So what is the difference between a salve, an ointment, and a balm?
For a long time, I was confused about the difference between salves, ointments, and balms. Some use all three terms interchangeably while others have separate definitions, many of which contradict those from other sources. Generally, ointments, balms, and salves are considered much the same thing – an external healing preparation made primarily of a semi-solid mix of fatty ingredients such as oils and waxes, usually with no water part at all, though they may contain a small amount of herbal tincture.
While unguents like salves, ointments, and balms are made of mostly the same ingredients, the biggest difference between these three preparations is the way that they are made. For example, consider how grapes can make preserves, jam, jelly, wine, etc., all are made with similar ingredients yet the ending product is much different.
Salves are typically made using fresh or dried herbs which are used to infuse into volatile oils (e.g., calendula [as seen in the picture to the right], jojoba, castor oil, etc.). The infused herb oil is mixed with medicinal plant oils and fatty waxes in a specific way in order to not denature the salutary micronutrients and botanical compounds in the preparation. The herb material is later removed using cheesecloth, and what remains is the infused salve oil. The infused oil then can be mixed with premelted waxes or kinds of butter for thickening. Once allowed to set, the preparation can be used for a variety of chronic skin conditions.
When preparing ointments, medicinal essential oils or herbal tinctures are added to a melted oil and wax blend, mixed gently, and allowed to set. The slight difference with ointments is that the botanical material comes from an essential oil, not fresh or dried herbs. Ointments are commonly used for various minor injuries or ailments.
Balms, while the prep is essentially the same an ointment. I don’t mean to suggest that balms are somehow less beneficial than salves and ointments. Many balms, like ours here at The Apothecary Company, contain essential oils. Unlike salves and ointments, balms tend to can contain a larger variety of oils and be made into a plethora of consistencies. This tends to be due to the fact that certain oils are nonvolatile, however, might smell lovely. Some balms are thicker, and are for lips; some are thinner and are made for the whole body.
There is one last type of unguent – a mix of balm and salve. This is what we sell at The Apothecary Company The Balm! which is a daily self-care salve. The oils common to balms are infused as in salves, creating a lush mix of herbal nutrients and diverse selection of healing oils. This type of recipe became popular in Medieval and Renaissance times as a daily necessity to have around the home.
For instance, Glasse, a well-known cook in the 1700s published a recipe for plague water, which when mixed with oils would act as a medicinal salve.
After people realized that micro bacteria was a real threat, herbs with antibacterial agents became increasingly prevalent to mix with oils as salves. Waxes or animal fats were also added to thicken the batch and to preserve the compound.
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