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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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