Herbs for Health: Homemade Salves

| August/September 2003

  • Salve made with yarrow (Achillea millefolium), above, and calendula makes a fine healing salve for rashes.
    Christopher Hobbs
  • Treat irritated and itchy skin with the soothing powers of Calendula officinalis.
    Christopher Hobbs
  • Salve made with yarrow (Achillea millefolium), above, and calendula makes a fine healing salve for rashes.


Indulging in a bit of gourmet cooking, Richard Burnett was deep-frying cauliflower, which, ideally, did not include plunging the tips of all five fingers into the sizzling oil with the cauliflower. But that’s just what happened. Richard applied a dollop of arnica salve to his burns, wrapped his whole hand in a plastic bag, and let the injury soak overnight. By morning, Richard had no pain and no blisters.

As Americans use herbs in ever-increasing numbers, they are turning to assorted preparations that will round out their herbal medicine chests. Herbs that are applied externally, made into semi-solid preparations and rubbed on with the fingers, are called salves or ointments — terms which essentially mean the same thing, although sometimes “ointment” is used to refer to a softer material, which might come in a tube, as opposed to salve, which usually comes in a wide-mouth jar or tin for finger dipping. The more general term, balm, sometimes is used to refer to salves but technically refers to any soothing preparation.

Salves are thickened herbal oils. The consistency can vary from very greasy, like petroleum jelly, to a thick, sticky paste, depending upon the desired effect. I’ve been formulating and manufacturing salves for 20 years, and I can attest to their healing power.

Salves treat bites, cuts, sores, stings, scrapes, rashes, boils and acne. They can reduce skin pain and itching. Other herbal salves treat joint and muscle problems. Professional herbalists apply salves to cysts and other benign growths.

A very simple preparation for a salve is to mix the active ingredient into petroleum jelly. It’s convenient but not a good choice for a salve that needs to penetrate the tissue. More typically, a combination of fats and oils is used as a base to carry the active herbs, allowing them to absorb through the skin, in addition to hardening agents for the desired consistency. Lard or other stiff animal fats were often used traditionally but today are often replaced by more socially acceptable ingredients. Food-type oils, such as almond or olive, are common. Lanolin, cocoa butter, wheat germ oil and vitamin E are typical ingredients. Beeswax is often added as a thickener.

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