One of my first signs of winter, even before I see frost on the grass or need my down coat, is the beginning of dry, tender skin. Lower humidity, colder temperatures, and Chicago’s winds quickly leave me looking for ways to soothe and protect my hands. This homemade salve not only smooths rough spots and seals in moisture, it can also tends to cracked and chapped areas thanks to an infusion of healing herbs. Semisolid at room temperature, it melts luxuriously on contact with skin, and my favorite essential oils make it smell amazing. I can’t get enough of it.
As wonderful as it is as a hand salve, especially on cuticles, you can really use it anywhere your skin needs a little extra love.
If you’d like to make this project super simple, you can opt to entirely skip the first two steps—which is to infuse the olive oil with herbs and flowers—and use plain olive oil instead. Your salve won’t have the healing benefits of the herbs if you omit them, but it will still be a wonderful moisturizer and skin protectant.
Choose the herbs you use based on the properties you’d like your finished salve to have: Some options include calendula, yarrow, chickweed, arnica, plantain leaf, comfrey, and St. John’s wort. These plants have antibacterial, soothing, and/or immunostimulant (that is, disease-resistant) properties that, combined with the moisturizing and protective elements of the salve, can help dry winter skin to heal.
Be sure that any herbs (and essential oils) you choose are safe for topical use, especially if you plan to use the salve on sensitive chapped skin. Mountain Rose Herbs is a good online resource for checking on healing properties as well as precautions.
Place the herbs in a glass bowl (or the top part of a double boiler) and cover with olive oil. The ratio is up to you—more herbs will result in a more potent oil—but be sure to use enough oil that the herbs have room to expand as they rehydrate and still remain fully covered. I’ve found that 1/2 to 2/3 cup of herbs for each cup of oil works well.
For this salve recipe, start with at least two cups of oil here so that you’ll still have the necessary 1 1/2 cups after some is absorbed by the herbs and discarded.
Bring a small amount of water to a simmer in a saucepan (or the bottom of the double boiler) and place the bowl of herbs and oil on top. Make sure that only steam, not water, will touch the bowl; this method requires a very gentle heat. Cover the bowl if possible, turn the heat to low, and let the simmering water slowly heat the oil and herbs together for 2 to 3 hours.
If you’re not in a rush, you could instead choose to infuse the oil using the solar method: Seal the herbs and oil together in a clean, dry jar and leave it to steep in a sunny location for three to four weeks. If you’re using this method, be sure that the herbs you use are completely dried before beginning, to eliminate the risk of mold.
Regardless of which method you’ve used, when the infusion is complete, strain the oil through a mesh sieve into a clean jar and clean the glass bowl. (If you notice there are still a lot of tiny particles, you may want to do an additional strain through a finer sieve or a piece of cheesecloth.) If you have leftover oil after making your salve, add a few drops of vitamin E oil to help prevent rancidity and store it in a cool, dark place to use later.
Before you start this step, pop a metal spoon in the freezer—it will come in handy in a moment! Set up your saucepan (or double boiler) with simmering water again, placing the clean glass bowl on top. Once again, keep the heat gentle; you will be warming the oil, but not so much that it bubbles.
Add 1 1/2 cups of herb-infused oil, or plain olive oil if you prefer, to the bowl (the 2 cups you infused with oil should have shrunken to about this much). Weigh 2 ounces of beeswax and add to the bowl. On low heat, warm the mixture until the beeswax is melted, stirring occasionally.
At this point, take the spoon from the freezer and dip it into the liquid. Some salve will solidify on the spoon and give you a preview of the texture—if you’d prefer a creamier final product, add a bit more oil to the bowl; if you want the salve to be harder, add a bit more wax.
When you are happy with your ratio of wax to oil and the wax is fully melted, turn off the heat. Thoroughly stir in 20 to 30 drops of whatever essential oils you like—you’re using them primarily for fragrance, so choose a blend that makes you feel good! I like mixing lavender and tea tree oils for a soothing, slightly medicinal scent. Stir in approximately a teaspoon of vitamin E oil at this point, as well. This antioxidant will extend the shelf life of your salve.
While it is still liquid, carefully pour the salve into jars or tins. Let it solidify overnight, or put the jars in the fridge if you want to speed up the process. Cleanup is easiest if you get to it before the beeswax cools and solidifies. Wipe out oily dishes with a paper towel and then wash normally.
It’s important to know that unlike lotions or creams that impart moisture to the skin (also known as humectants), this salve works as an emollient, meaning it smooths skin and protects it from moisture loss. If your skin tends to be dry, you’ll get the best benefits by using salve to seal in moisture when your skin is slightly damp (like after washing your hands) rather than using it as a replacement for your usual lotion.
It’s always a good idea to test a small area of skin before using a lot of salve (or any new product), in case you have any allergies or sensitivities you didn’t know about. Avoid using salve on abrasions or open wounds unless you are certain that all the herbs you chose are safe for this purpose.
Keep your salve somewhere room temperature or cooler, as repeated melting and re-solidifying could damage the texture. Stored properly, it should keep for 1 to 3 years—if you can make it last that long!
What other DIY's are you concocting for holiday gifts? Let us know in the comments!
This post originally ran in December 2015, and we're bringing it back because winter.