Poultices, Compresses, Salves, and Ointments

by Ravemore

Many herbal remedies are applied directly to the skin as poultices, usually on rashes and wounds and as topical pain-relieving remedies. Poultices are prepared in various ways… from chewing up fresh leaves or roots and spitting them out onto the skin, to mashing up fresh leaves or roots by hand or with a mortar and pestle. Sometimes just enough hot water is poured over dried or fresh plant material to soften them. The wet herbs are placed directly on the skin or between two pieces of cloth and laid on the skin.

Compresses are simply soaking a cloth in a prepared infusion, tincture or decoction and laying the cloth onto the affected part of the body/skin.

Salves and ointments are rubbed directly into the skin and are created by warming herbs in 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. Animal lards are by far one of the best base ingredients. Beeswax is also an excellent base, but will require additional oils. Petroleum jellies are passable, but fewer oils are used.

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 kernel can be used. Beeswax comes in two varieties, white and yellow. The white is bleached and processed. 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.

Weigh or measure out the wax (preferably grated or cut into small pieces) and the herbal infused oil and place in a double boiler. 5 parts wax to 1 part oil. Heat over a low heat until the wax is fully melted and then stir well. 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. 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. While the salve is still liquid, stir in tinctures if required, pour into glass jars and cap immediately to stop the volatile oils from evaporating. Allow to cool and set completely before using.