For a long time I was confused about the difference between salves, ointments and balms. Some writers use all three terms interchangeably whilst others have separate definitions, many of which contradict those from other sources. In this post I wanted to tell you a little about how I make salves, ointments and balms with the intention of sharing some hopefully useful tips and practical information.
Salves, ointments, unguents, balms, call them what you will, what all these preparations have in common is they are primarily a semi-solid mix of fatty ingredients such as oils and waxes, usually with no water part at all, though they may contain a small amount of herbal tincture or similar. This differentiates them from creams and lotions which contain both fats and waters.
Generally, ointments and salves are considered much the same thing; a healing external preparation made with medicinal substances in a base of oils and waxes. According to the Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health an ointment is “a semisolid preparation for external application to the skin or mucous membranes. Official ointments consist of medicinal substances incorporated in suitable vehicles (bases). Called also salve and unguent.” All in all the definitions are pretty vague which is probably why we find discrepancies.
Suitable ingredients for a salve include many vegetable oils (such as olive, sunflower, sweet almond, apricot) and beeswax or vegetable wax such as candelilla or carnuba. In older herbals lard or animal fats were often used and these are enjoying something of a comeback amongst some traditional herbalists but, as a vegetarian, they don’t feature on my radar so I won’t be talking about them here. Many herbal books include recipes made with mineral oil byproducts such as petroleum jelly or vaseline but again, as I don’t work with them, I will not be including any information here.
As making salves involves some degree of heat it’s best to use oils that are fairly heat stable, the main ones to avoid are oils like flax seed, evening primrose and borage. If you want to include these then stir them in after the other ingredients have been melted and are beginning to cool. Coconut oil is the most heat stable vegetable oil but as you will not be heating it very high, oils like olive, sunflower and apricot kernal can be happily used.
Beeswax comes in two varieties, white and yellow but the white is bleached and processed so I never use it, it’s always better to stay as close to nature as possible. Candelilla wax is derived from the leaves of a shrub native to Mexico and is slightly harder than beeswax so you generally want to use a fraction less in a recipe. Carnuba is a similar product derived from a Brazilian Palm. The advantages of these two is that they are vegan so products can be made that are suitable for everyone. The disadvantage is that they come from a very long way away (at least if you live here in Europe!). It’s a tricky choice as some producers of bee products are far from ethical or kind to their bees. I do use beeswax but always try to get it from a local supplier that I know I can trust.
Basic Salve Recipe:
90ml herbal infused oil
Basic Vegan Salve Recipe:
92 ml infused oil
8g candelilla wax
Medicinal Salve Recipe:
75 – 80ml infused oil
2 – 5 ml essential oil
Weigh or measure out the wax (preferably grated or cut into small pieces) and the herbal infused oil and place in a double boiler or bain marie. Heat over a low heat until the wax is fully melted and then stir well. If adding tincture drizzle it in slowly now whilst whisking lightly with a fork. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly but not set. You can test the consistency of the salve by dipping the tip of a teaspoon into it. Such a small amount will set quickly and will show you how the finished product will be. If you are not happy you can return it to the heat and add a fraction more oil/wax until you get it just right. Whilst the salve is still liquid, stir in the essential oils, pour into glass jars and cap immediately to stop the volatile oils from evaporating. Allow to cool and set completely before using.
You can make salves for use as chest rubs, for treating aches and pains, for protecting and healing dry and sore skin and many other uses. The recipe can be easily adapted according to your preferences or required ingredients. A very simple skin healing salve can be made with calendula infused oil and beeswax or a chest salve with olive oil, wax and 5% suitable essential oils. The possibilities are limitless!
Balms are similar to salves, some people class them as the same thing entirely whilst others make a slight differentiation. According to James Green who wroteThe Herbal Medicine Makers Handbook, “a balm is simply a salve that contains a relatively high amount of volatile oils. Upon application is delivers a notably intense cloud of aromatic vapours.” My understanding of a balm is that it is a salve that also contains butters such as cacao or shea butter making for a creamier end product. These are just individual definitions though so you can use whichever you prefer.
Cacao is fairly hard at room temperature so makes for a slightly firmer end product where as shea is very creamy and therefore a lovely addition to lip balms or body butters. Mango butter is also delicious and has a lower melt point and a more slippery consistency.
67 ml infused oil
25 g cacao butter
5 g beeswax
2 ml vitamin E
1 ml essential oils of choice
Basic Body Butter Recipe:
57 ml infused oil
20 g shea butter
20 g cacao butter
2 ml vitamin E
1 ml essential oils
These balms can be made as above by melting the oils, butters and wax in a bain marie then adding the essential oils and vitamin E at the last moment so they will not be affected by the heat.
I hope that was helpful rather than just confusing the issue further! Happy making.