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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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