Mother Earth Living

Herbal Salve Salvation

Herbal balms soothe aches and pains
By K. P. Khalsa
November/December 1998
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Herbal salves can be very useful when applied to the skin.

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Marsha Akers’s feet hurt so much they felt like they were being pierced with shards of glass. Barely into middle age, Marsha worried that her career was over; as a massage therapist, she stood on her feet all day. Finally, she was diagnosed as having spurs, or bony projections in her feet.

An acquaintance suggested that she soak her feet in warm castor oil. Desperate to try anything, Marsha soaked her feet in the oil for thirty minutes and found immediate relief, so she continued the regimen each night. After two weeks, the pain was gone.

Today—nine years later—Marsha has become a regular user of castor oil and her feet remain pain-free. Best of all, she continues her busy Gresham, Oregon, massage practice, where she’s known for her liberal use of—you guessed it—castor oil, which she uses in the form of a salve.

As Americans discover that herbs are powerful medicine and use them in ever-increasing numbers, they’re moving beyond capsules and tinctures to become acquainted with other prep­arations, including salves. Essentially, salves are thickened herbal oils meant to be rubbed on with the fingers. They often are referred to as ointments, though ointments are generally made of softer material and come in a tube; salves usually come in wide-mouthed jars for finger dipping. Creams are thick mixtures of oil and water with added ingredients—basically, thickened lotions. Balm is a general term that refers to any soothing preparation.

Salves can be applied to the skin to treat joint and muscle stiffness, soothe inflammation, or heal bites, cuts, sores, stings, scrapes, rashes, boils and acne. Professional herbalists apply salves to benign growths, such as cysts.

Herbal remedies can be very useful when applied to the outside of the body. Chanchal Cabrera, an herbalist in Vancouver, British Columbia, writes that salves sometimes may be more effective than oral medication. External application offers better access to poorly vascularized areas, as in the case of arthritic joints, she notes.

Building a salve from the base up

In The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal (Element, 1996), herbalist David Hoffmann provides a simple way to make a salve: simmer two tablespoons of an herb in seven ounces of petroleum jelly for about ten minutes. Even though petroleum jelly is synthetic, he notes, it is a convenient and particularly suitable base for holding herbs used to treat respiratory problems. The jelly isn’t absorbed by the skin, but acts as a carrier for the herbal essential oils; when the salve is rubbed on the chest, the oils evaporate and are inhaled.

However, petroleum jelly isn’t a good base when the salve needs to penetrate tissues, as with herbs that provide relief from arthritic pain. In such instances, a base of fats and oils works better because they don’t block the medicine from being absorbed by the skin. When fats and oils are used, hardening agents may be added to produce a workable consistency. Lard and other stiff animal fats were once used as hardeners, but today these fats have largely been replaced by almond oil, olive oil, and beeswax.

Herbs suitable for salves

One of my favorite herbs to use in a salve is arnica (Arnica spp.), which helps soothe bruises, strains and sprains. Arnica salve is popular in both Europe and North America, where it is respected for its effectiveness. Take care, though—­arnica shouldn’t be applied to open wounds or broken skin, and some people may experience an allergic reaction from prolonged use.

Among my other favorites are menthol from peppermint for cooling and reducing inflammation; wintergreen oil for warming and relieving stiffness; ginger for relieving arthritic pain; and castor oil, a staple of the Ayurvedic medicine of India extracted from castor beans, for relieving pain and treating general trauma, such as bruises.

External healing

As our culture’s attitude toward herbal healing broadens, learning more about the role of external herbal preparations is a logical next step. Try keeping arnica salve in your first-aid kit to treat the occasional bruise, or ginger salve on your nightstand to ease the pain of osteoarthritis. You may find that herbal healing from the outside provides the relief you’ve been looking for.

Herbal healing from the outside

Some herbal remedies can be most effective when applied to the skin. A salve made from cayenne, for ­example, is a pain-relieving remedy for arthritis; a salve made from arnica will ease the discomfort of bruises and muscle strains.

Take note, however, that not all herbal preparations are safe to apply to wounds or broken skin. Such precautions are included in the following list. If you’re allergy prone, test the salve by applying a small amount to your skin; wait twenty-four hours. If a rash develops, discontinue use.

K. P. Khalsa is a clinical herbalist and freelance writer who lives in Seattle. He has twenty years of experience formulating herbal salves and is a consultant to salve manufacturers.

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