It’s gardening season,and your hands are chapped and sore from exposure to soil and sun. Contact with the soil is inevitable, no matter how careful you are about wearing gloves, but washing the soil from your hands (and washing all your garden produce) rinses away your skin’s natural protective oils, causing it to dry out.
Salves are thickened ointments that are very easy to make at home and can be used to soothe various skin problems. They can treat chapped hands, wounds, mild burns, bites, stings, rashes, boils, acne, and inflammation. To make a basic salve, all you need is an infused oil, beeswax, and some essential oil.
The 3 Key Ingredients
Infused oils are carrier oils that have been infused with one or more herbs. They’re used to make oil-based apothecary items, including lip balms, creams, massage oils, and salves. Although you can buy prepared infused oils, I like to make my own using homegrown herbs and the folk technique called the “solar infusion method.”
To make an infused oil at home, find a jar with a tight-fitting lid, such as a canning jar, and fill it halfway with the dried herb of your choice. (I prefer to use dried herbs because fresh herbs have a higher water content and are more likely to get moldy when mixed with oil.) Fill the jar with oil until it completely covers the herb (about three-quarters full). Any quality vegetable oil will work, but if you’re using this infused oil to make a salve, use an oil that can tolerate heat and is good for your skin, such as olive, almond, or jojoba oil. Put the lid back on your jar and store it in a sunny location, such as a windowsill, for 4 to 6 weeks. Shake the jar every day for the first week and then only once a week after that to keep the plant material fully submerged. When the oil is fully infused, pour it through a cheesecloth-lined strainer and store it in a cool, dark place for future use. Most infused oils last for about a year.
Your second important ingredient is beeswax, which thickens the salve and makes it easier to apply — beeswax also provides slight anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. Beeswax soothes inflamed skin and helps it retain moisture by creating a protective barrier between the wound and the air. You can find beeswax at most local health food stores or in bulk from nearby beekeepers.
Essential oils, which are highly concentrated plant extracts, are the third and final ingredient in salves. Although you can make salve without adding essential oils, they do provide a multitude of benefits. I like to add a few drops of lavender essential oil to my herbal salve recipe, not only for its pleasing scent, but also for its ability to treat small cuts, scrapes, and insect bites because of its natural antibiotic and antiseptic properites. You can also strengthen your salve’s medicinal benefits with tea tree or rose essential oils, which both have antiseptic and antifungal properties.
Herbs for Natural Skin Remedies
Aloe (Aloe vera) is one of the giants among herbal medicine. It’s said to have healed a badly infected wound Alexander the Great earned during the Siege of Gaza. Today, people commonly keep this easy-to-grow plant potted in their homes for the instant and effective treatment of burns. Aloe only requires a weekly watering. It also treats cuts, eczema, and sunburn.
Arnica (Arnica montana) is an ingredient in more than 100 herbal preparations in Germany, where plant-based medications are regulated by The German Commission E. This daisy-like herb relieves sore muscles and reduces inflammation. Athletes commonly rely on it to reduce the pain, swelling, and bruising that accompanies sprains and strains. To make an Arnica salve, substitute Arnica for Calendula in the Skin Soothing Calendula Salve recipe.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis), or pot marigold, is a familiar sight in many cottage gardens. This antiseptic was used during the Civil War to stop bleeding and heal wounds; recent studies show that Calendula noticeably stimulates physiological regeneration and skin healing. You could try a Calendula salve on skin rashes, minor cuts and burns, bruises, eczema, psoriasis, sunburns, and chapped lips.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is said to have been brought to England from the Middle East by crusaders using it to heal war wounds. For centuries, it was taken internally, but new research indicates that it shouldn’t be ingested because it contains harmful alkaloids. Use it as an herbal salve to stimulate cell growth and repair wounds, burns, sore joints, dry skin, and swelling. Because comfrey closes wounds so quickly, however, wait to apply a comfrey salve until you’re sure there’s no sign of infection and the wound has been thoroughly cleaned.
German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) are recognizable by their delicate white petals and pleasing, apple-like odor. Today, this cosmetic favorite is admired for its softening, deodorizing, and disinfecting effects on the skin.
Plantain (Plantago major) is a wild perennial that can be found all over the world, often along roadsides. Used by the Greek medic Pedanius Dioscorides to cure inflammation and burns, it has stood the test of time. Today, it’s also used to treat insect bites, stings, and sunburns. In fact, a range of biological activities has been found in its extracts, from wound healing to anti-inflammatory action.