There used to be an impressive list of different gums from which gels could be made (although they weren’t called gels then), many with their own medicinal qualities. Some, like Gum Arabic, Gum Tragacanth or Guar gum are still available but, as in the past, are used for internal preparations such as mucilages, suspensions, emulsions etc. In modern times there are gel-forming substances that are cheap enough and easy enough to use to consider them as the base for external preparations, in much the same fashion as creams or ointments. There is an advantage in that they can be produced without the need for heat – making it possible to produce an external application very quickly on the spot. There may also be, for instance, delicate tinctures, infused oils or essential oils to incorporate that will not be damaged or dissipated in the same way as a hot process.

 

CARBOMER

Carbomer is a synthetic polymer commonly supplied as a ready-mixed gel. It is mostly used in orthodox pharmacy as a base for eye medicaments. Whilst not a natural substance, it has the same advantages as the paraffins – it is not absorbed by the skin, inhibits bacterial growth and is hypoallergenic. No problems have been encountered in use – it has been popular for some time now with aromatherapists.

Carbomer gel is usually purchased as ‘Base Gel’ – or most herbalists prefer to buy ‘Base Aloe Gel’, in which Aloe juice (itself technically speaking a gel, just to confuse you!) has been incorporated in the aqueous fraction.

The joy of using Base Aloe Gel is that it will absorb unbelievable quantities of aqueous and oleaginous constituents simply by stirring them together (no heat required). As an experiment, the limits lie somewhere around 1 part gel, 2 parts water & I part oil – in other words, it will potentially take up 3 times its own volume and still form a stable gel. Extraordinary! Considering the ease and lack of equipment required, this is an invaluable tool in the dispensary, as you can produce an external preparation for a patient on the spot in just a minute or two once you’ve got the hang of it.

Base Aloe Gel is essentially cooling and anti-inflammatory, but the overall effect will depend on added constituents. The gel can be used on its own for anything (like burns or prickly heat) you’d just want to put the cooling, healing virtues of Aloe vera on, or you can add only aqueous constituents like tinctures or honey. However, it’s best to add at least a little vegetable (or herbal) oil if you want to spread the gel over any significant area – otherwise the end result can be a little lumpy on application, and will often dry out to quite a hard, shiny surface. The gel will also happily take up essential oils too, which should be restricted to a maximum 5%.

It’s easiest made up by placing all the added constituents in the bottom of an ointment jar, topping up with the gel, and stirring (e.g. with a glass stirring rod) until it’s all thoroughly mixed. Note that initially the whole thing can turn into a runny liquid, but persevere, and it will stiffen up again as you keep stirring. Note that you can’t add solids such as beeswax or cocoa butter – they would have to be melted first, and this is a cold preparation. Things you can add apart from the obvious tinctures and oils are honey (especially Manuka honey), Neem oil, Cider vinegar, powdered herbs – the possibilities are endless.

There’s not much point in giving a general formula as this is an almost infinitely adaptable medium, but for illustration, here are a couple of useful examples: –

Antifungal Gel

For athlete’s foot, ringworm, etc.

Base Aloe Gel

45

g
Tr Thuja occidentalis

5

ml
VO Castor oil

10

ml
EO Tea Tree

10

gutte
EO Patchouli

3

gutte

Varicose Ulcer Gel

A gel is particularly suitable for application to this difficult problem – better at inhibiting infection than a cream, whilst much more cooling and drying than an ointment.

Base Aloe Gel

40

g
Tr Anemopsis californica

5

ml
Tr Hydrastis canadensis

5

ml
IO Symphytum officinalis infused oil

5

ml
Manuka honey

5

g
EO Lavender

3

gutte

 

GLUCOMANNAN

The desire for an all-natural gel is fulfilled by the polysaccharide extracted from the root of Amorphophallus Konjak, grown in southern Africa & Asia. The powder readily forms a gel in water and is sometimes used internally to reduce appetite and stabilise blood sugar. It occasionally appears in formulas for creams, lotions etc, making them both more adherent and subjectively ‘softer’.

As a stand-alone external preparation, Glucomannan gel is made by vigorously stirring or whisking 0.8 – 1.2% of the powder sprinkled onto water. It will form a smooth gel in cold water but the hotter the water, the faster the gel is formed, and with a potentially finer result. It will take up a little tincture (no more than 20%) about the same proportion of fixed oils, and a few drops of essential oil. It is also useful to add 2% or more of vegetable glycerine to achieve a smoother and more stable result.  However, unlike carbomer gels, everything has to be incorporated in one operation – once it has ‘set’, stirring a Glucomannan gel, or attempting to add further constituents later, results in a lumpy, unstable mess. So this is not suitable as a stock product awaiting further additions, but does lend itself to making up a quick ‘one-off’ for a particular purpose. The following example could be used safely for mastitis, even if the suckling baby were to ingest some: -

Glucomannan gum powder

1.0

g
Inf Calendula officinalis flos

80

ml
VO Calendula officinalis

20

ml

Measure out the Marigold infusion into a small beaker whilst still hot. Sprinkle the powdered gum onto the surface, whisking briskly. As soon as it is well dispersed and is thickening nicely, stir in the Marigold infused oil. Transfer to a pot. It can be used as soon as cool but will have formed a smoother result by the following day.

N.B. Glucomannan gel is particularly suitable for application to the tissues of the vagina, as a lubricant or as a base for the treatment of conditions such as senile vaginitis.

XANTHAN

Xanthan gum is semi-natural, being made from fermented glucose. It’s as safe internally and externally as Glucomannan, is easier to find and may be a little cheaper in use. The disadvantage is that it’s more prone to producing a lumpy result however vigorously it’s whisked. Working it in a mortar with a dash of strong alcohol (45%+), then adding water a little at a time is one way to solve the problem. In all other respects it can be formulated in the same fashion as Glucomannan, using 0.5 – 2% in cold water. Here’s a useful example for application to shingles (Herpes zoster): -

Xanthan gum powder

1.5

g
Tr Melissa officinalis

20

ml
Rosewater

80

ml
IO Hypericum perforatum infused oil

20

ml
EO Melissa officinalis

2-3

gutte

Place the Xanthan powder in a mortar and work in the Melissa tincture with the pestle. Slowly incorporate the Rosewater whilst whisking vigorously until the gel starts to thicken up. Whisk in the infused oil and then the essential oil, continuing until all is well dispersed. Transfer to a pot, ideally standing overnight to fully settle.

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