Having a shelf stable salve poses many benefits. Not only does it enable you to use the healing properties of the herbs outside of their season, but it allows you to make salves in batches, saving time and resources. Knowing how to extend the life of your salve can enable you to experiement with different recipies without the fear of the oils going rancid before you’re able to use them.
Extend the shelf life of your salve by adding 1%-5% vitamin E oil. The antioxidants will prevent the fat from oxidizing or going rancid in your salve. Additionally, keeping it stored in a cool dark location within a sterilized dark jar will further prevent damage from bacteria growth and ultraviolet rays, keeping the salve preserved for up to 2 years.
In addition to Vitamin E OIl and storage, there are several other ingredients to add that can help to slow the growth of bacteria and help your salve to last longer. As an antioxidant, vitamin E prevents oxidation (the chain reaction of cellular degeneration); however, antioxidants don’t stop bacteria from growing. Bacteria cannot grow in oil itself; however, through its usage, bacteria has plenty of opportunities to contaminate the salve. To help combat bacteria growth consider adding beeswax, tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract, rosemary oil extract, or other essential oils with antibacterial properties to help reduce the chances of growing mold.
Ingredient Options to Prolong a Salve’s Shelf-life
As a staple ingredient in many salves, Beeswax has many benefits other than its anti-inflammatory and skin healing properties including its antibacterial properties. Beeswax has been documented to be one of the earliest known preservatives, dating back to the ancient Egyptians.
Use at a ratio of 1 part beeswax to 4 parts to oils depending on the desired thickness. Keep in mind other carrier oils used (if they are solid or liquid at room temperature) along with final use (if salve is used for wound healing or dry skin) and adjust accordingly.
Vitamin E Oil
Not only is Vitamin E oil excellent at keeping the skin moisturized and reducing the appearance of scars, but it also extends the shelf life of your salve by helping to preserve the oil. Vitamin E oil is not technically a preservative, rather an antioxidant. Antioxidants help reduce the breakdown of oils by preventing the oxidation of free radicals. The damage of the deteriorating free radicals is what causes the oil to go rancid. Vitamin E contains tocopherols, a group of compounds that help maintain the freshness as they stop the chain reaction of cellular degeneration.
The ratio for Vitamin E oil in a salve at 1% or higher, 1% is about 1/2 teaspoon for every cup of infused oil. Many herbalists say 4% is the perfect percentage to add in order to extend the shelf life but I found 2% to be enough to keep oxidation down and give the oil the added moisturizing benefits.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree is nice to include in salves due to its natural effects in decreasing inflammation along with its antifungal and antibacterial abilities. It is said to have to be at a concentration of 5% or higher to be utilized as a preservative; however, even as low as .5% can help to keep the skin remain healthy and can play a role in inhibiting the growth of bacteria.
.5% Tea tree oil equals about 1/4 teaspoon per cup of infused oil plus the 1 ounce beeswax from the recipe below. 5% Teatree is about 2 and 3/4 teaspoons. Keep in mind Tea Tree Oil can be a skin irritant.
Tea tree will be a defense against deterioration and infestation within the products. However, for tea tree oil to be effective as a preservative, the concentration needs to be 5% or more.Olsen, Cynthia. “Tea Tree Oil: A Natural Ingredient for the Body Care and Cosmetics Industries.” By Region Community Directory, byregion.byregion.net/articles-healers/Tea_Tree_Oil.html.
Grapefruit Seed Extract
Grapefruit Seed Extract is another potent antioxidant, antifungal and antimicrobial that is used to stop bacteria and fungus from growing. Like Vitamin E Oil, grapefruit seed extract also contains tocopherols which are protective compounds and a strong defense in fighting oxidation.
Ensure the grapefruit seed extract is extracted in oil rather than water or glycerin. This will allow it to be mixed in the salve.
Add to the salve at the ratio of 0.5-5%.
Rosemary Oil Extract
Rosemary is a natural stabilizer. It helps to preserve the finished product through its phenolic compounds. Rosemary prevents oxidation and microbial contamination.
In general preservation, keep the rosemary oil between .15-5% (1) Ensure product used in rosemary oil extract opposed to rosemary essential oil.
Tips for Preserving Salves
- Wash your hands and sterilize the jars. While this seems like a little basic, this simple act will dramatically keep bacteria at a minimum and reduce the contaminants in your salve that could lead the product to have a shorter life span
- Ensure all utensils and herbal media used in preparing the salve are completely dry. The introduction of water to oil can encourage bacteria growth and cause the herbal salve to rot.
- Use dried herbs instead of fresh herbs when making the infused herbal oil. this further ensures all water is gone and will be one extra step in ensuring mold doesn’t grow.
- Use a dark jar. The less sunlight and air that has contact with the salve, the longer the oils will last. Amber glasses offer the best protection against UV light, however, cobalt jars also provide better protection than clear. Clear jars may protect from UVB light but still allows UVA light to enter through. If no dark jar is available, cover the jar with some paper.
- Use clean fingers or utensils. Reduce bacteria within the salve by utilizing a spoon or knife when getting the salve out of the container.
- Mark the date created. Be sure to write down on the salve or in your recipe notebook the date made. This simple step is often overlooked but always appreciated. This date gives a guide of how long the oil may be used. Time flies when you’re having fun and often three years can fly by with the salve in the back of the cabinet before you find it again.
- Make sure the salve is completely cool before covering it with a lid. If you add the lid too early, condensation will form and can potentially ruin your salve by causing it to mold.
How To Tell if a Salve Went Rancid
Oils going rancid is another way of saying the oils went bad. They still may have a few medicinal properties from the herbal infusion however the medicinal properties in the oil itself will be lost as the oil goes rancid.
Get familiar with the fresh oil used so you can better judge when the oil has gone rancid. Smell it, observe it’s color and it’s texture.
You can tell an oil went rancid by an offputting smell, texture, and color. Sometimes the herbs used can cause the herbal infused oil to separate or look a little cloudy. This is not always an indication that the oil has gone bad. Instead, look for telltale signs of mold or better yet: a rancid smell. Clear signs of rancid smells include metallic, bitter, or soapy aromas. Additionally, oils become more sticky as they age.
Healing Salve Recipe: Calendula, Chamomile Lavender, Tea Tree + St. Johns Wart
While this salve takes a few weeks to make, it isn’t actual working time. All in all, broken down, in total the entire salve takes about one hour to make. I love this recipe because not only is it super simple and can be made from plants from the yard, but it can be used for a variety of ailments. I use it most often as a diaper cream or for minor wound healing, but I never pass on the opportunity to help heal my dry skin come wintertime.
- Gather ingredients and tools:
- 2 Cups Olive Oil (or enough oil to cover dried herbal material)
- 1 Cup Dried Herb
- 1 Ounce beeswax
- 1 Teaspoon Vitamin E Oil
- 1/2 Teaspoon Essential Oils (this recipe uses 8 drops per ounce, or 64 drops. 1/4 teaspoon lavender and 1/4 teaspoon tea tree)
- Optional: 1/2 Teaspoon Saint Johns Wart Extract
- Optional Cocoa Butter
- 1 Mason jar with lid to infuse oil (more if using multiple oils, this recipe uses 2)
- Cheesecloth or fine mesh sieve
- Amber or cobalt jars for final salve product
- Jar or cup for melting wax + mixing
- Utensil to stir and melt wax
- Funnel (if using smaller tins and a melting cup with no spout)
- Slow cooker or double boiler
- scale and measuring cups
- Sterilize jars and utensils. Let dry completely.
- Make an herbal infused oil. You can customize it to your needs by adding 2 cups extra virgin oil to 1 cup dried herb of your choice. (You really just need enough oil to cover the dried herb but keep in mind you will lose some oil to the herbs once absorbed. You need 1 cup of the final infused oil for the recipe.) Bruise the herb or grind it before adding it to the jar to get the most constituents from the herb. There are several ways to make a herbal infused oil. Depending on the herb, some do better with the addition of heat while others are fine without. I like to mix the best of both worlds. This allows the resins from the plants to infuse the oil and reduces the infusion time. Simply add the ingredients and oils to a jar and cover with a lid. Add water to a slow cooker and place the jars in the slow cooker on low or warm overnight. (Depending on how warm your cooker gets. You want it to feel like warm bath water but not boiling). You can use the oil the next day or let it sit for an additional week or two until you are ready to make the salve.
For this recipe, I wanted to utilize the medicinal properties of both calendula and chamomile so I made two herbal infused oils. This allowed me to make the salve ratio of half and half but also kept the leftover oil separate to use for additional projects.
- Strain. Once the oil is infused, strain the oil using a cheesecloth or a fine-mesh strainer. Label the oils with the medicinal name and the date created.
- Melt the wax. Using a double boiler, slow cooker water math, other means of keeping heat indirect, melt the wax. Keep the temperature high enough to melt wax 144-147 degrees F, but low enough to ensure its antibacterial qualities aren’t lost to the heat.
- Add Oils. Some of the beeswax may harden back up but just be sure to stir again until everything is at a consistent temperature.
- Add in additional ingredients. Once taken off from the heat, now is the time to add the optional essential oils and extract. You want the salve to cool a little while still being able to be poured.
- Test. You can test the thickness of the salve by grabbing a spoon, scooping up a bit of salve, and putting it in the freezer for a few minutes. If the desired thickness is not immediately reached, add more oil (if needed to be softer) or beeswax (to harden), depending on the preferred final outcome.
- Pour and Cool. If tested and approved, pour the salve into tins or jars and let cool completely. Once cooled, use freely and store as directed above.
NOTE: Please keep in mind some people may have reactions to certain essential oils. Never use on a baby without testing a little area of skin and monitoring the results. Herbs and extracts are known allergins.
Use this recipe as a guideline. Salves are completely personal and flexible. Use what you have on hand and experiment until you find the perfect fit.