Herbal salves are a traditional topical remedy made with beeswax and carrier oil. The beeswax helps to solidify the product while keeping it easy to apply to the skin and helping to sustain its shelf life.
Salves are used to address all kinds of skin ailments and muscle and joint aches and pains. Sometimes salves are called balms or ointments, but the definitions of these words tend to vary based on who you’re talking to and usually refer to differences in consistency. What all three preparations have in common is that they’re made with beeswax and carrier oil. Salves, by definition, don’t contain butters or water-based ingredients.
Tip: If you’re practicing a vegan lifestyle, you can also use plant-based waxes like candelilla in place of the beeswax when making salves.
What You Need to Make a Salve
Olive oil is traditionally used by herbalists for salve formulation because it generally has a pretty long shelf life. I, however, tend to prefer sunflower seed oil because it is a bit lighter in consistency and feels better on the skin. Carrier oils each carry their own therapeutic benefits as well, so you can add to the overall effect of your blend by choosing a carrier oil that matches well with the goal of your recipe.
Regardless of which carrier oil you choose to use, I recommend using an herb-infused oil as your carrier oil rather than a plain carrier. Double and triple infused carriers are especially well suited to salves, increasing their overall efficacy.
Beeswax or solid plant wax (Jojoba will not work because it is a liquid wax.)
Beeswax is added to salves at a 1:4, 1:5, or 1:6 ratio to help solidify the salve so it can cool to a nice consistency. The ratios further explained would be 1part beeswax to 4 parts carrier oil (1:4), 1 part beeswax to 5 parts carrier oil (1:5), or 1 part beeswax to 6 parts carrier oil (1:6).
1:4 is the traditional ratio for salves, but I find that it’s a bit hard for my liking at that ratio. I tend to make my own salves at a 1:6 ratio. Experiment with small batches of each ratio to see what you prefer and then you’ll know to always use your preferred ratio when you make your own salves.
In the photos below, the salve on the left is a 1:4, the middle salve is 1:5 and the salve on the right is 1:6. (The last couple photos show their consistencies on a popsicle stick and on my fingers.) All three salves are made only with organic extra virgin olive oil (not infused with anything) and beeswax.
Tins or glass jars
Tins are traditional for salves because they tend to have a wide bottom and short walls, which allows the salve to cool evenly. You can also use glass jars if you don’t have any tins on hand. You’ll want to avoid plastic containers. I’ve had previous students and readers share stories about melted plastic and completely wasted batches of salve that were ruined by it. I like 2 to 4 ounce tins for most salves and 1 ounce tins for things like lip salves / balms.
Essential oils (optional)
Essential oils can also be added to your salves to add therapeutic effects. Because salves are not usually daily use products (they are most often formulated as short-term use products for acute situations), your dilution rates can be anywhere between 2 – 10% for most salve applications. Daily use salves should be limited to a dilution rate of 2-3% essential oil. Salves meant for use in acute situations (not daily or regular use) can include dilutions of 3-10%, depending on the purpose of the salve.
I like to use a small pot combined with a glass pyrex measuring cup because it makes for easy pouring. I learned this method from one of my teachers, Andrea Butje, when I completed her certification program several years ago and I’ve found that it’s one of the easiest ways to use the double boiler method. You could also use a traditional double boiler made of stainless steel to melt your beeswax.
While I don’t usually recommend single-use products, paper towels make the cleanup process so much easier and faster when working with beeswax. I keep some on hand specifically for cleaning up dishes I’ve used to make products that contain beeswax.
How to Make a Salve
- Weigh out your beeswax first and get it into the glass jar in your double boiler over low heat to start melting. While it melts, you can measure out your carrier oil(s) and prepare your tins or jars.
- When the beeswax is melted, turn the heat off and slowly pour in your carrier oil(s), stirring all the while. The carrier oil will be a cooler temperature than the beeswax, so you may see some small particles starting to solidify. This is normal. Just keep stirring and they will melt back down.
- Once everything looks smooth and liquid, remove the glass measuring cup from the double boiler and set it on a pot holder or trivet. Add your essential oils to the blend, stirring to thoroughly combine.
- Pour the finished salve recipe into your tins or jars and allow them to sit still until the salve has completely cooled.
- Label your packaging with all ingredients, the name of your product, the expiration date of your carrier oil, and the date you made the product.
Salves will generally last as long as the expiration date on your carrier oil, if not longer. You can add a bit of liquid vitamin E to your salve if you want to slow oxidation of the fatty oils but do keep in mind that vitamin E is not a preservative; it is an antioxidant. Since salves do not contain any water-based ingredients, you do not technically need a preservative. If you do choose to include vitamin E as an antioxidant, you’ll also want to source it carefully since much of the vitamin E on the market is derived from genetically modified crops.
What Salves Can Be Used For:
- Skin issues
- Burns (after the initial hot / burning feeling has passed)
- Dry skin
- First aid preparations
- Muscle aches and pains
- Aromatic chest rubs
- Stretch marks (preventive measure)
- Sore nipples (for nursing mamas – just leave out the essential oil)
- Dry cuticles
- To help support restful sleep (apply before bed)
- Hair products (very small amounts; especially suited to men’s facial hair)
When Not to Use a Salve:
- In the acute stages of a burn when there is still a sensation of heat or burning.
- Over puncture wounds
- On broken skin that hasn’t been properly cleaned
- Large wounds
- Animal bites
In these instances, it may be better to clean the area and then apply straight raw honey or an herbal wash. Products containing waxes or fatty oils can seal bacteria into the wound and contribute to infections.
Tip: To make salves lighter and a bit more balmy, you can use a fork, whisk, or immersion blender to whip them up a bit after they’ve started to solidify a bit.
What ratio of beeswax:carrier oil do you prefer to use in your salves? Let me know in the comments below.