Our skin is our largest organ. It not only keeps everything inside but it protects us from environmental damage, toxins, damage. It also absorbs things out of the air and water around us. For example taking a hot bath, the body can absorb as much as 2 liters of liquid. It also absorbs nutrients and medicine thru the pores which affects not only the skin itself but also can influence what is below the layer of skin on things like joints, organs, nerves, blood vessels, etc. This can lead to the inflow of toxins or can be used to deliver nutrients or medicines into the body.
So when the body starts to have problems, we can help it by providing nutrients, natural medical chemicals found in food, herbs, minerals, etc., or by drawing out toxins, poisons, particles (like slivers, thorns, aggravating plant hairs such stinging nettle hairs, or bug bites), or heat from an infection or inflammation.
Traditionally the natural medicines and folk remedies (we called them home remedies when I was a kid) were applied to handle all things related to the skin. Even really dangerous things like snake bites, or bad wounds. It turns out that so many of the plants we have growing around us, whether cultivated or wild contain helpful and beneficial agents that when properly prepared can alleviate so many of the problems we find both aggravating or dangerous. These include itching, blisters, bruises, cuts, infections, venom from insects and snakes, or harmful plants.
We all have differing responses to the world around us, so what one person finds helpful, another might find not so, or even cause allergic reactions. So, usually when one is formulating one of these remedies ingredients are chosen for their safety, or target the majority of people who don’t find them problematical. If it’s a custom formula, muscle testing can eliminate the ones a specific person would not do well using. And there are some ingredients that can cause problems but when specifically used, can bring about amazing results in a specific situation. It’s in the hands of a health professional such an herbalist or Naturopath when something is particularly troublesome – like psoriasis, or even a genetic or auto-immune condition.
But in general, that boo boo your child brings you with a skinned knee can easily be handled by washing it off, and applying a well formulated salve or ointment. When you get a sliver, a drawing salve is a quick, simple remedy. When you get a rash from poison ivy a Jewel Weed ointment works wonders. That bee sting or ant bite is quickly calmed with the pain and inflammation quickly removed by a salve with Plantain herb and a couple of others. Pain in a joint or a muscle over-used or bruised responds well to a salve with herbs with capsaisin (such as cayenne), and several kinds of well chosen essential oils such as Arnica, Menthol and Camphor to name but a few.
Even skin cancer has been successfully handled with a black salve called “Black Salve” aka Cansema. These are folk medicines which have been used for hundreds of years before pharmaceuticals and patented medicines so they have a history of workability.
A broken bone can be helped to heal more thoroughly or quicker with a Comfrey oil or ointment. I had a bad ankle break a few years ago. One of my herbalist friends brought me Comfrey Oil, and it healed much more rapidly than a normal person of my age. And it lessened the pain and inflammation as well.
There are several kinds of applications of plant medicines which can help remedy something of the skin. Salves and Ointments are oil based with various infused plants, and usually have some kind of thickening agent such as bees wax so they can be applied to the skin and don’t run off but hold in place long enough to be absorbed or protect the surface.
A Poultice or Plaster is made of various medicinal plants mashed, applied raw and held in place on the skin by a piece of fabric usually such as flannel or muslin wraps.
A Wash or Fomentation is a liquid infusion (tea) of medicinal plant leaves usually in water base, and used to sooth or clean to prevent infection or remove debris and dirt from a wound, or a kind of soak – either in a pan, or in an absorbent fabric and held in place with plastic wrap. The ingredients of it are meant to be absorbed into the skin as in the fomentation, or to prevent damage as in a wash.
Massage Oils are usually infused ‘carrier oils’ such as olive oil, sweet almond, grape seed, or other natural non-GMO oils used as massage oils. These oils are either cold infused with medicinal plants for a month or so, or gently heated with the plant to absorb the medicinal qualities. The plant benefits are absorbed into the skin while the underlying muscles are massaged bringing the blood to the area. This increases the effectiveness of the massage work.
Or oils such as olive have essential oils added to them to dilute the powerful condensed properties of the EO so they don’t aggravate or overpower – and then taken into the body orally. One such powerful oil is Wild Oregano Oil – a powerful natural antibiotic, diluted with a carrier oil, a few drops placed on the back of one’s hand and licked off – especially good for quick absorption.
Lotions are like an ointment but they have mixed in with them not only oil but some kind of water based ingredient, or alcohol. This usually requires a mixing agent called an Emulsion. Traditionally this is usually some kind of wax such as carnauba and candelilla. These can be purchased from Mountain Rose Herb Company for home use.
Butters are similar to an ointment but are lighter consistency but of oil base feeling ‘whipped’. They are about half way between a lotion and a salve by consistency and are usually meant as a light nourishing and soothing application.
Balms are like an ointment but they are meant mostly as something soothing to the skin, meant to heal or mitigate pain. They are usually fragrant.
Creams are an herbal preparation that moisturize, heal damaged skin or calm and nourish the skin, containing various kinds of oils such as Shea Butter, Coconut Oil, or other thicker oils and infused lighter oils. They usually contain specific herbs that help the skin regenerate such as Calendula, and help with inflammation and pain such as Cottonwood, help ward off or heal scars such as Rosehip Seed oil. They are usually light like a butter, are easy to apply.
Depending on the intention of the preparation, these preparations can heal, sooth, be cosmetic targeting wrinkles or poor skin strength and consistency, help with pain such as arthritis, or from a wound or bone break, or after surgery.
As you study a problem of the skin, certain herbs will keep showing up that are especially good for skin. Calendula is a powerful skin soother – a flower that is infused in oil. Arnica is another flower that is especially good that handles inflammation. Yarrow is another flower/leaf that regenerates and heals powerfully. Oregano and Thyme infused in oil are powerful antibiotics that protect the skin from infection. One of my favorites is a powerful drawing and drying herb that pulls infection and toxins or poisons out of the skin (called an astringent) so common almost anywhere – Plantain herb (not the banana fruit). This goes in all my ointments, salves and skin preparations because it is so universally powerful for the skin. Comfrey and Dandelion are so rich in minerals and nourishing compounds that they go in wound and bone healing formulas as oil infusions. There are so many others
Oils that are excellent for preparations act as delivery systems for the medicinal properties of plant medicinal herbs, but often have their own healing powers. I often blend the various oils for their specific benefits.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is one of my favorite being the base for most of my salves and ointments. It is healing in itself, is light in texture so it is easily absorbed by the skin, is moisturizing and nourishing.
Coconut Oil is often used as a moisturizing oil that has a larger molecule and isn’t as easily absorbed into the skin, useful if you want the healing elements to rest on the skin as protection, moisturizing, and soothing.
Sweet Almond Oil is a great oil for cosmetic and light applications such as butters and creams. Grape Seed Oil has healing benefits.
Shea Butter comes in various strengths, is more of a resinous oil and being thicker, can be used to thicken a salve or ointment. It is very moisturizing.
There are many other oils used but these are my favorite.
Essential Oils are very condensed essences of aromatic parts of certain plants. This process of removing the volatile oils from plants has been used for thousands of years to get the most powerful concentration of certain healing properties. Used in salves, ointments and the above kinds of preparations give power to the formulas, with just a few drops mixed into the blends. They have various actions. Oregano and Thyme EO are antibiotic and protect against infection. Lavender EO makes a good preservative as well as being very calming and soothing, and this goes in most of my formulas. Myrrh & Frankincense EOs are deep healing with many medicinal benefits. I use over 30 of these oils that I add and interchange in my formulas – too many to list all here.
Be sure you get your EOs from a reputable source and company that have only therapeutic grade oils from organic uncontaminated sources. Young Living and DoTerra are good ones but I have found a number of others that work well. They can be a bit pricey though, but a dram or so keeps for a long time, and you usually only use a few drops of them so they last. Don’t confuse fragrance oils with Essential Oils. I never use ‘fragrance oils’.
Unless you need to mix oil and water in a formula such as a lotion, a supply of bees wax in pellet form is my favorite way to utilize it because it is easy to measure and melts nicely is about all you’ll need. If you want to have an emulsifier, then get an adequate supply of Carnuba Wax to start out. These can be purchased online at Mt. Rose Herb or other supply houses.
Making a Salve or OintmentT
The general flow of making these is first decide what effect you want to create for your skin. Then research which herbs will help you do this. There are a number of excellent sites which have good already created formulas for various kinds of salves and ointments with the measurements already set. If you have an herb garden, often the herbs you already grow will give you a nice supply of the medicinal plants. I grow a large variety so my choices are many. But sometimes you can just do a little wild crafting in a field or along the edge of a woods to find many useful plants. Just make sure you are sure of the identity of every plant you use. I suggest you take a class with a qualified herbalist and do an herb walk for wild craft foraging. Often a nature center in your area will know who does these.
Gather your herbs and let them wilt overnight. Water in an oil formula without an emulsifier will often spoil the final product after a short while. But you can see the water/herb at the bottom of an infused oil. If you like, you can freeze the oil once infused and draw off the oil leaving the ice at the bottom, or carefully siphon or pour off the oil leaving the liquid behind. Wilting eliminates most of the water as the moisture evaporates before use.
Have on hand the kinds of oils you want to use. Organic is preferable but use what you can obtain if it is fresh and in good condition. Avoid any GMO oils such as cotton seed, Canola, or Soy.
Use a little double boiler with water at the bottom part, and the oil on the top. This makes for gentle heating. You do not want to boil your oil or herbs as this alters the medicinal properties and can spoil your final product.
Put in your measured oil, and the fresh (or dried) herbs. I usually chop fine my herbs so the oil can reach and absorb as much of the medicine as possible or you can use a mortar and pestle to make it into a paste, or if dried, grind to a powder.
Bring the heat up to just beginning to steam and maybe a bubble now and then – a very gentle simmer. I usually simmer my herbs for at least an hour. Let it cool down. Once cool enough to touch, strain thru cheese cloth or make a bag from muslin fabric, and squeeze it as hard as you can to get every drop out of the plant matter. This can be composted.
Return the oil to the double boiler on low heat. Depending on the consistency you wish for your salve, add a measured amount of wax pellets to the oil and let it melt – stirring with a wooden spoon or clean stick (I use a chop stick) till it is melted. Then taking a cold spoon, dip it into the oil, let it harden, and test it for thickness. If it’s too oily, add more wax, if too hard, add a bit of oil. Get it just how you want it.
THEN add any essential oils you wish – a few drops usually, it disappears quickly. This is when I also add some drops of Vitamin E oil and Lavender Oil as preservative.
Have your containers cleaned and ready. Pour or spoon the liquid salve into the containers, scraping the last of it out of the double boiler, that are set on a flat surface (I put my tins on a cutting board covered with butcher paper, so I can peel off any salve that drops out of the tin, and keep my surface clean).
Let it set up.
Clean off any drips with a bit of rubbing alcohol on a paper towel. Label, and refrigerate. Usually if there is sufficient preservative this isn’t really necessary, but it will make for longer lasting shelf life.
When making oils for massage or other topical applications, skip adding the wax, but infuse it the same way with the herbs in the oil. Then at the end after straining out the plant matter, add any essential oils and preservative Vit. E and Lavender Oil, bottle and label.
When making oil/water mixtures, have an exact recipe and follow it. There are usually instructions on when to add the components, wisking or whipping them to combine ingredients till they achieve the right consistency. Then put them in their respective containers, label them, and either refrigerate them or not depending on the instructions.
A note on labeling: Ingredients are listed in order of greatest volume to smallest. I usually label separately the oils, the herbs, the EOs, and the preservatives, and note if they are organically grown or not. I list the benefits and uses and display my contact information. I also note any warnings (such as potentially allergic reactions or counter indications such as for pregnant women or people with various health concerns of there is a danger of setting off a bad reaction). Never say it cures anything as this is illegal. But if it’s recommended for use for poison ivy for example, that can be noted.
A note on containers: You can purchase metal or plastic containers new, or you can repurpose already used containers such as jars, bottles, dropper bottles, and tins. I don’t make huge numbers of salves and like repurposing. I save my mint tins, clean them well, and use them for the ointments and salves that set up with bees wax, and don’t bother to paint them over, just use a label on the top. But I’m not selling commercially. If you are selling at a store or if your farmers market requires it, purchase new. Small Mason jars work well for some butters and creams but they tend to be pretty large volume for that kind of product. 1 and 2 oz. tins work great.
Bottles of massage oil can be glass or strong plastic, and need good lids that don’t leak. I don’t recommend cork. You can use small Mason jars but these are hard to get the oil out. You can repurpose pump bottles as long as you clean them very well.
Labeling: Self-adhesive labels that can be printed out on a computer printer are available in various sizes and shapes. You can get them printed commercially, or have them made up with a logo or color or b&w decorations for the containers. These can be purchased online or thru a stationary store.
As a final note, I have been in love with making my own skin preparations such as salves, ointments, oils, and the rest for many years. One of my early interns here at Hillside Gardens was a certified Herbalist. She opened me up to the treasures I had growing here for use as medicine. She helped me make my first salve, and I’ve been making them in ever greater variety and use ever since.
I had a beloved cat who had a bad car accident. When the vet cleaned up two skin wounds, one where the skin was open to the white under layer, they wanted to put on an antibiotic cream. These tend to be toxic and cats will lick at them even with bandage till they are gone. So, I said no, and took him home. On his foreleg was a 4” long ¾” wide open wound. I put my herbal healing ointment on it which contained a number of healing and antibiotic herbs as well as Vit E and Lavender Oil. 9 hours later (the next morning), it was completely healed over and only pink. There was an area on his shoulder that was the size of a silver dollar, all fur was off, and deep lacerations. By the morning that was all healed over and only the lines of the lacerations showed as lightly pink lines. I did not cover these with a bandage. They handled the pain and inflammation, and he didn’t lick it off.
I have used these herbal salves on myself and seen the miracles they perform on my friends and family. I have used them on bad burns, cuts, scrapes, gashes, bruises, inflamed areas, minor infections, athletes foot, arthritic joints, drawn out slivers, handled sunburn, rashes, and scars, and helped a friend overcome horribly painful psoriasis, that I know plant medicine works for the skin. I personally never use commercial antibiotics because nature provides such an abundance and variety of them naturally, with no side effects and powerful, that I prefer using what nature provides. It’s just about using the specific plants and ingredients that work for the specific problem.
I always do my research!!! If I want to make a specific formula for someone (like I did when my chiropractor had rotator cuff surgery on his shoulder) I find out what is the most effective plants and essential oils, the most healing herbs, and carrier oils for that application. Then I gather what I can usually from my own garden, and make up a batch. I always take care to note exactly what amounts of each ingredient and carefully label each formula, then have those formulas in a place where I can find them and reproduce them if needed later. I also note which ones were most successful and if I make a kind to sell, I often tweek it for better results, giving it a name like my “Super Boo Boo Cream IV”. I sell these at a local historical gathering each year and people come back every year to get it, telling me amazing stories of how it has helped them. (This is available mail-order if you are interested, via this blogsite. I also make a number of other such preparations for psoriasis, pain for muscles, poison ivy, after surgery salve, and upon demand).
So, the lesson of all this is – you can take care of yourself and your family with knowledge, a few simple tools (double boiler, ladle, hand held stick blender for lotions and butters), some oil, some herbs, some essential oils (optional), Vit. E oil, and wax, some small containers, and the will to experiment.
Here are some helpful websites for recipes and information about materials: https://www.deilataylor.com/homemade-lotion-with-water-and-oil/ https://library.essentialwholesale.com/a-closer-look-at-emulsifiers-in-cosmetics/ https://www.humblebeeandme.com/a-quick-guide-to-different-emulsifying-waxes/ https://www.dictionary.com/browse/balm https://www.herbalremediesadvice.org/herbal-healing-cream.html
Good Luck with your journey.
Diann Dirks, Herbalist, Organic Gardener, Certified Permaculture Designer