How to make an aromatic salve – The art of formulation

by Jade Shutes

What is a salve?

A salve is the combination of two basic ingredients: an oil and a wax. You can use any one vegetable oil, or combine 2 vegetables oils, or combine a vegetable oil with a nutrient-rich specialty oil (e.g. Rosehip seed oil), combine herbal oils or use one herbal oil. There are so many incredible combinations to create therapeutic salves with! The choice of oil is often based upon it’s purpose.

If you are making a skin care salve, you might choose to use a combination of calendula herbal oil, lavender herbal oil, and jojoba. If you are making a muscular aches and pain salve, you might consider using St. John’s wort herbal oil along with a bit of cottonwood herbal oil (if you can find it or make it yourself). And if you are making a general skin salve, you may consider calendula herbal oil, jojoba oil, and rose hip seed oil. So many possibilities!

For this formulation, we will be making our famous respiratory salve! My goal is to measure and weigh all ingredients for the respiratory salve and clarify dilutions for a salve.

The basic salve recipe consisted of: 1/4 cup sesame oil and 1/4 ounce of beeswax. I based my dilution of essential oils on the 1/4 cup of oil. A 1/4 cup of oil is equal to approx. 50ml. A 2.5% dilution in 50ml’s of oil is: 25 drops. I decided to do a 5% dilution or 50 drops.

INSIGHT: Where did the standard dilution of 2.5% originate from?

Who knows? Perhaps Marguerite Maury? What I do know is that this is how we were trained in England during the late 80’s. The standard holistic dilution for an aromatherapy massage, which was the core of our training, was always 2.5%. For more clinical (meaning acute conditions), we would go up to 5 or even 20%. So there ya go……the origins of 2.5% remain a mystery but clearly was popularized via traditional British holistic aromatherapy education.

In the United States, at some point, the standard dilution became generally 3%.

Respiratory Salve Formulation

I measured and weighed all ingredients as follows:

Equipment you will need:

  • Double boiler (stainless steel)
  • Glass measuring cup
  • Small scale (I really like this one.)
  • Tins or glass jars (Consider these or these or these.)
  • Stainless steel fork or stirring rod.
  • Paper towels

How to make a general salve:

  1. Clean space where you will be making salve.
  2. Clean all utensils, double boiler, and bowls or measuring cups you will be using to make salve.
  3. Fill bottom pot of double boiler with 1/4 of water. Place top pan on. Place double boiler onto medium heat and heat water to just below boiling.
  4. Add in wax and non-heat-sensitive vegetable oils and herbal oils.
  5. Stir ingredients together until well combined.
  6. Once all beeswax (or other wax used) is melted, remove from heat and add in heat-sensitive vegetable oils (e.g. Rosehip seed oil, Borage, Evening primrose, Sunflower – linoleic acid rich, etc.).
  7. If the salve has begun to harden, place on heat until all is melted and remove immediately. Be sure to dry bottom off before pouring!
  8. Add in essential oils. (*Pre-make synergy in little glass measuring cup (5ml) or small bowl.
  9. Using a fork or stirring rod, stir essential oils quickly into salve mixture.
  10. Pour salve into jars or tins. *If, while pouring, the salve begins to harden, again, simply place the pot back onto the hot pot (can turn heat back on if needed).
  11. Place cap on jars or tins.
  12. Allow to salve to harden.
  13. Check salves to make sure you like the texture and that the aroma is of desired strength based upon the goals of the salve.
  14. Create labels for your salves and be sure to include the full list of ingredients. If using tins, you can put ingredients on the bottom and the name of the product on the top.
  15. Once salves are labeled, they are ready to use!

To Clean Pot: Cleaning up after making a salve can be fun! Simply remove any excess salve from the pot using paper towels. Once this is done, simply clean with hot water and dish soap. Easy, quick, and simple!

Weights and Measurements

Back to the recipe I made….. Here is what my salve recipe looked like first:

  • 1/4 cup sesame oil
  • 1/4 ounce beeswax
  • 50 drops essential oil: made up of 22 drops Rosmarinus officinalis ct. cineole (Rosemary), 16 drops Eucalyptus radiata, and 12 drops Mentha x piperita (Peppermint)

I measured and weighed all ingredients. From these weights, I then calculated the percentage for each ingredient, as shown in table.

As you can see, although I thought I was using a 5% dilution based upon the standard drops, it ended up only being 2.59% when it was calculated based upon weight. I also weighed and measured according to Tisserand and Young’s calculations (which are slightly higher than those taught in most aromatherapy schools or books – see above). And even at 62 drops instead of 50, I still only ended up with a 3.18% dilution of essential oils (based upon weight in gm).

This particular salve was formulated for the respiratory system during the cough, cold, and flu season so I want it to be strong. Upon reviewing its strength and thinking of it being used by someone in our family when they are sick, congested, and generally not feeling well sometime this winter, I decided to increase the dilution to make it a bit stronger.  So given its goal of being a respiratory decongestant and expectorant, I felt that the original formulation was simply not strong enough.  For sure, for me, right now, with clear sinuses, it would be perfect, maybe for some too strong, for others too weak. You will need to find the perfect balance for you and your family, or product line.

I corrected my dilution of essential oil and also decided to do a 50/50 sesame oil and sunflower oil combination for the oil part of the formulation.

My final Respiratory Salve Recipe now looks like this:

Amazing right? So the point here is not to drill in the need to weigh all your ingredients, you really don’t need to. While weighing ingredients may be more accurate,  I would have been just as happy and confident in my formulation even if I had simply increased my drops of the three essential oil, even without ever having weighed them.

Enjoy making your own winter recipe salve. Just remember, it may smell a bit strong to you now (if your sinuses are clear) but when you have a cold or flu, the salve will have the strength it needs to provide relief.

When should you use a different dilution?

  • For general skin salves: I would recommend a 2 – 3%. There is no exact dilution because it will depend on which essential oils you are using but in general, this dilution would be good. Play around with it by making a small amount of salve (1/4 cup oil to 1/4 cup of beeswax makes 2 – 1 ounce tins and 1 – 1/2 ounce tin).
  • For respiratory system (congestion or to expand breathing): I would recommend a 3-4% dilution.
  • For pain salves: I would recommend a 3-5% dilution.

The dilution rate you choose will be based upon: the purpose of salve, specific essential oils to be used based upon that purpose/goal, and the constitution of the individual client.

Are there contraindications to salves?
Yes! There are situations when the application of herbal oils and salves is not recommended. Oils and salves help to hold in moisture and heat and are contraindicated in weepy skin conditions, infections, and fresh burns. Avoid the use of oils and salves on poison ivy rashes, weepy eczema, pimples, boils, fresh sunburn, and fungal and bacterial skin infections. Instead, use herbal compresses, soaks, baths or poultices, which are water-based applications. Also note that if oils are used as a sexual lubricant they can degrade and break most condoms.

(Juliet Blankespoor – Chestnut Herbs)

Interested in learning more about the art of formulating botanical body care products?
Begin with our Balms, Butters, and Salves Course.

Ready to move to the next level of formulating? Consider our Botanical Body Care Products course.