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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

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Oleaginous constituents

These are effectively oils, (vegetable or mineral), or other substances that will freely mix with oils, such as waxes, fats, greases, and volatile oils. When they are mixed with aqueous constituents to form an emulsion, they are known collectively as the oleaginous phase (or oily phase). However, when we are discussing creams and the like we often talk about ‘oil’ as a sort of shorthand to include all the oleaginous constituents present.

Aqueous constituents

This refers to water or anything that is dissolved in water or can mix with it – there’s quite a list, including infusions & decoctions, alcohol and ethanolic extracts such as tinctures, vinegars, glycerine, and honey. When making an emulsion such as a cream, these are known collectively as the aqueous phase. Once again, we may be lazy and just refer to the whole lot as ‘water’.

Emulsifiers

Emulsifiers (aka emulgents or emulsifying agents) must be present in creams and other emulsions in order for a stable mixture of oleaginous and aqueous constituents to be formed. Strictly speaking oil and water never actually mix together – the effect of emulsification is to cause, for instance, the oily ‘phase’ to break down into very tiny droplets that are held in suspension in the aqueous phase, (or it could be the other way round). Very ‘runny’ emulsions are usually temporary in nature (as observed when dairy cream separates from milk) but they will recombine when shaken together. In the case of a cream, some of the constituents (usually the oily ones) will set hard at room temperature, forming a stable, semi-solid product. Emulsifiers occur naturally, albeit often in very small quantities, in useful substances such as beeswax and unsaturated vegetable oils. However, much greater versatility is possible if you use a commercial emulsifying agent such as Emulsifying Wax BP, or it’s more natural predecessor, Lanette Wax.

Formulation of creams is primarily about bringing therapeutic substances in contact with the skin, but one also has to weigh up other factors: –

  • Very oily creams will tend to be occlusive, tenacious and moisturising. Conversely very watery creams will tend to be drying, well absorbed, and are soon gone.
  • It’s often advantageous to include constituents that help to make a cream more ‘sticky’, so it will spread over and adhere to the skin better. Alas, the oh-so-useful lanoline is a thing of the past, but we still have things like glycerine and soft paraffin to perform this role.
  • Because creams contain water, they are vulnerable to infection. It helps if the product and its container start their working lives sterile – but in use, exposure to the air and microbes transferred from fingers will soon cause a cream to go off… unless a preservative is used. Including essential oils for this purpose is often disappointing – they’re mostly tucked away in the oily phase, so they have very little preservative effect on the water-based constituents. Further, in order to achieve an adequate preservative (antimicrobial) effect the essential oil content of your cream would need to be at least 4%. At this level it will probably affect the emulsifying properties of the cream, and will almost certainly irritate the skin. So usually it’s necessary to use a commercial preservative if you want your creams to last more than a week or two.

 

WATER IN OIL CREAMS

The first sort of cream to attempt, water in oil creams are useful to practice and perfect as they are made from such simple ingredients. The two stage process is important, keeping the aqueous and oleaginous phases separate until the latter is fully dissolved and they both have the same temperature – this makes it easier for the emulsifier to do its work.

Basic Cold Cream

Water in oil creams are often referred to as Cold Creams (a historic term from the days when the only comparison was ointments – creams feel more cooling on application).  Although they are seldom found in modern cosmetics, they are useful therapeutically. They are indeed more cooling and less greasy than an ointment and are more easily spread over the skin, useful for dry areas such as elbows, feet, hands, knees and legs. Because they leave a good occlusive barrier behind, they can be useful for conditions like nappy rash and haemorrhoids.

Beeswax pellets

5 – 10

g
VO Vegetable oil

60

ml
Water or infusion

40

ml
EO Essential oils

10-20

gutte

This is a general formula to make 100g. Try this to start with until you’ve got the knack, after which you may want to make larger quantities for convenience. Variations to consider are: –

  • You can substitute one of the ‘butters’ (Coconut, Cocoa or Shea) for some or all of the beeswax.
  • Vegetable oils might be plain Sunflower or Olive oils (cold-pressed will work best) or an infused oil such as Marigold or Comfrey.
  • The water could be an infusion… perhaps of the same herb as the infused oil.
  • Essential oils can be chosen to compliment the therapeutic activity of the cream. If in doubt, use Lavender!

As an example, you might use Marigold (Calendula officinalis) infused oil, an infusion of Marigold flowers, and Tea Tree essential oil).

First make a good, strong infusion of your chosen herb, filter it, and return the infusion to the pan, (or just warm up some plain water if you prefer). Whilst doing this, melt the beeswax in a double boiler or porringer, then stir in the infused oil until it’s all melted. Adjust the temperature to 70°C (using a thermometer). Warm the infusion again until it also reaches 70°C. Remove both from the heat and pour the infusion in a slow, steady stream into the melted beeswax/oil mix, whisking furiously all the time. Keep whisking as it cools down to make sure the water stays finely dispersed in the oil. When it starts to thicken, stir in your chosen essential oils, transfer to a jar and seal when fully cooled. This simple cold cream has no preservatives – keep it in the fridge, but still expect it might go off within 3 months.

You may get away without using a thermometer – 70°C is close to the point at which beeswax will melt, whilst in an aqueous infusion 70°C is a comfortable ‘sipping’ temperature. The important things is that both phases should be close to the same temperature, otherwise things will probably go wrong.

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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.

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INFUSED OILS

Having a good stock of infused (or ‘macerated’) herbal oils is more or less essential. Often they can be used on their own, perhaps with an essential oil or two added. Infused oils can be made from dried herbs, but always try to take the opportunity to use fresh herbs – cheaper and so much better. Never underestimate the value of a good herbal oil on the skin – there’s often no need to do anything more complicated. However, they’re also commonly combined in more complex external preparations such as ointments and creams.

It’s a common question to ask what vegetable oil to use for making infused oils. In essence we require three major things from a fixed oil: that it’s stable enough to be heated without degrading too much; that it’s light enough to spread well; and it’s not too smelly or otherwise unpleasant to use. Olive oil is particularly stable and can stand moderate heating, is nourishing, cooling in temperament and has good spreading qualities (but can cause the user to smell like salad dressing!) Where your chosen herb is particularly delicate, such as lemon balm, or where you want to show off the colour, such as Marigold, Sunflower oil is light, stable & cheap. Always use organic oils, as pesticides tend to be fat-soluble. If you want to use cold-pressed oils, take into account they can be expensive, some of their benefits can be lost on heating, and they are more likely to invite infection. On the other hand, they will be absorbed better and if used later to incorporate into creams will emulsify better. The choice is yours!

To infuse herbs, they will need to be comminuted in the same fashion as for making tinctures – this is largely a matter of common sense. Petals, flowers, seeds and small leaves may be infused whole. Larger leaves, stems, etc. should be chopped fairly coarsely – a fine mulch will not mix well enough with the oil to infuse properly, and will increase the chances of the whole thing going rancid. For the same reason, never pack in the herbal material tightly – let it find its own space.

Whatever method you use, you will need to filter the oil before bottling. First pass through a kitchen sieve, then either through a paper coffee filter, or place a ball of cotton wool not too tightly at the base of the cone of a suitably large funnel for the oil to seep through (start by pouring gently, otherwise the cotton wool will simply float to the top). Either method can easily block with debris after a while, so you may need to use a fresh filter paper or wodge of cotton wool from time to time.

There is always a potential for herbal oils to go rancid or ‘off’, particularly if you’re using fresh herbs – the oil has become infected, either whilst it’s being infused, or later during storage. Here are some tips:-

  • When using bulky fresh herbs, allow them to wilt in a warm place for 2-12 hours to reduce the water content before proceeding. (But be careful with aromatic herbs that you don’t loose too many volatiles this way).
  • When using the sun infusion method, it will help to place a teaspoon or two of salt at the bottom of the jar, which will absorb any settling water.
  • The final product should be clear – if it’s cloudy, there’s water in it, so heat gently to evaporate it off.
  • If you’re worried, heating the final product (made by whatever method) to 70°C for 20 minutes will effectively sterilise it.
  • Check your oils in stock often. If any water globules or debris settle at the bottom, decant the oil off from it before it’s too late. If the oil develops an ‘off’ smell, discard it and learn from experience.

Sun Infusion Method

Steeping herbal oils in the sunshine is a wonderful and magical process – the classic product, and also the most unproblematical, is the famous St John’s Wort Red Oil. Partially fill a large glass jar (an old confectioner’s sweet jar is ideal) with organic olive oil, or sunflower oil if you prefer. Pick fresh St John’s Wort tops in full flower, complete with a few distal leaves, and drop them in – don’t pack too tight, let them find their own space, and do make sure the herb is fully covered by the oil. Shake or tap the jar to remove any trapped air bubbles. If you don’t have much of a supply of the herb, there’s no reason why it can’t be topped up until full over a period of a few days. Screw on the lid and leave the jar on a sunny windowsill (or just out in the garden – why not!) for at least two weeks until your green olive oil and yellow flowers have produced an amazing blood-red oil. Strain, filter and bottle. For a more concentrate result, you can simply strain the oil and return it to the jar, adding a second batch of fresh flowering tops to steep in the sun again, before proceeding to the filtration stage.

The sun infusion method is only used for fresh herbs, and is then only suitable for very light material with a low water content – it’s commonly also used for Mullein flowers, Lemon Balm leaves, and Pot Marigold petals (whole Marigold flower heads must be wilted first to avoid problems).

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Making & using external preparations is all part of what attracts us to herbal medicine in the first place: you can make them yourself from simple ingredients; there are almost limitless creative combinations to be discovered & made; they visibly work; the process is alchemical. Making things like ointments and creams at home is one of the most satisfying ways to spend an afternoon. All you really need to get started is a heatproof bowl, a pot of hot water, some basic ingredients & some jars. You can always add to your materials and equipment later.

But first, a few definitions: –

  • Aqueous: describes water itself and also all constituents that can be mixed with or dissolved in water, e.g. herbal infusions & decoctions, floral waters (such as rose water), tinctures & fluid extracts, vinegars, syrups, glycerine & glycerites, vinegar and honey.
  • Oleaginous: describes oils and all constituents that are soluble in oil, e.g. Fixed oils, infused oils, essential oils, paraffins (soft or liquid), fats, greases, waxes & resins.
  • Ointment: (or salve): a semi-solid non-aqueous preparation; in other words, contains only oleaginous (‘oily’) constituents.
  • Paste: an ointment (or sometimes a cream) that incorporates finely powdered herb(s).
  • Emulsion: a mixture of oleaginous & aqueous (oil-based & water-based) ingredients.
  • Emulsifier (or emulgent – what a brilliant word): an agent that makes it possible to form a stable mixture of oils and water, e.g. borax, beeswax, soap, lanolin, some gums, and egg. Proprietary emulsifying agents such as Lanette Wax & Emulsifying Wax BP are also available – less natural but more efficient.
  • Phase: when making emulsions, one refers to the oleaginous phase (all the oily constituents mixed together) and the aqueous phase (all the water-soluble constituents mixed together). When they have been combined (in the presence of an emulsifier), you will either have caused the aqueous phase to be suspended in tiny droplets surrounded by oil, or the oleaginous phase to be suspended in tiny globules surrounded by water.
  • Cream: the most popular form of emulsion, usually containing oil globules suspended in water (o/w) but sometimes water droplets suspended in oil (w/o).
  • Vegetable oil: (sometimes called a ‘fixed’ oil).  Extracted from a nut, seed or other plant source. Popular examples are Sunflower, Olive and Sweet Almond oils. The best quality is cold pressed, cheaper forms are extracted with solvents (often after an initial cold pressing). Fixed oils are not to be confused with essential oils!
  • Infused oil (or macerated oil): a vegetable oil in which fresh or dried herbs have been infused. This may be a hot or cold process.
  • Essential oil: volatile oils from aromatic plants, usually extracted by distillation but occasionally by pressing (e.g. citrus fruit peel) or by dissolving into fats & then separating (‘absolutes’). Not to be confused with vegetable oils!

We will in due course be detailing liniments, plasters, compresses, poultices, pessaries, suppositories, ears drops, herbal baths, washes and more – but will give appropriate definitions as we go.

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