Ointments contain no aqueous constituents whatsoever, hence require no emulsifying agents or preservatives. Oily constituents can sometimes be mixed together cold if they’re all sufficiently soft to work together with a pallet knife on a glass plate, marble slab (or just your worktop if it’s clean enough), but more commonly gentle heat will be required to form a mixture with hard waxes such as beeswax.

An old-fashioned word for ointment is ‘unguent’, from which comes the adjective, ‘unctuous’. So next time you come across somebody you think is a bit oily…

Before making an ointment, consider first if it’s the right medium for the therapeutic strategy you have in mind. Ointments are very moisturising so, for instance, would be ideal for applying to the dry plaques of psoriasis, but a disaster applied to a weeping eczema. Ointments can also be excellent for wounds and rough or broken skin, as they will provide an occlusive layer preventing secondary infection. Ointments are also common choices as lip balms, for bruises, to soothe aching muscles, to help improve varicose veins, and shrink piles.

Ointments should keep for well over 6 months – as there is no water there isn’t anything for fungi (or most bacteria) to grow on. For this reason it’s rare to add a preservative to an ointment. Most ointments will still eventually go rancid. Although rancidification can be caused or accelerated by bacterial infection, it is more commonly the result of oxidation of fatty acids into aldehydes, ketones, etc. Impurities, fluctuating temperatures and time contribute to this. Either way, once an ointment starts to smell ‘off’ it’s time to throw it away. Un-opened jars will keep for much longer… and it also helps if the ointment isn’t dug out of the jar with dirty fingers.

A Simple Ointment

The very simplest ointment uses only two ingredients – an infused oil, and beeswax, simply melted together. As often as not this is the first product any aspiring herbalist makes. These ointments can be produced from homemade infused oils detailed in the previous section. The combination of St John’s Wort & Marigold oils (‘HyperCal’) is famous as a healing salve. Add Comfrey to make the popular ‘Traffic Lights’ oil (red, amber, green…) which should be able to heal practically anything.

Infused oils(s) of choice

85

ml
Yellow Beeswax

15

g

Solid beeswax is hard to cut up into the required weight and may also take a long time to melt: fortunately it can be purchased commercially in small pellets that solve both of these problems. Also avoid white beeswax, which will contain traces of bleaching agent.

Melt the beeswax in a double boiler or porringer. Once it has dissolved, pour in the infused herbal oil(s) and keep on the heat, stirring until the whole is fully mixed and melted – when it will appear smooth and clear. Pour immediately into jar(s). Wait until fully cool before putting on lid(s), and label.

This recipe will make a hard-ish ointment. However as with all things herbal there are no absolute rules; it will depend on your chosen vegetable oil, the herb you have infused into it, and the quality of the beeswax. To test the consistency you can dip the end of a cold teaspoon into the oil: if it sets too hard, add more oil (5ml at a time); if it’s too runny add more beeswax (1g at a time).

You can also add essential oils to the ointment. Stir them in just as the ointment starts to stiffen and become opaque (any later and the ointment will no longer be pourable). However, it will still be quite hot so some of the volatile oils will evaporate when added. To counter this, add more essential oils than would usually be needed: 2-4ml should be about right for the formula above.

Psoriasis Ointment

This is a variation on the formula given above – except the therapeutic actions of vegetable oils themselves are used, a little soft paraffin (‘vaseline’) is incorporated to make the result stickier, and there’s the added properties of the essential oils.

Beeswax

150

g
Soft paraffin

100

g
VO Castor

550

ml
VO Neem

150

ml
VO Evening Primrose

50

ml
EO Lavender

5

ml
EO Yarrow, Juniper aa

2.5

ml

Melt the beeswax and soft paraffin together in a double boiler or porringer, then stir in the vegetable oils in the order given. (The Neem oil may be solid – if so, weigh out 150 g). When everything is fully melted, remove from the heat and stir until the mixture starts to cloud again. Stir in the essential oils, pour into jar(s) and seal when cool.

Pilewort Ointment

This is another good one for beginners as there are only two ingredients. Soft paraffin is an ideal base for treating piles – it should be applied after washing the area thoroughly, when it will thence provide a long-lasting sterile barrier to this exceptionally grubby part of the human anatomy.

Soft paraffin

100

g
Pilewort (Ranunculus ficaria)

20

g

Melt the soft paraffin in a double boiler or porringer, and add fresh Pilewort leaves, finely chopped – you may find you can add more than 20g, but don’t overdo it. Leave over gentle heat for 2 hours. Warm a fine strainer in hot water and pour the mixture through it to remove the plant material (the reason for warming the strainer is that the ointment might otherwise set on contact and clog it immediately). Return the strained ointment to the boiler pan and heat for another half hour to drive of any remaining moisture taken up from the herb. Pour into jar(s), and seal when cool.

Lip Balm

Most commercial lip balms are based on soft paraffin (‘vaseline’) with a little flavouring. The much stiffer formula below is applicable to serious cases of cracked or peeling lips, but is also valuable as a barrier coat over which to apply lipsticks, etc. for people who are allergic to them, or are irritated by foods such as citrus fruits or peppers.

White soft paraffin

75

g
Beeswax

15

g
VO Evening Primrose

10

ml
Vitamin E oil

2

ml
EO Litsea cubeba, Sandalwood aa

5

gutte
EO Manuka

3

gutte

Melt the soft paraffin & beeswax together in a double boiler or porringer, stir in the Evening Primrose and Vitamin E oils, when fully melted remove from the heat and stir until the balm starts to stiffen, and quickly stir in the essential oils. Pour immediately into jars, cap and label when fully cooled.

Tiger Balm

Tiger Balm is used throughout the Far East as a sort of ‘cure-all’ to bring a cooling and reviving sensation when applied to the forehead, for application to painful joints & muscles, to the chest for coughs & colds, to sooth and heal insect bites, and so on. Once experienced, never forgotten! Note that overuse can cause skin irritation. The secret to incorporating such a high proportion of volatile constituents in what is nonetheless quite a stiff ointment is the use of Menthol and Camphor in solid form. The Ammonia solution can be purchased from hardware stores, (it’s used as a household cleaner).

Emulsifying Wax

50

g
Beeswax, White Soft Paraffin aa

200

g
Menthol Crystals

100

g
Camphor flowers

250

g
EO Clove, Cinnamon aa

50

ml
EO Peppermint

60

ml
EO Eucalyptus

70

ml
Ammonia solution

20

ml

Mix the essential oils & add the Menthol crystals & Camphor flowers (crush these slightly if they have consolidated in storage). Stir until fully dissolved (or simply stand, tightly covered, overnight). Melt the emulsifying wax, beeswax & soft paraffin together in a porringer or similar. Remove from the heat and stir until it starts to cloud, then stir in the volatile oils mixture. Stir in the ammonia solution. Immediately stand the pan in a waiting basin of cold water and continue stirring until set.

Making Tiger Balm has the potential to fill the whole house with fumes for hours, so work quickly and in good ventilation! To clean up, wipe off as much surplus as possible from all vessels, surfaces etc. with paper kitchen towel, taking the waste outdoors immediately, then finish by cleaning everything with copious washing-up liquid in cold water.

Arthrobalm

This is an adaptation of Tiger Balm, for specific use on all affectations of joints and muscles where pain relief is a priority. It will penetrate much deeper than any ordinary ointment or embrocation. Note that like Tiger Balm, overuse can cause skin irritation.

Emulsifying Wax

50

g
Beeswax, White Soft Paraffin aa

200

g
Menthol Crystals

100

g
Camphor Flowers

250

g
EO Juniper

100

ml
EO Thyme, Wintergreen aa

50

ml
Ammonia solution

25

ml

Proceed in all respects the same as for Tiger Balm.

Thuja Paste

A paste is an ointment that incorporates a finely powdered  or pulverised herb – it’s a method of getting an awful lot of herb in intimate contact with the skin. This one is used for warts & veruccas – it’s fairly messy, so apply under a sticky plaster, replacing every day or two.

Soft paraffin

100

g
EO Lemon

10

ml
Thuja occidentalis powder

Work the Lemon oil into the soft paraffin with a pallet knife on a sheet of glass or marble (at a pinch you can do this on a kitchen worktop provided it’s very clean). Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the Thuja powder a little at a time until the mixture stiffens (to a paste-like consistency!) Leave to stand overnight – you’re likely to find the result has become quite runny again. Work in more powder until stiff again, and stand overnight once more to check it can absorb no more. Transfer to jar(s) and seal.

Drawing Paste 

Confusingly, this is usually called ‘Drawing Ointment’ or ‘Drawing Salve’, but is nonetheless really a paste. It’s used for drawing out splinters and foreign bodies from superficial wounds, and for softening boils, whitlows and the like so they can discharge more readily. It should be applied under a sticky plaster or dressing. The almost magical ‘drawing’ effect is caused by the mucilages in the herbs absorbing water from the tissues they contact.

Soft paraffin

80

g
VO Olive

20

ml
Slippery Elm powder

25

g
Marshmallow root powder

25

g

Work the soft paraffin and olive oil together thoroughly with a pallet knife on a glass plate or similar – the result should be just slightly runny. Transfer to a bowl. Mix the two powders thoroughly together, then carefully stir them in a little at a time until a stiff paste is achieved (you probably won’t use quite all of the powder). Transfer to jar(s) and seal.

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