For many of us, salve making is our introductory experience into crafting our own herbal medicine. It’s our entry into the alchemy of turning living plants into a medicine we can use to heal our bodies. It happened to me – when I infused calendula, plantain, and comfrey into olive oil, and then melted it into beeswax to make my first salve that actually worked, it blew my mind! From that moment on I charged full speed ahead into the herbalism practice that I cherish so much today.
First aid salves are ubiquitous in the herbal world because they are so darn helpful for soothing and healing so many skin conditions – diaper rash, herpes blisters, bruising, teething rashes, scrapes – the list goes on and on. But there are some situations you don’t want to use an herbal salve, where the use of it could actually make things worse! Don’t get turned off to herbal medicine by using it the wrong way and getting terrible results – know how to use what you have responsibly.
The Brilliant World of Bacteria
Most of the reasons to be cautionary with herbal salves has to do with bacteria. Those single –celled geniuses from which all life began, those organisms that we now know constitute more of our bodies then our own human cells, those fast-producing, fast-adapting creatures that brilliantly find there way around obstacles faster than any pharmaceutical company can keep up.
We live in a world dominated by bacteria. They all have a job to do in the big picture of human and planetary health, and we humans couldn’t live here on earth without them. But bacteria can create a problem in the complex ecosystem of our human bodies when they fall out of balance, or when our immune system is weakened, or when a particularly pathogenic variety gets inside.
Our human skin is skillfully designed to keep out those unwanted intruders (and we even have beneficial bacteria on the surface that help stop invaders). But when our flesh is cut open, we lose that layer of primary defense and pathogenic bacteria can make its way in. That’s why it’s important to wash out and disinfect a wound – to clear out the potentially pathogenic bacteria so it doesn’t begin to colonize in the body.
While herbal salves can be made with antibacterial ingredients to help fight these pathogens, an open cut or wound may not be the right time slather it on the skin. If you have an open wound, and coat it with oil and wax, you’ve created an anaerobic (no oxygen) environment – which can allow anaerobic bacteria to proliferate. Paul Bergner, one of my favorite American herbalists, recommends using an herbal wash instead (I like to use lavender essential oil diluted in water, 12 drops to 1 oz). When my daughter had some scabby scrapes on her back that started to bulge with a green tint (ack!) I sprayed on some rose hydrosol spiked with lavender essential oil, and the next morning the offending green bulge was gone. I don’t know if this would have happened if I had reached for the salve instead.
Another good alternative for open wounds: honey! It has been used since ancient Egyptian times for wound healing, and is toted by Stephen Harrod Buhner – perhaps the most famous American herbalists in the fight against bacterial infections – as “the premier wound healer of the planet.”
Another time to be cautious with herbal salves is when you have a deep wound. Deep wounds should heal from the bottom up, and if your herbal salve is made with a skin proliferator like comfrey, you could heal it from the top layer too quickly, and trap in a bacterial infection.
Lastly, avoid the use of salves on any hot, inflamed conditions (sun burns, poison oak), because the salve can trap in heat that needs to be released. If it doesn’t look inflamed and its no longer warm to the touch, the heat has been released and a salve may then be appropriate.
In summary, salves are best used for healing and soothing the skin once the risk of infection has passed, and after any “heat” has dispersed from the affected area. They are great, versatile tool for healing so many common skin aliments when used appropriately. For open wounds still at risk of infection, use a water-based herbal wash or a layer of honey to help protect the skin against infection.
Bergner, Paul. Disk 9, Materia Medica Intensive. Boulder, Colorado: North American Institute of Medical Herbalism.
Buhner, Stephen H. (2012) Herbal Antibiotics, Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria, 2nd Edition. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
Grice EA, Kong HH, Conlan S (2009). “Topographical and Temporal Diversity of the Human Skin Microbiome”. Science. 324 (5931): 1190–1192.