How to make herb-infused oils

Firstly, extracting essential oils from herbs is a difficult process and generally beyond the scope or resources of the domestic god or goddess. Making of essential oils is an industrial process and is best left to the experts who have the resources.

However, making herb infused oils is a much easier process. Once you’ve made your oil it can be used as a lotion to massage into skin to relieve dryness or to ease tired muscles and so forth. It also happens to be the first step towards making a cream, which we will also look at later in this blog.

To make an infused oil you will first need equipment for preparing and storing your oils

You will need the following items:

  • A double boiler or a pot/saucepan for boiling water and a metal bowl to place on top (for hot infusions)
  • Wooden spoon
  • 2 litre glass jar with a sealable lid
  • A muslin cloth or bag for straining your oils
  • Rubber gloves
  • Dark glass bottles for storing your oils
  • Labels for identifying your oils and the date produced

Choosing a base oil for your infusion

You can use any vegetable oil for the base, but choose one that doesn’t have its own strong flavour that will take over your newly infused oil. Some favourites are grapeseed, sunflower, or almond oil. These oils are otherwise known as carrier oils.

There are 3 methods for making your infused oil:

Always use dried herbs for all infusions, ointments and creams, as the moisture has already been removed for you. This will ensure that your herbs don’t go mouldy, especially when using a cold or sun fusion method. Mouldy herbs means you will need to start over, which can be a great loss of time and a deterrent to try again, so it’s best to get it right the first time.

Cold Infusion

For herbs that are high in mucilage such as Comfrey, Marshmallow, or Mullein which would be destroyed by the heat of boiling, or for herbs that are full of essential oils or herbs that give up their constituents readily such a garlic, witch hazel or cascara, a cold infusion is the best method. Pour a litre of oil into a glass jar and add enough herbs to obtain a thick porridge-like consistency to the mixture. You will need leave the mixture for a few weeks being sure to shake it daily to help extract the most from your herbs. After a few weeks, strain out the herbs and oil through a muslin cloth or bag, use the dark glass bottles to store your new oils, label each bottle with the contents and the date that the oil was produced.

Sun Infusion

Sun infusion is the traditional method for producing an infusion for St John’s Wort which is a wound healer and especially useful for burns, including sunburn, bruises, muscle strains and varicose veins. The Sun Infusion method works well for many herbs as long as there is enough sun, but not for those herbs that are high in volatile oils as these oils are fragile and may result in degradation in the sun. For this method simply place the herbs and oil into the 2 litre glass jar and stand in the sun for about 6 weeks until it is ready, shaking or turning it each day to extract the maximum goodness from your herbs.

Once 6 weeks or so have passed, strain the herbs and oil, again in a muslin cloth, bottle and label your oils accordingly.

For an extra strength oil you can add more herbs to the oil and infuse it again for a number of weeks.

Hot Infusion

If you are short on time or sunshine then a hot infusion is the answer. Place your herbs and carrier oil in a double boiler or metal bowl (see equipment details above), whichever apparatus you have available (the oil must not be heated directly or you will end up with fried herbs, and that’s definitely not what you want). Fill the bottom of the double boiler or saucepan with water. Bring the water to the boil, add herbs and oil into the top of your double boiler or metal bowl, then cover and simmer on a low heat for 2 hours, making sure to stir herbs and oil mixture from time to time. Finally, strain through a muslin cloth, pour into dark glass bottles, seal, label the content inside and date accordingly.

For an extra strength infusion. After 2 hours, strain out the herbs from the oil, then add more herbs and repeat the process again prior to straining and bottling.

Understanding the difference between balms, ointments, creams and salves

Here’s a quick rundown into the difference between a Balm, an Ointment, a Cream and a Salve. While all of these applications contain moisturizing ingredients, their technical uses do vary. The explanation below should only be used as a general guide as the balance of ingredients and preparation methods will vary depending on the opinions of experts or where you research your information. 

A Balm (which is also referred to as liniment) is traditionally a medicated topical preparation, which is applied to the skin. The viscosity or thickness of a balm is somewhere between that of a lotion and a cream or ointment. Unlike a lotion, a balm essentially requires friction and must be massaged or rubbed into the skin for proper application (excluding lip balms of course – be gentle here). Most balms or liniments are for relieving pain or stiffness, such as sore muscles or arthritis and are generally formulated with fast-evaporating solvents such as alcohol or a counterirritant (such as heat or an ointment that is used to produce surface irritation of the skin, thereby counteracting underlying pain or discomfort), such as menthol or capsaicin (the active component of chilli peppers).

An Ointment is a semi-solid, generally made up of 80% oils and 20% water for providing a barrier on the skin to prevent loss of moisture. An ointment may or may not be medicated. They are used as emollients (having the quality of softening or soothing the skin) or for the application of active ingredients (such as an infusion of herbs, tinctures, medications) to the skin for therapeutic or protective purposes. An ointment allows for a slower release of the active ingredients due to the lower water content, thereby preventing excessive evaporation.

A Cream is a semi-solid emulsion of oil and water in about equal proportions, which is designed to penetrate the outer layer of skin. A cream is generally applied with the fingers or palms and may be lightly dabbed onto the skin with a cover applied to prevent being wiped off, or rubbed into the skin until no longer visible. A cream is usually easy to apply but may not be appropriate to areas of hairy skin such as the scalp. Here, a lotion would be a more appropriate option due to a lotion being less viscous (less thick). A cream creates a barrier for the skin, helping it to retain moisture and to help soften and smooth the skin.

A Salve is a broad or general term which encompasses ointments, creams, lotions, pastes and balms, which provide healing or soothing to irritated, burned or wounded areas of the skin or body.

Creams and Ointments

For a preparation that will stay on the skin you will need a cream base. What you use as a base will depend on what you want the cream to do. If you want it to act as a barrier for hands exposed to harsh ingredients for example, or to carry the active ingredients without disappearing too quickly, or for a chest rub to help an asthmatic patient to breathe perhaps, then the base must not be soluble in water. The technical term for this type of preparation is an ointment.

On the other hand, if you want a light cream that will be taken up easily, the base must be largely water soluble. In practice, a useful base will be a mixture that is fairly-solid in the jar, but melts quickly into the skin when it is applied. The following is a quick run-through of some of the more popular bases.

Traditional bases such as lard, butter or other animal fats were the mainstay of homemade remedies until recent times, but they do not keep very long and are unacceptable to vegetarians and vegans. Nowadays, there are mineral based alternatives such as Vaseline or other petroleum derived products. They keep well, but often contain preservatives that can irritate sensitive skin. A natural choice is vegetable oil. Some, like sunflower oil or grapeseed oil; are natural carriers, while others bring their own qualities. If you want your cream to be moisturising for example, you could use avocado oil or coconut oil in the base. If you want it to be anti-inflammatory, some evening primrose oil would be useful.

Whatever oils you choose, they must be combined with something more solid so that you end up with a cream or ointment. The usual choices are beeswax (for non-vegans) or cocoa butter, and the more of either you add, the more heavy or long-lasting your preparation will be. The finishing touch is to add a few drops of some essential oil, which will help to preserve the final product, and also add their own medicinal action to it. Lavender oil for example, will enhance the anti-inflammatory action of the cream, while thyme or ti-tree oil will give it extra anti-infective action.

How to make herb-infused creams and ointments

Bear in mind here, there are many methods for making ointments and creams, some more involved than others, and you will find each herbalist, blogger, expert etc has their own opinions which is the correct process. However, don’t allow this to concern you, as you will experiment for yourself and with trial and error you will discover which method works best for you.

 Here’s what you will need for equipment:

  • A double boiler or a pot/saucepan for boiling water and a metal bowl to place on top
  • Wooden spoon
  • A muslin cloth or bag for straining your oils
  • Rubber gloves
  • Measuring jug
  • Glass pots or jars with tops
  • Labels for identifying your oils and the date produced

For a quick ointment

Put 200g of Vaseline in the double boiler or pot/saucepan for boiling water and a metal bowl to place on top, and bring the water underneath to the boil, Add two tablespoons of dried herbs and simmer for about 10 minutes. Strain through the muslin cloth into a jug, and pour into pots or jars before it sets. 

For a basic ointment

  • 50g beeswax
  • 450mls olive oil
  • 350g dried herbs

Melt the beeswax and olive oil in the double boiler. Add the dried herbs, and infuse it gently for 2-3 hours. Strain through a muslin cloth and pour into pots before it sets.

If you like, you can add a few drops of essential oil after straining for a nice fragrance or to add additional properties to your ointment. For example, Calendula ointment would be enhanced by oil of Thymus (Thyme) or Melaleuca (Ti-tree) and Symphytum (Comfrey) would go well with Lavandula (Lavender). This ointment is good for sensitive skin.

For a Cream

  • 100g beeswax
  • 200g cocoa butter
  • 300mls infused oil (made by you earlier)
  • 270mls glycerol/glycerin (vegetable based recommended) – *see below for supplier
  • 330mls water
  • 120g dried herbs

Melt the beeswax, cocoa butter and infused oil base in the double boiler, then add the other ingredients. Heat them together for 2-3 hours. Make sure that all the water has evapourated, or the cream will not keep so well. Strain through a muslin cloth and pour into pots. Again, you can add some essential oil before the cream has set. By varying the proportions of the base ingredients, and by using more or less glycerol, you can change the consistency of the final product.

*At the time of writing this blog post we found that the Australian based Tanah Essential Oil Company stock liquid glycerin through eBay in varying sizes at very reasonable prices.