Making Salves, Lip Balms & etc.: Close of the Calendula Series

My calendula after-bath salve. The camera refuses to capture the deep butter yellow color

On Saturday, as a part of this long series on Calendula (here, here and here), I posted about infusing oil with herbs.

If you’ve got some herb infused oil, you can make that into a medicinal salve or balm. Salve is nothing but oil thickened by the addition of wax. I prefer beeswax salves, though there are vegan alternatives, like candelilla wax. They are used similarly.

Of course, you don’t have to make salves with infused oils. Plain olive oil and beeswax are a powerful healing combination on their own, great for a no-nonsense lip balm or hand treatment. You can also use essential oils to bring herbal essences into a plain salve. 

Once you know how to make salve, you can not only make skin salves, you can make lip balm and headache balm and stick deodorant and homemade cosmetics. It’s a simple technique, but it opens a lot of possibilities.

My favorite herbal salve is made out of a mix of equal parts Calendula (pot marigold), chickweed (Stellaria media) and plantain (Plantago major) oils. These three work together to make an all purpose salve that is as good for gardener’s hands as it is for diaper rash or skin scrapes or bug bites or dry cuticles or badly chapped lips or mild sunburn or whatever. I always have a jar on hand and I give jars to friends and family.

Yesterday I made a batch of pure Calendula salve, a big jar of after-bath moisturizer. Like body oil, salve works best as a moisturizer if applied to wet skin. Calendula extracts are found in a lot of high end cosmetics because it’s a mild but effective skin herb. It’s anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, soothing, and helps skin regenerate. I love smoothing it from my cat-scratched ankles and my mosquito-bit knees up to my sun-baked face and arms.

How-to after the jump.

The Secret of Salve

The only secret to salve is that it is so darned easy to make.

The only equipment you need is some kind of double boiler situation: a true double boiler, a heat proof bowl balanced over a sauce pan, etc. What I usually do is put a Pyrex liquid measuring cup into a small pan of water. I set the burner on to medium heat and bring the water to a very gentle simmer. Thus the oil heats without overheating or burning.

To the oil I add a little bit of organic beeswax, and continue to heat and stir until the beeswax dissolves. That’s all there is to it, really, but I’ll explain the details.

First, let’s take a moment to talk about beeswax:

Where do you get the beeswax?  You can order it online, just search “organic beeswax”. I wouldn’t buy it in craft or hardware stores unless it’s marked as organic. Beeswax holds on to chemicals, so if the bees were working fields which were sprayed, traces of those chemicals could end up in your balm. Same goes for cannibalizing beeswax candles. I hope to get some nice clean wax from our hive soon, but in the meanwhile I buy my wax from Mountain Rose Herbs. It comes in both pellets and blocks. Pellets are a lot easier to work with.

Good organic beeswax smells heavenly, by the way, and that scent carries into the finished salve.

How much beeswax do you use?  Making salves is all about simple proportions–the ratio of oil to wax. 4 parts oil to 1 part wax yields a firm salve. You’d want this sort of proportion for roll up lip balm tubes or roll up deodorants, cases where firmness is a virtue.

If you don’t necessarily need a firm salve, you have a lot more latitude. 6 parts oil to 1 part wax makes a soft salve, better for scooping up with the fingers.

To tell the truth, even small amounts of wax wax will firm oil up to a sort of loose ointment consistency. For this Calendula bath salve I just made, I didn’t bother to  measure. I just added a heaping teaspoon of wax to my oil. The ratio must have been 10 or 12 to 1. I wanted something very soft.

So does this make sense? For instance, say I want to fill a particular tin with my skin healing salve. I measure the volume of the tin first, by spooning water into it. Say it holds six tablespoons. The easy math on this one would be to warm 5 tablespoons of oil plus 1 tablespoon of wax (5:1). That would work without resorting to teaspoons and fractions, but if I wanted a looser salve, I might short the wax measure.

Keep in mind it’s very easy to repair a too-hard or too-soft salve. Just reheat it and add more wax or more oil as needed. You can get some sense of how a salve is going to harden up by dropping the hot liquid onto a cold plate–just like jam.

Measuring beeswax: Because salve measurements don’t have to be precise, there’s a few ways to measure out wax. Measuring by the spoonful is easiest–spoonful of oil to spoonful of wax. If you have wax in the pellet form, just measure the pellets by the spoonful. If you have a block of wax, shave the wax and press the gratings into a spoon.

Alternatively, you could measure wax by displacement: pour oils into a measuring cup, then drop in pieces of wax until the liquid level meets the desired measure. For example, for a 6:1 ratio, fill a clear measuring cup to 6 oz. and then add wax chunks until the volume rises to 7 oz.  That equals 6 oz. of oil and 1 oz. wax.

Back to the melting:

Okay, so you’re warming your combined oil and beeswax in a double boiler-type situation, as described above. Once the wax has warmed enough in to dissolve and vanish into the oil, take the oil off the heat.When using herb infused oils, you want to treat them gently and heat them as little as possible.

Add essential oils:

If you want to add any scent, or if you’re into the healing properties of essential oils, this is the time to stir them in–right after you take the mix off the heat, but before you pour it.

For lip balms, I’ll add a few drops of peppermint essential oil. Do be careful with peppermint oil, though–too much will make your lips burn. Think something along the lines of 2 drops of of peppermint essential oil per small tin of lip balm. It’s easy to warm it again and add more if you want it stronger. Same goes for scents. Use a light hand. A few drops will do it in most cases.
 
Also, I should add that you can infuse oils with scented herbs, like dried lavender buds or rose geranium leaves or chamomile flowers. They’re not as strong as essential oils, but very nice in salves. And a lot cheaper. 

Here’s a hint regarding essential oils: For inspiration regarding what kind of essential oils might go into different types of salves, check out the product line at Badger Balm.

Pour into jars:

Once you’ve stirred in the essential oils, pour the liquid salve into clean, dry jars or tins. Make sure your containers are dry and clean. Dirt or water could lead to contamination and mold.

Pour it fast, before the mix starts to cool. I find that the lip of a liquid measuring cup gives enough control to fill even those fiddly little plastic lip balm tubes.

Let the containers sit, open, until they are completely cool. Then lid them and label them.

Clean up:

The best way I’ve found to deal with the waxy grease residue (since I stopped using paper towels) is to shake a generous amount of baking soda into the dish and then rub it around. The soda lifts and traps the grease. It works like a charm.

Shelf life:

To be honest, I’m not sure what the expiry date is on these things. I’ve never had a salve go bad, but they do lose potency and scent. Also, a salve or lip balm that’s being used is exposed to a lot more bacteria than one which is unopened. I’d say the unopened ones could last 6 months to a year, but once you open a tin or jar and start sticking your fingers in it, you should use it up in a few months.

 Self promotional note: We cover all this stuff in much more detail in Making It: salves, lip balm, deodorant, etc. –with proper measurements and everything!

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33 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great info. I’ve really appreciated your effort to inform on this topic. I am a scanner when I read. I actually read every word you wrote. I’m just trying to learn about the medicinal plants and how to use them. Your post on the pot marigold was also useful to me. I’m going to plant some on my yard as well in our community garden. I have a relatively large area un landscaped that follows a handicapped ramp leading to a stage in an amphitheater. I’ve always thought it would be nice to line the path with trees and healing plants and herbs. I’ve just not had the knowledge base. Your info is a helpful start for me. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for that tip about the baking soda! That clean up part has always been the hard one, and usually end up using some boiling water to dissolve it down the drain – where it gets to clog by pipes and septic system. Now, an alternative!!

    • I just started my herb garden this year, and I find that it grows really easily from seed! I am very happy with my from-seed plants, and as a matter of fact just picked my first flower from the plant today!

  3. When using a scale or measuring cup, you will be measuring mass or volume, respectively. So, how do you mix it with a scale, what proportions, that is? Does your book give the proportions of both for mass? Everything you have given, measuring in a measuring cup and displacement are volume. Is it possible that a teaspoon of oil and a teaspoon of beeswax have the same mass?

  4. @Knitter Mama: It grows very easily from seed. It self-seeds once established. See the first post in the series.

    @Parsimony: I misspoke. Mistyped. It was late at night, and I was thinking about soap ingredients, which are measured on a scale. I’m going to edit that bit out. Stick to volume. And remember it’s all very loose.

  5. Displacement is the easiest and least messy way of measuring things like wax, at least to me. I measure margarine, Crisco (the few times I use it) by displacement. Before I even took physics my mother taught me this. Of course, a formula was added for the physics…bummer…and I had to buy a slide rule. Grating and pushing wax into a tsp seems so time-consuming. Thanks for the explanation.

  6. I testify that this stuff is the most soothing balm to chapped skin. Like oiling freshly sanded wood, it makes my scabby knees say, “Ahhhh”. Not so good for itchy dogs, though because it smells so good and tastes good enough they want to eat it and then they are back to biting itching and scratching. But for human skin: divine!

  7. I apologize if you’ve already addressed this question in your book or previous posts, but I’m interested in dyeing fabrics using natural dyes. Do you know anything about this? A common challenge is that the color wont stay. But I’ve heard marigold is a great option. Thanks for any tips. xo Sascha

  8. @Sascha: I’m really interested in natural dyes, but haven’t played with them yet. It’s one of the things I wanted to do for Making It, but ran out of time. Recently, on impulse I bought a book: “The Handbook of Natural Dyes” by Sasha Duerr. It’s a pretty book, but I haven’t tried out her recipes yet so don’t know if they’re good. Check it out if you see it around.

    Marigolds do yield a nice dye, I understand, and a friend showed me a tshirt that she dyed with the leaves of an ornamental plum–you know those trees that are almost black? It made a sage green dye. Fascinating stuff!

  9. @meadowlark. A breast milk salve sounds interesting, but I think you’d be best off using breastmilk alone rather than trying to combine it with anything only because making it into a salve would require heating it which would kill off its great properties (like heating honey).

    @Root Simple. Is there a post the serves as a primer on the various oil options? Jojoba oil, avocado oil, cocoa butter, shea butter, olive oil, coconut oil, castor oil … it would be so thrilling if I could tell which to reach -the way I’m starting to be able to with herbs- when I want to make something, depending on what I want it to do. Thank you! Oh, also, is Making It available in Spanish?

  10. I had a question regarding essential oils. I saw cinnamon, clove, and pine needle oils in the store today. Is it possible to use them in balms (or soaps?), perhaps carefully like with peppermint so you don’t add so much as to singe your lips? Or are they only suitable for aromatherapy? I remember you mentioning being aware of any medicinal properties when selecting an oil… Thank you!

    • @Joss. Hello, I just wanted to let you all know that I have had great success with Cinnamon, Clove, and Black pepper essential oils. I combined them with nutmeg EO, and Vanilla absolute and created a wonderful Chai Lip balm. I have had wonderful feedback and use it myself.
      I would say that using these EO’s sparingly is very important as these are incredibly potent.

  11. @Joss: I’m guessing those oils are not essential oils, but fragrance/flavor oils sold for the holidays? True essential oils come in little bitty containers, are sold only in health food stores by the medicines and are pretty pricy.

    I’d not feel comfortable adding any oil other than essential oil to any product I make. Although you *can* buy fragrances and flavors online for your homemade products (at any of the soap/candle type stores)–these are synthetic fragrances and flavors, which are what I’m trying to avoid in the first place.

    What I mean to say, is that they can be used, but I choose not to. As to the oils you spotted, I don’t know what they are, so can’t say.

    Essential oils are very potent. If those oils you’re talking about actually are genuine EO’s, I would not use any of them in lip balm. Clove would numb your lips! Cinnamon would burn. Pine? eww. You also have to consider that you will ingest them, and think about what that means.

    I would use them in soaps. Always you have to be careful with any application to the skin. Individuals may have sensitivities to certain oils. Some oils are much stronger, more reactive than others.

  12. Pingback: How To Make Calendula Salves & Lip Balms Pt 2

  13. wow!
    i’m happy yo have found this blog…
    my partner and i are in the hollers of west virginia.
    i went to grad skool at ucsd and studied vis arts… don’t apply a lot of that in my life as a permaculture homesteader … but then again, i do, as farming is an awful lot like site specific work.

    i have registered my email… hope you can access that info!
    cheers

  14. Hello! I am helping a friend make salves. He is quite experienced, but doesn’t know how to avoid the dip or slump created after the salves cool. His solution has been to pour the salves twice, so that the second pour yields a smooth, even surface. He’s tried cooling the glass jars first, heating them, changing the formula and many other things over the years. We’d love to figure out a way to achieve an even surface with a single pour. Do you have any suggestions? – See more at: http://mountainroseblog.com/diy-herbal-salves/#comment-32685

  15. I recently made a wonderful Infusion with Dried Calendula Petals and I was sure I was reading some directions from this page, but I must of gotten it from some other source. It told me to heat the Olive Oil up to, but not over 175 degrees F, then shut off the heat and add the calendula Petals and cover, let set for 4-3 days and run through cheese cloth into very clean jar and store in a dark cool place. Do you think that the temp. I heated the oils too is okay, and didn’t deminish the quality of the Calendula? Thank you, Joanne

    • That’s an interesting question. I’d have to do some research to find out the answer, because I’m a little unclear about the heat vs. quality question. I need some hard science! It seems that folks basically split into the heat camp and the no-heat camp. I’d use the batch you made and enjoy it, and in the meanwhile do some reading and decide which camp you belong to.

  16. Thank you for the info. It was very helpful. I have a question, has anyone used powdered herbs in a salve or ointment? Is just as effective as essential oils?

    • I’m not sure what you mean by powdered herbs. You can certainly infuse oil with all sorts of dried herbs and take advantage of whatever scent or medicinal qualities the herbs might have. That infused oil then is mixed with beeswax to make salves. If you just put powdered herbs in the salve at the end of the process, the salve or lip balm would be grainy.

  17. Thank you for such a comprehensive and simple explanation for preparing mixtures. It’s great. I’ve already made a salve and find it so easy by your instructions.

  18. Hi
    Where do I find ‘Making it: Salves, lip balms, deodorants’ that you refer to in one of your blogs? Is it a book/ebook?
    Thank you for letting me know.

    • Hmmm. I’m not sure what I meant by that. But Making It is our how-to book — you can see it over on the far right of the screen, under “Our Books.” It covers all sorts of projects, body care products being only a portion of the total. You can look at the table of contents on Amazon and see if it suits your needs.

  19. Pingback: The Whip: A Homemade Moisturizer How-To from Making It | Root Simple

  20. Oh my gosh, thank you SO MUCH for the baking soda tip!! The salve recipe is great, don’t get me wrong, but clean up after I’ve been mixing up my “potions” is a pain in the butt.

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