Some would say there are subtle differences between an ointment, balm and salve - however the only real differences are uses and consistency e.g. ointment - more liquid consistency, salve - more solid consistency, and a balm - creamier... however these are personal decisions.
So, what is an ointment?
Well... it's a herbal remedy - it's also fun to make, which is good for us. It contains three basic ingredients: a good oil, a herbal element and beeswax (can have various forms). You infuse the oil with the herbal element and solidify with beeswax (simply put) - the more wax you add, the more solid the ointment will become and vice versa.
When rubbed onto the skin, the ointment will melt - "icclued" means seal; the ointment forms a protective barrier with the beeswax, which is waterproof, this gives the oil time to be absorbed into the tissues. The icclusion effect encourages deep tissue absorption.
An ointment is vulnary, which means wound healing. It's not to be used on broken or bleeding skin - they're not a quick, astringent fix, they have a more slow-healing response, can be used for dry, irritant conditions.
One of the earliest forms of plaster, were pigs skin or leather coated on one-side with the chosen herbal remedy.
Classic oils to use during a preparation (all moisturising and promote healing) are olive oil, almond oil (almost clear, no odour, very little colour) or coconut oil (for vegans), all liquify readily on contact with the body. The choice of oil comes into play for aesthetics, and resulting patient compliancy (psychological appeal) - e.g. choice and fragrance.
Left bowl = almond oil, right bowl = olive oil. The bottle with the orange label is Seabuckthorn oil.
Before making a herbal remedy, there is really one rule of thumb: what is this for? What am I making it for? What is the reasoning?
Prior to starting making our herbal ointment, we discussed some of the quintessential utensils that will greatly facilitate the Herbologists art of home herbal remedy-making... such as pestle & mortar's, electronic weighing scales, sieces and strainers, mixing bowl selection, measuring jug selection, spoons, knives etc... we also discussed the benefit of a Bain-Marie... effectively a water bath - which we would use later.
There are also some utensils, that aren't essential, but will come in useful, such as... a juicer, a grinder, blender, dehydrator or a percolator, such as the "home-made" variety shown below...
Beeswax can be found in many forms... from fragments of the hive (which contains wax, honey and pieces of the hive - it must be boiled to seperate the three components)...
You can also use the beeswax in small chips or in larger clumps...
The next stage is to choose your herbal element, there can easily be more than one, they, however, must be complimentary and usually no more than 5 herbs are used, or less than one - unless you're developing a "simple". Once you have chosen your herbal element - in class we were using comfrey root, which had to be washed, peeled and either grated or chopped finely.
The chopped up root, which had an extreme mucilage component, was then put into glass jam jars, and covered in the oil of your choice - I chose almond oil, as it was non-fragranced and very pale, which was suitable for asthetics, the jars were then put into a water bath, and left to simmer for 20 minutes or if you choose, it can be left overnight in a very low heat oven (or in a cooling oven).
During this simmering process, the aromatic principles and active components of the herbal element chosen will infuse into the oil.
Once its had around 20 minutes - this time varies dependent on different sections of the plant, there is no real difference between the leaf, root or flower of the plant... however bark may need more time, and delicate flowers may need substansially less. Delicate flowers etc work better with the slower remedy making method, a window sill infusion. The basic process is the same, however instead of using a water bath, the jar of oil is left on the window sill for several weeks in a warm climate (such as a class room) for the components to infuse naturally, the jar has to be shaken gently once a day with this method...
Now and again stir the root in the oil, just to keep the infusion moving...
Sieve the herb out of the oil, compost the herb element and return the clear oil back to the water bath - you can now add the beeswax... 2 tbsp per half jar, 3 tbsp if you want a more solid ointment - personally I used 3 tbsp of beeswax flakes...
Once melted, remove and allow to cool, add 5-6 drops of fragrance - I chose 2 drops of silver birch (a hard, burnt wood smell, that after you'd got over the initial shock of it, it sat as a low dense undertone), 4 drops of lemonbalm and 4 drops of lavender. Once mixed, bottle the ointment and label appropriately - as the ointment sets the smell appears to disappear, then when put on the skin etc the smell returns lightly.
The ointment can then be stored in the fridge and used when needed.