herbal preparations: infused oils

one of my favorite things to do with herbs is to make infused oils.  you can make many different kinds with many different purposes—anything from cosmetic oils to cooking oils to healing oils to personal lubricants.*  under the right conditions, herbal oils will store for a long time, which is good considering the cost of most base oils and the time that it takes to infuse the plant materials.  when you infuse herbs in oil, you extract those medicinal plant constituents which are fat soluble as well as the essential/volatile plant oils.  one very important thing to keep in mind about infused herbal oils is that they are not essential oils. essential oils come in very small bottles and they are a highly, highly concentrated plant oil.  it takes tons upon tons of plant material to extract any significant amount of essential oil, and many of them are too strong to be used directly on the skin.  when i say infused oils, i mean using a base or carrier oil to extract goodies out of a relatively small amount of plant material. 

when selecting an oil to use as your base or carrier, there are two main things that you need to consider.  first, you need to decide what kind of oil you want to use.  the easiest way to do this is to think about what you might be using your prepared oil for.  if you have super-dry skin and want something very luxurious, you might want to go with an avocado oil.  if your product is for baby, you might want to go with the super-mild apricot kernel oil.  extra virgin olive oil is always a good standby.  i use it in most of my preparations.  here are some oils to consider:

olive oil: this is an all-around winner.  it makes great massage oils and it works wonderfully in salves.  i find that i don’t like to use olive oil in any of my cosmetic preparations though, because it’s too heavy for my oily skin.

apricot oil: apricot oil is very mild and gentle and it makes a great baby oil.  it is also useful in preparations for prematurely aged or sun-damaged skin.

almond oil: almond oil is a soother and skin softener and thus makes a fantastic massage or body oil.  like olive oil but a little lighter, this one is a general crowd pleaser.

coconut oil: this oil is actually semisolid at room temperature, so you will have to heat it very lightly before use to make it easier to work with.  coconut oil is a soother of inflamed skin, and it also creates a moisture barrier between you and the elements (great for harsh weather or for those of you who spend a great deal of time in the water).

jojoba oil: of all the plant oils, jojoba is closest in makeup to our own skin oil, called sebum.  this makes an excellent facial oil because it’s light, silky, and fast absorbing.  jojoba oil can be pricey, so feel free to add it to a blend.

avocado oil: this oil is thick and luxurious—so much so that it’s probably used best in conjunction with another one of the carrier oils.  if you have very dry skin, try adding some avocado oil to your blends.  this is also a must for those with conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

rosehip seed oil: this is the premier oil for aged or weathered skin.  rosehip seed oil helps rehydrate the skin, and it can work to eliminate the appearance of wrinkles and scars.

there are a million other great oils that you can use, but these are some of the more popular choices.  (check out mountain rose for your oils!)  feel free to mix and match based on your needs—add a little of this and a little of that!

mountain rose oil

so i said that there were two things that you needed to think about.  the first is the type of oil and the second is oil quality.  this is something that we aren’t really taught to think about, but a plant’s first line of defense against things like pesticides is its fat and oil content.  plants (like people) store toxins in their fat cells, so if you buy a run-of-the-mill cooking oil to use, it will probably be full of chemical-y monsanto doom and badness.  if you can afford it, choose oil that is organic, cold-pressed (heat can make oil go rancid faster), and, when applicable, fair-trade (meaning the people who harvested the plants and processed the oils were compensated fairly for the work that they did).

so once you have your oil (or your oil blend), then it’s time to start thinking about what kind of herbal oil you want to make.  there are several things that might factor into this, the first being availability of plant material.  while you can indeed use dried plant material to make an infused oil, the difference in quality between dried and fresh material is astronomical.  use fresh whenever you can.  so, ask yourself, “why am i making this oil?”  if you want a daily-use skin oil, try to find herbs that are gentle and calming to the skin.  if you want to make an oil for wound care, find herbs that are “vulneraries,” meaning that they help heal wounds through cell proliferation.   although the possibilities are limitless, here are some good places to start:

***note—get a plant guide and always make sure that you’ve correctly identified a species before infusing it into an oil and slathering it all over yourself!

plantain: most  folks, even if you don’t realize it, already know this plant.  we called it band-aid plant as kids, chewing it up and sticking it on cuts, bites, and stings.  plantain is a wonderful healer, and it also works on wounds by drawing out toxins, poisons, and debris.  infused oil made with plantain will be a deep, dark green color, and it will have an odd but not unpleasant smell because of the high levels of protein in the plant.  eat a leaf—that’s what it will smell like.  i use plantain oil straight or in my healing salve blends.  you’ll want to use the leaves, preferably before they’ve put out seeds.

broad leaf plantain

calendula: this is another familiar plant.  calendula is a marigold and, as a healing herb, it’s worth its weight in gold.  the plant gets its name from the fact that it blooms once a month, usually on the full moon, so if you have calendula in your area, blossoms are never in short supply.  calendula is antibacterial, an immunostimulant (good for slow-healing wounds!), collagen-stimulating, and a scar preventative.  you’ll want to use the whole flower, so snip it off at the top of the stem.  your finished oil will be golden in color.

calendula

st. john’s wort: most of you have probably heard of taking st. john’s wort internally for depression, but it also makes a delightful oil.  the kind of st. john’s wort that you buy in garden nurseries is a large cultivar, and most of its medicinal properties have been lost, so if you use st. john’s, you’ll want to either wild-harvest it or buy seeds for the medicinal version of the plant.  st. john’s wort acts a mild sunscreen (as opposed to taking it internally which can actually cause photosensitivity), and it makes a great healing oil for burns and any other nerve-related injuries.  (always allow a burn to cool first though, as oil can also hold in heat).  the wild plant has tiny flowers, so you’ll want to use whole the flowering top (about the last 4 inches of plant, leaves stems and all) when it’s in full flower.  although the flowers are yellow, they will turn your oil a beautiful ruby red.

st. john's wort

rosemary: rosemary oil is my favorite thing to use as a conditioning treatment for my hair.  used topically, rosemary stimulates blood flow at the surface of the skin, so it can help with scalp disorders and it will help keep your hair healthy.  rosemary is antiseptic and anti-fungal, so its great for skin disorders.  as long as you don’t amp it up with rosemary essential oil, this oil is also great on lamb 🙂

rosemary

comfrey: comfrey has also been called “knit bone” for its uncanny ability to “knit” skin tissues back together.  there is a lot of misinformation floating around about the safety of comfrey root, but for this preparation,  you’ll want to use the leaves before the plant flowers.  comfrey reduces pain and swelling, and because it contains allantoin, comfrey applied externally can help get rid of bruises and taken internally (the plant, not the oil) helps repair damaged bone, muscle, and cartilage.   comfrey oil is also a favorite with moms and midwives as an ingredient in perineal massage oils.

comfrey

cottonwood bud: ever heard of the biblical balm of gilead?  well, this is it.  although we have a cottonwood here in the south, it’s not the right kind.  you’ll need to order them, and you’ll need to make sure that they’re from the populus balsamifera. cottonwood buds are sticky, resinous, and highly aromatic, and when infused into oil, they lend these same qualities to the finished product.  cottonwood is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and a natural preservative.  unlike the other herbs, cottonwood buds should infuse for at least one year….but it is very worth it!  i usually add just a touch of cottonwood oil to all of my other oil products because of its insanely long shelf-life and non-chemical preservative qualities, but don’t go crazy because the aroma can be overpowering.

cottonwood

as with the oils, you’ll want to consider more than just what type of plant material you’re going to use—you’ll want to consider the quality of that plant material as well.  never gather from road-sides or from places that dog-walkers frequent.  never gather from places that are sprayed regularly with insecticides or pesticides.  ideally, you’ll want to grow some herbs yourself, but when you do wild-craft, just ask yourself, “should i be eating something from this particular environment?”

ok, so now that you have your oil and  your plant material, you’ll want to get infusin’….here’s how:

ingredients

pint mason jar, clean and bone dry (you can use a larger jar if you think you’ll use more oil)

enough wilted herbs to pack the jar full (pick plants as soon as the dew is dry but before the sun is at its height, and always lay them out and let them wilt overnight before making an oil, or your product will mold due to too much water content)

your blend of carrier oils

a chopstick, paper towel, cheesecloth and rubberband

instructions

step 1.  pack your clean, dry jar full of herbs.  it shouldn’t be packed insanely tight, but you do want to stuff it quite full.  if you’re using dried material, only fill the jar halfway.

step 2.  slowly pour your oil into the jar, using the chopstick to direct the oil down to the bottom—stab it around, wait for the oil level to go down, add more oil, stab more with the chopstick, add more oil, repeat, repeat, repeat…. (the plant material should be covered by at least a quarter-inch of oil at the top–plant material cannot come into contact with air or it will mold!)

step 3.  drape a paper towel or clean tea towel over your jar, making sure that it doesn’t touch the oil.  secure in place with a rubberband.  this will allow any moisture to escape. **after one week, replace the paper towel with the mason jar top.

step 4.  label your jar (always!!!) and place it in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.  place it on a small plate to catch any leaks (believe me, you’ll want to do this!)

step 5.  for the first week, visit your jar every day and (with a clean utensil of some sort) press down on the plant material to help bring some of the air bubbles to the top.  don’t stir!

step 6.  after a week, once you’ve replaced the paper towel with the jar lid, let the jar remain closed for an additional 3-5 weeks—no more poking.  you can tell when the oil has done its job by looking at the plant material.  if petals look translucent or leaves look shriveled and spent, then the oil has probably sucked up all that it can from the plants.

step 7.  using cheesecloth and clean hands, strain out all of the plant material, and put your oil into a clean, dry jar.  label the new jar and store it either in a dark pantry (keeps for about a year) or in the fridge (haven’t had one go bad yet, but some oils solidify and have to be brought back to room temp to re-liquefy)

if you’re more of a visual learner, check out this video courtesy of mountain rose herbs and a fantastic guy named john gallagher. (he’s using dried herbs, so you’ll notice the smaller quantity and the lack of the paper towel step).  and sadly, no, i’m not on these guys’ payroll—i just really like their herbs! 🙂

after you have this luxurious oil made up, you can use it straight, or you can add it to salves, balms, creams, and lotions.  whatever you make will take on the medicinal properties of the herbs.  you also may want to consider adding one of the following to your oils, after you strain them, as a preservative:  vitamin e oil, a favorite essential oil, some cottonwood oil.

have fun with this and don’t be afraid to experiment!  please post any questions that you have 🙂

blessings!

*note—never use oil based lubricants with latex condoms!

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2 Comments

  1. November 22, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    […] refer back to my post on herbal infused oils for a look at the different oils available.  one thing that you’ll always want to do with […]

  2. April 6, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    […] no need to reinvent the wheel here, so i’ll direct you to my past posts for information on making an infused oil and turning that infused oil into a salve.  any combination of olive, apricot, jojoba, and coconut […]


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