal powders, essential oils, and more. There’s also a section on natural preservatives so you can make sure your preparation has a good shelf-life, and I even include 5 exclusive recipes that I personally use as well.
This e-book is perfect for herbal skincare business owners or those who are simply interested in making and using herbs in their own homes. It’s short, sweet, and to the point, and the best part is that you’ll walk away with confidence in making and using these herbal preparations all on your own!
CLICK HERE to learn more about it, and checkout my Making Herbal Butters, Creams, & Lotions: The Ultimate How To Guide, too!
- Dallmeier, L. (2014). Can cosmetics be absorbed into your bloodstream. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.herbhedgerow.co.uk/can-cosmetics-be-absorbed-into-your-bloodstream/
- Rivas, N. (2011, January 1). The impermeable facts of skin penetration and absorption. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://personalcaretruth.com/2011/01/the-impermeable-facts-of-skin-penetration-and-absorption/.
- Visser, M. (2015, March 4). Using herbs: Herbal washes, compresses, and fomentations. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://growingupherbal.com/using-herbs-herbal-washes-compresses-and-fomentations/.
Click here to get back to the “How To Start Using Herbs” series intro.
12 thoughts on “Using Herbs: Herbal Salves and Creams”
great info about the differences between salves and creams!
I read this whole post slowly, like eating a lovely homemade pastry, that’s good for me. What wonderful information. Pinning this and hoping that someday I will begin this process. Also, your book sounds like an excellent resource to own.
Thanks Megan! I hope you get around to it someday! I love “cooking” up herbal remedies in the kitchen and these basic preparation how-tos are just the beginning!
I am a bit addicted to salves. I love how easy and effective they are. Great post.
This is wonderful! I love the in depth information. I don’t make these as much as I would like to. But I have a few that I would really love to make at some point. Thanks for the inspiration. Pinning this so I’ll have the info on hand when I’m ready to make some salves.
I’m addicted to salves too! There are so many intensely herb-infused possibilities that really get the job without added chemicals and medications from OTC medications. Thanks for the info Megan!
thank you for your good information. i do have some issues with water ‘penetrating’ or being absorbed by the skin. showers could be deadly…oils do penetrate to the first layer of the skin, but only small molecule ones……
That is awesome! Great site. Funny that I came across this because I am a Visser too. 🙂
Thanks for the kind words, Jennifer! It’s nice to “meet” you!