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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 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


Tr Thuja occidentalis


VO Castor oil


EO Tea Tree


EO Patchouli



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