Best Way to Make an Infused Herbal Oil & Healing Salve

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herbal salves cooling

The idea of making an herbal oil can be intimidating. Will it spoil? Do the herbs need to be fresh or dried? How long will it last? Many would-be herbalists get confused about the “right” way to make an herbal oil. In this blog, I share the “best” way because there’s not really a right-or-wrong way as long as you keep the moisture out.

I’ll also share how to turn your infused herbal oil into a healing salve or a first aid ointment. It’s all part of a streamlined process that will fill your pantry shelves with helpful herbal remedies make with the plants you grow or harvest.

What Is An Infused Herbal Oil?

Very simply, an oil into which you place herbs will soak up or “extract” the chemicals of the plants and become “infused.” Most of our edible and medicinal herbs contain chemicals that are beneficial for healing, especially on the skin. They can be vulnerary (healing wounds), emollient (soothing to the skin), or antimicrobial (they kill germs). These and many others are the “herbal actions” that tell us the characteristics or qualities that make an herb effective for a given acute or chronic condition.

When you want to make a healing remedy for, say, sunburn, you’ll want to use herbs that are soothing, cooling, and moisturizing. You’ll choose your herbs and chop them, wilt them a little bit (we’ll go into this below), and add them to a jar filled with oil. It’s an easy process. You can use the oil straight on the skin, or you can add beeswax to it to make a salve (also called an ointment). We’ll go over it all here.

Harvest Your Herbs

First, decide what you want the oil to accomplish. Do you want it to kill germs as a first aid ointment? Or do you want it to soothe and cool sun-damaged skin? Do you want it to ease the pain of a bee sting or the itch of poison ivy? There are many ways to use an herbal oil topically (some old-time remedies were even made to pull out splinters!).

Here are 10 herbs to consider:

Arnica

Arnica’s action is anti-inflammatory, meaning it helps reduce inflammation around blood vessels and shrink bruises. It eases the pain of wounds and is considered a prime first aid remedy. Because of its anti-inflammatory action and its ability to penetrate deeply, it is also valued to soothe sore muscles and injuries.

Calendula

Calendula is emollient, meaning it soothes the skin topically, making it ideal for itchy or painful conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, sunburn, and even bug bites. It’s also known to fight bacteria so is an ideal addition to first aid ointments. Calendula is milder than other herbs so is a good option for remedies for children with sensitive skin.

Thyme

A powerhouse, thyme (Thymus vulgaris) fights infection and is a go-to in topical ointments. Internally, thyme is anti-tussive and is a cough remedy. A very similar herb is oregano, used much the same way topically for first aid salves.

Plantain

A common weed in every yard, you’ll see Plantago major or broadleaf plantain as well as Plantago lanceolata, or spear-leaf plantain. Use them interchangeably, though the bigger leaves are easier to harvest. Plantain has the ability to pull things from the skin: splinters, bee venom, poison ivy. It’s considered a drawing herb. The fresh leaf can be chewed and applied directly to the skin, or you can chop it to add to an infused oil.

Lemon Balm

Generally used internally for anxiety, grief, and mild-to-moderate depression, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a lovely, citrus-smelling herb that can be included in oils and salves. It is emollient and vulnerary, meaning it will help restore injured skin tissue to its healthy state.

Sage

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a vulnerary and is prized for its astringent qualities. Sage will dry things up—internally, used sage will dry up diarrhea as well as breastmilk. Externally, it will dry weepy and wet conditions such as poison ivy. Because it’s so drying, it’s not a good choice for a sunburn remedy.

Yarrow

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is one of these high-achieving herbs about which there is so much to write. To keep it brief, I’ll cover only its topical applications. It is strongly vulnerary and is one of the best first aid herbs there is. It’s astringent and anti-pruritic (stops itching) and is a key herb to use in external or topical healing remedies (rinses, oils, ointments, compresses and poultices). Use the leaf primarily, though the flower is also useful.

Elder flower

The elderberry tree (Sambucus canadensis or S. nigra) produces lovely little white umbels of flowers that hang delicately in the spring. These are used to reduce fevers (febrifuge) and are prized as a gentle and safe remedy for children and infants. Externally, the flowers are cooling and emollient, perfect for issues where the skin is hot and dry.

Elder leaf

The elder’s leaves are also useful, but only externally as they are toxic if taken internally. Use the vulnerary leaves in infused oils and first aid ointments.

Rosemary

Strip the spiny leaves off the rosemary (Rosmarinus) stalk and add them to your infused oil. The leaves are highly antiseptic and antibacterial and perfect for first aid remedies. They become sticky when you work with them; don’t worry, this is not moisture and will not affect your oil.

Many other herbs are wonderful first aid options: Violet, Comfrey, Red Clover, St. John's Wort, Self-Heal, Mullein, Bee Balm, and many more.

To learn more about the actions or characteristics of herbs, check out my course Herbal Actions.

Choose the Best Oil for Your Skin Remedy

Any oil will work, but you’ll want to consider your final project before deciding. For instance, thin oils such as sunflower and safflower are lovely as a topical remedy and they infuse herbal matter just fine. But if you want to turn your oil into a salve (see below), you’ll want to go with a thicker oil. Olive oil is my favorite. You can also use canola if you trust the source. Walnut oil works, too, but it tends to expand in the jar and ooze out, making a mess.

Coconut oil has its own properties and changes the ratio of beeswax needed. I’ve found that coconut oil is wonderful for sunburns but not as effective for first aid applications.

Prepare Your Herbs for an Infused Oil

The key thing to know about infused oils is that the herbs must not have excess moisture, or the oil will spoil. You want all your equipment and tools to be very dry: pots, pans, bowls, spoons, knives, strainers. All of it must be dry, so if you’re going to wash anything prior to making an oil, do it the day before and make sure it’s completely dry when you’re ready to start.

Your herbs must also be dry. There are some juicy herbs out there such as plantain, violet leaves, and jewelweed. (I don’t recommend jewelweed in an oil!) But plantain, elder flower and leaf, thyme, calendula, lemon balm, sage… all of these either need to be wilted for an hour after harvesting them, or dried completely. I find that wilting is enough and there’s no need to use a dehydrator or dry them for days until they’re crisp. Wilted material works well and will not lead to spoilage.

This is different from making a tincture. With an alcohol or vinegar tincture, fresh and juicy herbs are great and there’s no concern about spoilage. But oils are different.

Spread your wilted flowers or leaves out on a cutting board and chop them coarsely. If they’re feeling damp, allow them to sit out for a couple of hours to evaporate a bit of moisture. If not, put them into either a jar or a saucepan and follow one of the two methods below:

Infuse with Time

If you don’t mind waiting a few weeks, place your herbs into a glass canning jar and pour the oil over them. Use a long handled spoon or spatula to press into the oil to release air bubbles. Cover the herbs with at least an inch of oil at the top and keep the whole thing about ½ inch below the rim. Cap the jar and label it, and place it on a shelf or in a cupboard where it is dry and protected. Store it here for a minimum of 2 weeks (I prefer 4 weeks) before using. The maximum amount of time you can steep your herbs in oil depends on the oil, but is generally about 6 months. To use it, simply strain the oil through a metal sieve lined with cheesecloth into a new jar or pot. Label it!

Infuse with Heat

If you don’t want to wait that long, you can use heat to infuse the herbal chemicals into your oil. Place your chopped herbs into a saucepan and place on the stove. Pour the oil into the pan (enough to cover) and very gently heat, on low, for about 20-25 minutes. Don’t let the oil sizzle or boil; instead, keep in on a low steady heat so that the oil extracts the properties from the herbs without cooking them. Stir frequently. When the kitchen smells strongly of the herbs, take off the heat and allow it to cool. When cool, strain through a metal sieve lined with cheesecloth into a new jar or bowl. Label it!

Now you have an herbal remedy. Use this on the skin by spreading it with your fingers or applying a bit of oil to a cloth or bandage. To go a step further, craft a healing salve.

Make an Herbal Salve or First Aid Ointment

If you already have an infused oil, it’s easy and quick to make a salve, also called an ointment. An ointment is simply a blend of oil and wax that carries the properties of the herbs that have been infused into it.

You can make a salve or ointment using oils made with either method above (time or heat). After you’ve strained the herbs from the oil, add the beeswax.

Beeswax Ratio

The best ointments I’ve made are with a ratio of ¼ cup chopped beeswax to 1 cup oil. That’s it. It’s very easy especially when you use olive oil. If you use coconut oil, the ratio changes and you’ll need to experiment, but it generally takes ½ cup beeswax (or more) to 1 cup coconut oil because coconut oil melts at room temperature and becomes unstable. I don’t recommend making salves with coconut oil (though I’ve made lovely coconut oil infusions that I consider more ceremonial or lotions). A lotion has a slippery and liquidy consistency whereas a salve or ointment is somewhere between a cream and a solid.

Beeswax is a great healing addition to a topical first aid remedy. It creates a barrier between the skin and is water resistant, so it provides protection for an injury.

Regarding the type of beeswax you use: any pure, unbleached beeswax works well as long as it is chopped and not “beads.” Beaded wax clumps and does not reliably work with this oil-to-wax ratio. To chop beeswax, take a chunk or block of beeswax and aim a strong sharp paring knife down into it. Carefully chip off bits of wax making sure to protect yourself from the blade. Collect these chips and measure them in a ¼ cup measuring cup to add to your 1 cup oil.

Make the Salve or Ointment

Measure your oil and pour it into an enamel or glass pot. For 1 cup of oil you’ll use ¼ cup beeswax. For 2 cups of oil, you’ll use ½ cup beeswax. Turn on the stove and warm the oil. When it’s warm (but not sizzling or boiling), add the beeswax and stir. As the wax melts, prepare your jars (I use 2-oz glass jars or tins). Add essential oils if you want (good essential oils include thyme, clove, rosemary, mint, sage, etc). Purchase high-quality essential oils from a reputable provider. I provide a link for Mountain Rose Herbs here.

Once the beeswax is completely melted, pour the contents of the pot into a 2-quart glass measuring container with a pouring lip. I use a Pyrex measuring bowl with a handle and lip so that I can pour easily into the small jars. Then fill each jar to the shoulder, add more essential oil if desired, and cap.

As the jars cool, you’ll see the salve changing color, getting lighter from the bottom gradually to the top. When the salve is completely cooled, you may notice a tiny indentation in the top layer of the salve. This is normal. Generally, 2 cups of oil fills 6-7 2 ounce jars. In the photo below, the jars on the left have already cooled. Those on the right have just been poured and you can see the bottom of the jar is just beginning to cool and change color from dark to light.

Don’t move the jars while the salve is cooling or you may slosh the contents onto the underside of the lid. Just let them sit and cool and you’ll have a collection of healing ointments ready to label.

For more guidance in using herbs for health, making healing formulas, and deepening your understanding of herbal medicine, see my courses at The Bellebuono School of Herbal Medicine.

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