Want to keep track of how we’re doing here? Want to talk shop with fellow fans? Like us on Facebook to get up-to-date info and catch updates, or follow us on Pinterest or Flickr to get pictures and ideas for your own crunchy projects. Want an ethical and honest place to source your soap from? Check out our store on Etsy!
Many accidents and ailments can befall someone on a homestead, and maybe you need something quick and a doctor is unavailable. Or maybe you don’t want to take antibiotics for what ails you. Or perhaps you worry about simple preparedness. Whatever your reasoning, balms and salves can be a lifesaver! Balms and salves are incredibly important for a homesteader to keep around.
But what separates balms, salves, and ointments from each other? And what are they? How should one use them and why would one use them to begin with? This article aims to clear the confusion while being concise and factual.
The What and Why
Balms or salves are for:
- Topical application
- Cuts and scrapes
- Dry skin/hair
They are oil-based and contain no water. They are made with:
- A carrier oil (or blend of oils)
- Beeswax ( sometimes a butter will be substituted)
- Will often contain the addition of essential oils
They are simple, natural, and non-toxic medications that are easy to travel with and can be used for a wide variety of skin issues. Most will be made of a carrier oil or herbal infused oil with essential oils (and you will find some herb suggestions toward the end of this post).
Balms are primarily harder, like the lip balm you probably use when your lips are chapped. Salves, on the other hand, are often thinner, but still fairly hard (think the consistency of softened butter or room-temp coconut oil). Ointments are somewhere between the two in terms of hardness, and are more like tube creams or toothpaste. Ointments are typically used to treat abrasions like cuts or scrapes, while balms are best for dry/chapped skin and salves are used much like lotions.
How Are They Made?
Salves, balms, and ointments are made with a combination of butters/hard oils, soft oils, essential oils, and wax.
Popular waxes for this purpose are:
- soy wax
- carnuba wax
- paraffin wax
Beeswax has many health benefits, including a natural SPF of 15 and emollient properties. Soy wax and carnuba wax are both vegan alternatives, though they each have different properties from beeswax and may be hard to find. Paraffin is the most commonly used and easy to find wax in commercial balms, salves, and ointments but has very little (if any) health benefits and is not used by most if not all DIY-ers and homesteaders.
Commonly used butters and hard oils for this purpose are:
- Cocoa butter
- Shea butter
- Avocado butter
- Coconut Oil
Cocoa butter is used in stretchmark and cellulite remedies because it helps improve the texture of skin and smooths/heals stretched or pocked skin. Shea is used for the same reasons, but also has an SPF range of 3-10 depending on the quality of the butter. Avocado butter is highly moisturizing and has a higher SPF than shea, SPF 4-15! Coconut oil has myriad benefits, which are published all over the internet. Take some of them with a grain of salt though, especially if they seem too good to be true.
Soft oils that are commonly used in balms and salves are:
- Avocado oil
- Sweet Almond oil
- Jojoba oil
- Fractionated Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Sunflower oil
- Hemp Seed oil
Avocado oil is much like avocado butter, with a much lower SPF of around 4-8. Sweet Almond oil is very light and absorbs quickly into skin, without leaving it very greasy. Jojoba oil is actually a liquid wax, but it’s the closest plant oil to our skin’s natural sebum (the oils produced by the human body) and absorbs quickly with virtually no greasy feeling. Fractionated coconut oil has had all the long-chain triglycerides removed but is otherwise identical to regular coconut oil; however, considering the whole point of coconut oil is to preserve these long-chain triglycerides for absorption this renders the oil basically useless for health purposes. Olive oil and sunflower oil are traditional carrier oils that are great for making herbal infused oils, while hemp seed oil is a fantastic oil containing Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids and myriad other health benefits.
Balms are typically made with equal parts beeswax, hard oil/butter, and liquid oil (like a 1:2 ratio wax to oil). Balms need to be oil-based so they don’t come off when wet, impart some benefit to the skin or hair, and seal in moisture to prevent drying of the skin and hair. Since it is thicker, a balm will need to be rubbed in with more force than a softer salve. This makes them really nice for sore muscles. I’m going to provide my personal basic balm recipe, which I use as a base for all my balm needs. You can simplify it more by simply using one butter and one soft oil.
- 100g beeswax
- 50g avocado butter
- 50g shea or cocoa butter
- 90g olive or sweet almond oil
- 10g hemp seed oil
Melt wax, butters, and oils over low heat, stirring to prevent burning. Add any desired essential oil, 15-20 drops per 30g of balm. Stir and pour quickly into a silicon mold or jar/tin, and allow to harden at room temperature.
Salves, however, are a much softer remedy and so have vastly different ratios. Often, they contain no beewax at all, or a very small amount (think more of a 1:4 ratio of wax to oil). Salves should do all the same things balms do, while being softer and more easy to spread. Being a softer consistency will allow them to penetrate the skin more deeply, and makes them great choices for wound healing. I’m going to provide my personal basic salve recipe, which I use as a base for all my balm needs. You can simplify it more by simply using one butter and one soft oil.
- 30g Beeswax
- 150g Avocado Butter
- 50g Hemp Seed Oil
Melt wax, butter, and oil over low heat, stirring to prevent burning. Add any desired essential oil, 15-20 drops per 30g of salve. Stir and pour quickly into a jar or tin, and allow to harden at room temperature. If too thin add small amounts of beewax until the desired consistency.
Ointments are between the hardness of a balm and a salve, and so both recipes can be adapted to be of the consistency of Neosporin or Vaseline. I only have one such product in my kit, and it’s more the consistency of a salve than an ointment.
What Essential Oils and Herbal Infusion Oils Can I Use?
You can use basically any healing oil you have. Some infuse oils with herbs like plantain, comfrey, yarrow, sweet woodruff, valerian, or similar for their various properties. Some use only essential oils like tea tree, peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, cinnamon, etc. Many (myself included) use a combination of both. My personal favorites are as follows:
- All-Purpose Healing Salve: Uses dandelion flower-infused oil, tea tree essential oil, lemon essential oil, oregano essential oil, and a touch of lavender essential oil (which usually gives me headaches, but in this blend is much more tolerable). Apply to cracked skin, dry skin, rough hands, working callouses, lips, etc.
- Foot Salve: uses oregano essential oil with NOW Foods’ Peaceful Sleep blend. Basically the same as the All-Purpose Salve but with different oils, applied at night and used for cracked soles and to help promote sleep.
- Kick It To Your UTI Salve: Uses yarrow-infused oil, oregano essential oil, cinnamon cassia essential oil, and ginger essential oil to fight UTIs. Apply to the bottom of the feet and right over the pelvis every hour to hour and a half for incredible results.
- Sea Buckthorn Healing Salve: Simply avocado butter mixed with sea buckthorn and neem oils. Apply to cuts and scrapes or cracked skin.
- Black Drawing Salve: Meant to draw out impurities and small objects in the skin, I use a recipe passed down the family line for generations. Add activated charcoal, bentonite clay, frankincense essential oil, and tea tree essential oil to the basic salve recipe, and swap out the hemp oil for calendula infused oil. Apply it overnight and bandaid it, then watch the foreign body slowly remove itself from your skin (or at least come out enough to grab with tweezers!).
- Bee Balm: Made with honey, lemon or sage essential oils, beeswax, sea buckthorn oil, and calendula oil this balm works great on facial hair, regular hair, lips, and other chapped skin. Apply and let it be!
Basically, most every oil can be used together in a balm or salve. However, if you’re really concerned about reactions or interactions, you can consult a doctor and do a small patch test. However, the above recipes have never given me issues even with my many skin allergies and health issues.
Why Use These Products?
Balms, salves, and ointments are the easiest way to topically treat ailments of the body that may come up in day-to-day homesteading. While nothing I share here is intended to treat or diagnose any issues you may have, it’s still a quick way to treat yourself while you wait for a doctor. By sharing this information, I hope to help people who may be confused or have questions about these treatments and want answers.
Do YOU use salves and balms? Got questions or tips? Let me know!