The DIY Gift That Dry Winter Hands Will Thank You for

February 16, 2018

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.

Give the gift of soothed winter skin. Photo by James Ransom

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.

What you'll need to make enough salve to fill four 4-ounce jars:

  • Dried herbs of your choice (see below for tips on choosing herbs), optional
  • Glass bowl and saucepan (or double boiler), ideally with a lid
  • 2 cups olive oil
  • Mesh strainer
  • Large jar or bottle to hold infused oil
  • 2 ounces (by weight) yellow beeswax—either in chips, flakes, or pastilles
  • Kitchen scale
  • Stirring spoon
  • 20 to 30 drops essential oil blend of your choice
  • 1 teaspoon vitamin E oil
  • Small glass jars or metal tins with lids
The makings of a healing hand salve. Photo by James Ransom

1. Choose your flowers and herbs, if infusing.

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.

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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.

Calendula, comfrey leaf, plantain leaf, lavender, and St. John's wort. Photo by James Ransom

2. Infuse oil with herbs.

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.

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Top Comment:
“I just finished making this lovely salve using lavender flowers (solar infusion method) plus a splash of Grapeseed oil and some Argan oil serum added to the strained olive oil. My essential oils were 2/3 lavender to 1/3 bergamot. The directions were flawless, and cleanup was a breeze thanks to Will's tip. I'm keeping a tin for me, but expect to have to make some more for friends/family. Thanks for sharing! ”
— Kell's B.

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.

Healing herbs and flowers soon to be infused in olive oil. Photo by James Ransom

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.

3. Melt in the beeswax.

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.

Left: melting beeswax. Right: testing consistency on a frozen spoon. Photo by James Ransom

4. Add fragrance, if using, and jar.

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.

Goodbye dry, post-dishwashing skin! Photo by James Ransom

Using your salve.

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.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Swift
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Caitlin Pike

Written by: Caitlin Pike

Maker of comforting things. Lover of Chicago, cats, yoga, and weird bitter liqueurs.


Swift February 21, 2018
Please don’t make this recipe. It’s dangerous to infuse oils at home, and this can lead to all kinds of contamination in your product. Never use volume measurements for bath & body products, don’t measure essential oils by drops, and never use tons of Vitamin E, as you have done here, as it can speed up oxidation. I write a blog, ebooks, and magazine column and instruct in various places, including the conferences for the US and Canadian Guilds. Please, this is not a safe formula to share, and your comments are making it less safe.. It has a shelf life of maybe six months, not one to three years. Please take this down.
LZ December 21, 2016
I made this with 1/2 cup of calendula flowers and 1/2 cup of chelidonii flowers. To offset the earthy smell, I added 30 drops of lavender essential oil. While I suspect at least twice that amount is neccessary for the lavender to be distinguishable, I am thrilled and delighted by the results, the ease of making, and the minuscule cost. I also add a another oz or so of beeswax. This salve protects my usually very dry hands and only a tiny amount of required per application. I highly recommend!
Paige S. November 30, 2016
If you have super sensitive skin it's great as a facial moisturizer, apply after cleansing to damp skin. I've used this recipe, playing around with different herbs for a few years, keeps me blotch free.
MaryFrances21 November 29, 2016
I have used a 1 quart slow cooker to infuse herbs in oil.
Leslie M. July 6, 2016
Would it be okay add some honey to the mix or would it mess up the texture? Honey does have humectant properties.
Jessie April 24, 2016
Using a brand new hose, think trouser sock, to strain the oil from the herbs will give you the best results. Clean and clear oil every time! And the hose can be washed Rio be used repeatedly with some dishwashing liquid after you throw away the waste. It's what I use after making my salve. I also use soy flakes instead of beeswax just for budgetary considerations. Read: they were on sale and I was broke! =)
Rebecca K. January 24, 2016
These sound great, I plan to try! I feel that crafters should note, however, that bergamot oil causes photosensitivity - probably not a real issue in the winter, but applying before sun exposure could cause a painful burn.
Victoria G. January 23, 2016
I work with aromatherapy and am always looking for new recipes. I was wondering about substituting cocount oil for the olive oil?
Caitlin P. January 23, 2016
That should work! The only limitation would be that you'd have to use the heat method to infuse it rather than the solar method since it's not liquid at room temp.
tami January 19, 2016
this sounds amazing, however, what if one is allergic to beeswax? is there a substitute that can be used?
Caitlin P. January 19, 2016
You could try carnauba wax or candelilla wax. Make sure to read up on their properties first, though, as they'll have different ideal ratios and melting points from beeswax.
tami January 19, 2016
ok, thank u very much...
Helen H. January 18, 2016
I found that olive oil bottle and spout on the Terrain website. I just sent for it but I think it's the same one pictured.
Kell's B. January 10, 2016
I just finished making this lovely salve using lavender flowers (solar infusion method) plus a splash of Grapeseed oil and some Argan oil serum added to the strained olive oil. My essential oils were 2/3 lavender to 1/3 bergamot. The directions were flawless, and cleanup was a breeze thanks to Will's tip. I'm keeping a tin for me, but expect to have to make some more for friends/family. Thanks for sharing!
Caitlin P. January 11, 2016
That sounds absolutely lovely!
Emily B. January 3, 2016
I made this salve for holiday gifts using chamomile, lavender and eucalyptus and it was divine! I'm already preparing to make a second batch because I didn't save enough for myself. Question - where can I get that olive oil cruet?? I keep seeing it in photos but can't find a source!
Sara March 14, 2017
What were the proportions you used for the chamomile, lavender and eucalyptus?
shanac December 27, 2015
Where did you get the olive oil spout, its gorgeous!
Helen H. January 21, 2016
I found it on, the bottle and spout, it is gorgeous!
Will December 25, 2015
I followed the directions but added bergamot to the team tree oil and lavender at the end. Clean up to help! If wax solidifies on your utensils or bowls, throw them in the freezer for an hour. The wax will pop right off.
Caitlin P. December 26, 2015
Thanks for this tip! Bergamot sounds like a wonderful addition, too.
Nadia B. December 22, 2015
I made this using fresh herbs from our garden (yarrow, Rosemary, lavender, broad leaf plantain and creeping Charlie) which gave it a bright green color which I expected given the chlorophyll. Probably more of a vegetal smell as well which is somewhat offset by the essential lavender and tea tree oils added later. I wonder if you've experimented with different oil bases other than olive oil (grape seed, almond)?
Caitlin P. December 26, 2015
That sounds lovely! I haven't personally experimented with oils other than olive, but from my reading, I think both grapeseed and sweet almond oils would make beautiful bases, either alone or combined with olive oil.
Jennifer December 18, 2015
Does infusing the oil make it smell like that herb? IE/ Lavender olive oil?
Caitlin P. December 18, 2015
In my experience it does pick up a bit of scent, but it also still smells like olive oil. It won't give you a distinctly scented final product the way adding essential oils will.
Jennifer December 18, 2015
MarZig December 18, 2015
thanks for sharing I have always want to try something like this but didn't know what or how.....
Julie G. January 18, 2016
For a neophyte, where do I get the dried herbs ☺️
Caitlin P. January 18, 2016
I used :)