Be WellGo Green

Making Herbal Oils, Creams & Salves – Summer Skin Care

by Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

Skin can have its issues at any time of year (think: dry, itchy skin in winter), but summer really takes its toll with bug bites, sun exposure, poison ivy, foot fungus, etc. Of course the Co-op sells a wide range of great remedies in the Health & Beauty Department, but you may be surprised at how simple it is to make your own.


Starting Out: Herb-Infused Oils

For most herbs, oil is not the best solvent (alcohol and water tend to be better). However, we prefer to infuse herbs in oil for most topical recipes. It has the added benefit (in most situations) of holding in moisture and keeping skin soft with soothing and moisturizing an area. Infused oils can be used “as is” for many health concerns—warmed mullein flower oil dropped in the ear for earaches, St. John’s wort oil applied along nerve pain or for bedsores, calendula oil on sore mama nipples, eczema, and rashes. Or, you can use your herbal oil as a base for other products—salves, lip balms, massage oils, creams, etc.

Note: Herbal oils are NOT the same as essential oils (EOs). An EO is made through distillation in a process that is not available to most home herbalists unless you have some fancy equipment. EOs are highly concentrated due to their processing, so their medicinal value is often increased or changed compared to home herbalist preparations of the same plant. They’re also more apt to pose health risks—EOs are often extremely toxic when taken internally, particularly in doses more than a drop or two. Even topically, most EOs need to be diluted to about 2%. Herbal oils are much gentler, bring out different constituents, and have a much more mild fragrance. You can certainly dilute an EO in an herbal oil to combine their healing effects.

There are MANY methods for making an herbal oil. Some of it is personal preference. Also, some herbs extract better through different methods. Use whatever resonates and works best for you.

Alcohol-Intermediary Oil: With Alcohol & a Blender (24 hours)
This is an unusual but effective method to make great herbal oils in a short span of time.
Pros: Fast, highly effective extraction, especially for more alcohol-soluble constituents. Longest shelf life (the dry herb and alcohol really help prevent microbes from growing in the oil). Vivid color, especially for green herbs.
Cons: You can only do it with dried herb, and some people may not want to use alcohol and a blender (which requires electricity and is noisy). Better for leaves and flowers than roots and tough parts of plants.

  • 1 oz of dried herb
  • 1/2 oz whole grain alcohol (vodka can be substituted)
  • 7 oz olive or other carrier oil
  1. If your herb isn’t already ground, place it in a blender with the lid on and pulse  until coarsely ground. In a Pyrex container, mix dried herb with alcohol. It will be a similar consistency as damp sand. Let sit, covered, for 2-24 hours.
  2. Place the mix into a blender, add oil, and slowly blend the mixture. Increase the speed. Let blend until the blender gets warm, about 5 minutes.
  3. Strain through cheesecloth or clean muslin, squeezing out as much oil as you can (and again through a coffee filter, if desired) to desired clarity.
  4. Store in glass in a cool, dark place. Should keep for 6-12 months.

Note: I often like to combine this method with Simple Method #2, especially for calendula. After I blend it in the blender, I put it all in a mason jar and let it sit in the car for a few days, then strain it out.

Simple Method #1: Maceration In a Mason Jar (2 weeks)
This is the classic way to make herbal oils. It’s very simple, and many people take great joy watching the oils infuse on the windowsill or a shelf.
Pros: Simple. This works well for fresh or dry herb and so it is preferred for herbs like St. John’s wort, cleavers, and chickweed which are really best fresh.
Cons: Most apt to go bad (especially if using fresh herb), time-consuming, and not always a great extraction.

  • 4 oz dry herb or 6 oz of fresh wilted herb
  • 8 oz of olive or other carrier oil (or enough to completely cover the herbs)
  • Loosely pack your herb in a mason jar. If you’re using a particularly juicy fresh herb, you may want to let it wilt to about half its weight before putting in the jar. This helps prevent microbial growth.
  • Cover with oil to the very top. If using dry herb, cover with a lid. If using fresh herb, fasten cheesecloth to the top with a rubber band instead; this will help let moisture escape and reduce microbial growth.
  • Leave in a warm spot for 2 weeks. Shake or stir daily (important!) to keep things from hanging out on top and getting funky.
  • Strain through cheesecloth or clean muslin, squeezing out as much oil as you can (and again through a coffee filter, if desired) to desired clarity. (Watch for mold if using fresh herbs.)
  • Store in glass in a cool, dark place. Should keep for 6-12 months.


Simple Method #2: Low-Heat Extraction (Few Hours to 1-3 days)
The ideal temp for extracting herbs in oil is approximately 90-100 degrees, which is difficult to get with standard kitchen equipment. You can make do with a low-temp crockpot (ie: appetizer) or double boiler, shutting it off periodically so it doesn’t get too hot. Other methods include keeping a jar in a warm, sunny car, in a yogurt maker, or in a dehydrator.
Pros: Relatively fast, traditional way to extract herbs in oil. Ideal for resinous herbs that are more oil/heat soluble, such as calendula. Less apt to get moldy compared to the Simple Method #1.
Cons: Too hot for “best fresh” herbs, and if you’re not careful, you can fry your herbs and oxidize your oil

  • 4 oz dry herb or 6 oz of fresh wilted herb
  • 8 oz olive oil or other carrier oil or enough to cover
  1. Place ingredients in crock-pot or in pan on stove top. Bring to 90-100 degrees (this can be difficult to maintain with most kitchen equipment) or as low as possible.
  2. Let warm gently for 2-6 hours or overnight, stirring occasionally. You may opt to turn the heat on and off periodically if your temps are higher than 100 degrees. Use caution not to cook the herbs or smoke the oil. (A warm, sunny car can range from 100-200 degrees depending on the outdoor temps, sun exposure and where you place the oil (windshield, floor, shady spot).)
  3. Strain through cheesecloth or clean muslin, squeezing out as much oil as you can (and again through a coffee filter, if desired) to desired clarity.
  4. Store in glass in a cool, dark place. Should keep for 6-12 months.

Infused Oil Caution: Avoid Microbial Growth & Rancidity
Many microbes thrive in the anaerobic environment that oils provide. Without harsh or synthetic preservatives, infused oils and products made from them can potentially harbor bacteria, mold, etc. Of particular concern is the botulism toxin, which can exist on almost any plant matter (roots, flowers, leaves). This is more of a concern for oils that are consumed (basil or garlic oil, for example) than ones put on the skin, and it is not all that likely to occur. However, it can happen. Also, infused oils made with fresh plant material are at a particularly higher risk of growing nasty critters. You may want to stick to infusing oils with dried herbs; however, some herbs are only useful when fresh (St. John’s wort, chickweed, plantain, cleavers). Reduce the risk: Don’t let your herb sit around for more than two weeks before straining. And, wilt particularly juicy plants to 1/2 their weight before you add oil. Oils will eventually go rancid. To prolong the shelf life, opt for fresh carrier oils with a reputation for a one- to two-year shelf life like olive oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil, and sesame oil. Most oil companies put a “best buy” date on the label. Store your oils in a cool, dark, dry spot in the smallest container possible (heat and light and oxygen will accelerate the rancidity process). Although I rarely find it necessary, you can also add antioxidant ingredients to your oil to help slow rancidity: vitamin E oil, essential oils of rosemary, lavender, etc. Preservatives like grapefruit seed extract (not really natural), certain essential oils, and benzoin can help protect against both rancidity and microbial growth. Try to make a fresh batch of oil every 6 to 12 months and don’t make more than you think you’ll use, which will reduce the chances of having to toss it because it went bad (always a sad things to do).

Choosing Your Carrier Oils

A carrier, or fixed, oil is your base oil for massage oil, infused oil, lip balms, body butters, etc. It generally has little to no scent and does not evaporate. By far the most popular carrier oil in herbal products is olive oil. However, there are other options for carrier oils as well, each with slightly different properties. (* May have slight SPF protection.)
These are my favorites…

  • Olive Oil: Advantages: As mentioned, olive oil is the carrier oil of choice for most herbalists and natural bodycare craftswomen. It will go rancid more slowly than other oils, meaning you can still use your lip balm a year later without getting a nasty, acrid flavor and gummy texture. It is of medium viscosity, is easily available, and not too expensive. It is easily available unrefined. Disadvantages: Olive oil has a distinctive scent that may not be popular in bodycare products. Some people do not like the texture and feel that it does not sink into the skin well. It does  not withstand high temperatures well.
  • Grapeseed Oil: Advantages: Grapeseed oil is a light, fragrance-free oil with possible antioxidant properties. Many favor it for massage oils because of it’s lighter viscosity and glide effect. It is priced comparatively with high quality olive oil. It has a relatively long shelf life and withstands high temperatures. Disadvantages: Grapeseed is always refined and often a bit expensive.
  • * Coconut Oil: Advantages: This saturated fat is semi-solid at room temperature, hard at cooler temps, and liquid in warm climates. It is very rich and soothing for dry skin. Extra virgin, raw, and unrefined coconut oil is the best for skincare and has a slight coconut scent and flavor. It has a good shelf life if kept in a cool, dark spot, and withstands higher temperatures. Refined coconut oil is not as useful herbally but it does have an even longer shelf life and is scent/flavor free for those who prefer it. Coconut oil is lovely solo as a body moisturizer or tanning oil. Some report that it has light sunscreen properties. Disadvantages: Quality coconut oil is somewhat pricy. The temperature-sensitive consistency can be a pain since lip balms turn to liquid on a summer day and massage oils solidify in the jars during the winter. Some people find it too thick for their tastes. While the coconut scent and flavor can be a boon to some bodycare makers, others don’t care for it.
  • Cocoa Butter: Advantages: This chocolate-y, rich butter of the cocoa bean is a great addition to lip balms, thicker massage oils and body butters. Opt for fair-trade products, if possible. It has a long shelf life. It can be used to solidify a balm or salve without beeswax (for vegans). Disadvantages: It is extremely solid, which makes it hard to get out of the container and mix into recipes. It’s a bit pricy and too thick/rich/hard for most bodycare recipes. It’s strongly chocolate scent mixes nicely in some formulas but can overpower others. Coca butters can be adulterated with other ingredients—look for 100% pure AND double check the ingredients list.
  • *  Jojoba Oil: Advantages: This liquid wax is similar to the skin’s oil and makes a nice addition to advanced skincare products or as a light facial moisturizer. Common golden jojoba is slightly thicker and better for dry skin. Filtered clear jojoba is lighter and more appropriate for oily skin. It has the longest shelf life of all the carrier oils. (Almost never goes rancid.) Unlikely to clog pores, which is great for sensitive and acne-prone skin. Disadvantages: Probably the most expensive of all carrier oils. Filtered clear jojoba is hard to find (try Heather Lorraine brand). For some jojoba is not moisturizing enough.
  • Almond and avocado oils are popular for skin care, though they are more expensive and tend to go rancid more quickly. Unrefined sesame, hemp, and shea may offer a small amount of sun protection.

Great Summer Skin Herbs

Leaves and flowers most readily lend their properties to oil. You can use “harder” parts of the plants like roots, bark, and nuts, but they may not extract as well. If you only keep two herbal oils in your pantry, make them calendula and St. John’s wort. In my opinion, they’re the most useful and “miraculous.”
* May have slight SPF action.

  •  Calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis) – This is one of the most common herbal oils, and it can be purchased by the ounce in most natural food stores. Use dried bright yellow or orange blossoms, which make a golden oil. Calendula flowers have slight antimicrobial properties and are soothing to inflamed skin. It’s great in formula’s for baby’s skin, itches and rashes, superficial wounds, and some cases of dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis. Dry or fresh (wilted) herbal oil infusion. Also try it as a wash (same as making a tea) or an herbal bath (add 1 quart of strong tea to bath).
  • * St. Johnswort flowers & buds (Hypericum perforatum) – The fresh yellow buds and flowers of this important weed yield an amazing crimson oil. Only fresh buds and flowers should be used (top bit of the plant, it’s ok if you get a few leaves and some stem), and the oil will be stronger if you let it infuse in the SUN (this is a SUN PLANT) for a few days or weeks. You can purchase St. Johnswort in 1 to 4 oz quantities in natural food stores. It’s an amazing medicinal oil for most skin conditions including burns, cuts, wounds, bedsores, radiation burns, etc. It can be applied along an inflamed nerve or muscle for pain including sciatica or shingles. It is reported to have mild sunscreen properties and also helps with sunburns. Fresh (no need to wilt) herbal oil infusion. Though drying, SJW tincture can be used in a pinch.
  • Gotu Kola leaves (Centella asiatica) – The dried leaves of this ivy-like vine make a vibrant green oil (it does not color the skin). Gotu kola is a wound healer and general cure-all for circulation, collagen support, and the nervous system. We are seeing it more in formulas for varicose and spider veins, cellulite, skin imperfections, and wrinkles. It is occasionally available in natural food stores in jojoba or other carrier oil. Dry herbal oil infusion. Not local, but it can be grown as an annual or indoors.
  • Plantain (Plantago spp), Chickweed (Stellaria spp), and/or Cleavers (Galium spp) leaves – These three miracle weeds are usuallyonly used fresh (slightly wilted) in classic folk herbalism. The three can be used separately or together for wound healing and itchy skin including eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis, and poison ivy. Fresh (wilted) herbal oil infusion. These herbs make lovely fresh poultices for a variety of irritated skin conditions, bug bites, stings, poison ivy, rashes, etc. Simply mash them up with a bit of water and plaster them to the skin. Just chew a plaintain leaf and apply it to bee stings and bug bites for healing in a jiffy.
  • * Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) – Chaparral is a supreme summer skin herb that grows prolifically in the southwest. It seems to have some sun-protective properties as well as antioxidants that may be helpful for post-burn healing. Chaparral is also amongst our best herbal antifungals, making it a nice choice for foot fungus and other “icky critter” salves. (If you’d like, you can combine it with oregano, lavender, sage, thyme, thuja, or other anti-fungal/bacterial infused oils… a few drops of essential oil would work nicely, too.) Dry herbal oil infusion. Note: Internal use is controversial. Also consider chaparral as a wash or soak. For foot fungus, make a foot bath. For sunburn, make a tea, cool it in the fridge, and spray it as needed.
  • Lemon Balm leaves (Melissa officinalis) – Lemon balm is our classic for the herpes virus, whether it be cold sores, chicken pox, shingles, or genital herpes. The herb appears to bind to cell receptor sites, blocking the herpes virus from entering and replicating. It’s best used at the very first tingle of an outbreak. (Lemon balm tea or tincture can be taken internally as well, since it’s soothing to a frayed nervous system, which often is what gave the virus an opportunity to emerge.) Lemon balm essential oil can be added to an oil or salve—it’s the strongest form—but it’s extremely expensive and often adulterated. Lemon balm leaves lose their essential oils quickly once dried, so it’s important to make this oil as quickly after harvesting to ensure good quality. Fresh (wilted) or freshly dried herbal oil infusion. (Fresh lemon balm is apt to mold in herbal oil infusions. Also a wonderful tea, wash, bath, poultice tincture…. It’s not a bad idea to take it internally (tea or tincture) since it is soothing, calming, and slightly anti-inflammatory, which usually benefits its external uses.
    * Comfrey leaf (best for salves) or root (Symphytum officinale, S. x uplandicum) – This is a classic herb for wound healing and strengthening the skin. The primary known constituent allantoin is a cell proliferative and may or may not be extracted in oil (modern science says it’s water soluble only—more so in hot water—yet herbalists have traditionally used in oil-based products). Dry herbal oil infusion. Note: Internal use is controversial. Comfrey also makes a great wash, fresh or dry poultice. Taking it internally is controversial due to liver toxins in the plant.
  • * Green or White Tea leaves (Camellia sinensis) – As we know, the tea plant is one of our most useful antioxidants. This can be helpful in fighting free radical damage including sun damage and signs of aging. Tea has astringent properties that lend it to varicose and spider vein and cellulite formulas, and can be used safely for most people. Dry herbal oil infusion. Green tea is also lovely as a bath, tea/wash, or a cooling spray.


Essential Oils

Essential, or volatile, oils are highly concentrated, strongly aromatic, evaporate quickly, and are used in small quantities only (1-2% of an entire formula). They’re usually made via a complex distillation process. LOTS of plant material makes just a little essential oil, which is why they’re so strong (just a drop or so will do it) and often expensive. Essential oils provide natural fragrance, healing properties, and natural preservative properties to your products. They’re generally much better than synthetic fragrances—which are often carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and endocrine-disrupting—but they are still potent extracts that should be used with caution, and in only as little of a dose as you need.
Note: Essential oils are generally toxic when used internally, particularly in doses of more than a DROP. 1/4 teaspoon of wintergreen essential oil can kill an adult.

Essential Oil Simples:
Lavender, Orange, Peppermint, and Spearmint are all popular and inexpensive single oils if you don’t feel like blending. Rose and Sandalwood (note: often unethically harvested) are expensive, but also popular.

Simple Skin Care Recipes

Simple Lip Balm
Makes 25-35 lip balm tubes (~5 oz lip balm base total). Divide/multiply the recipe as needed.

  • 1 oz of beeswax, crushed or grated*
  • 4 oz of olive, grapeseed, and/or coconut oil or other carrier oils like jojoba, apricot, almond…
  • essential oils, optional for scent

Gently melt beeswax and olive oil together in a double boiler or microwave, stirring frequently. When the beeswax melts thoroughly, test consistency by dripping some of the mixture onto a cold metal spoon or bowl. If too hard, add more oil. If too soft, add more beeswax.  Once desired consistency is reached, remove from heat. Add essential oils and pour into lip balm tubes or jars. Allow to harden before capping.

*Beeswax Tip: Wrap beeswax in a clean cloth, place on a hard surface (ie: concrete, a rock, pavement), and bang with a hammer until broken up. Note: Lip balm tubes hold 0.15 oz. You can also use jars, tins.

Same basic idea as a lip balm!

  • 1 oz of beeswax, crushed or grated*
  • 4 oz of herb-infused oils
  • essential oils, optional for scent and added medicinal activity

Follow same instructions as above for lip balm. Pour into jars or tubes for use.

Perfect Cream

This recipe is adapted from Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal (Storey Books, 2001) recipe “Rosemary’s Perfect Cream” (recently reprinted in softcover as Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (Story, 2008)). This recipe does not need to be stored in the refrigerator. If it separates, just stir it with a spoon.


  • 1/2 to 1 ounce grated or smashed beeswax*
  • 3/4 cup (6 oz) “liquid oils” (grapeseed oil, herb-infused olive or sesame oil…)
  • 1/3 cup (2.5 oz) “saturated fats” (coconut oil, cocoa butter, shea butter…)
  • (Note: In my favorite recipe, I use .75 oz beeswax, 6 oz grapeseed oil and/or herb-infused oils, 1.5 oz coconut oil, 1 oz cocoa butter)


  •  2/3 cup (5.5 oz) distilled water, vanilla extract, rose water, herbal tinctures, flower essences…
  • 1/3 cup (2.5 oz) shelf stable aloe gel or juice, optional
  • 1-2+ drops of essential oil of choice per jar, optional
  • (Note: In my favorite recipe, I use 2 oz Frontier Coop vanilla extract and 3.5 oz distilled water, no aloe or essential oils. It comes out smelling like cake.)
  1. In a double boiler over low heat, combine the oils. Heat just enough to melt. Once melted, pour into a glass mason jar (for immersion blender) or blender. Let cool to room temp. The mixture should become thick, creamy, semisolid, and cream colored.
  2. While the oils are cooling, combine the “waters” in a pour-able container. Let warm to room temp.
  3. When both mixtures have reached room temperature (1-2 hours), use an immersion blender or regular blender to mix the cooled “oils.” Slowly drizzle the “waters” into the whirling oils. If necessary, stop blending occasionally to mix with a spoon or spatula until everything has combined.
  4. Pour or scoop into cream or lotion jars with clean caps, preferably sterilized to discourage mold and bacteria growth. Store in a cool, dry place. The cream will thicken as it sets.

Simple Aromatherapy Mist
This basic concept can easily be adapted to be perfume, air spray, bug spray, sunburn spray, anti-microbial spray, etc, depending on what essential oils you choose (and if  you decide to mix up the base).  

  • 1 oz distilled water & 1 oz vodka (or tinctures, vanilla ext, flower h2o, vinegar)
  • 10+ drops of essential oils (lavender or lavender-rose geranium is a great combo for many uses!)

Mix all ingredients and essential oils of choice.
Pour into spray bottles and use as needed.

Quick Guide to Summer Skin Herbs

My favorites are underlined

Sun Protection (Slight):

  • Herbs: St. John’s wort, Comfrey leaf, Chaparral, maybe Green Tea
  • Oils: Sesame, Coconut, Shea, Jojoba, Hemp
  • Minerals: Zinc oxide, Titanium dioxide

Post Sunburn:

  • Herbs: Pure Aloe Gel (fresh leaf = best), St. John’s Wort oil, Green Tea, Chaparral, Witch Hazel, Lemon balm &/or Anise Hyssop tea
  • (internally & externally)
  • Essential Oil: Lavender
  • Other: Vinegar (apple cider), Cool Bath or Spray, Yogurt
  • General: With a few exceptions (SJW oil, Lavender EO), oils are usually not good at the beginning of a sunburn. Opt for cool water-based remedies instead. Oils may be used after the initial “burn feeling” is gone to support healing.

Rashes & Poison Ivy

  • Herbs: Jewelweed (frozen in ice cubes = great!), Grindelia (not local), Plantain, Calendula, Chickweed, Cleavers, St. John’s Wort, Witch Hazel, Lemon Balm, Gotu Kola (not local)
  • Essential Oils: Lavender, Peppermint
  • Oils: Olive, Coconut, Shea (although certainly others are ok, too)
  • Other: Clay, Ice
  • General: Although salves can be helpful, often in the first stage of poison ivy it’s best to use drying or water-based remedies like tincture, vinegar, or water sprays.

Bug Repellent

  • Herbs: Catnip or Yarrow in vinegar or vodka spray, Rub basil on the skin
  • Essential Oils for All: Lemon eucalyptus (not local), Citronella, Lavender, Lemongrass
  • EOs for Mosquitoes: Catnip
  • EOs for Ticks: Rose Geranium

Bug Bites

  • Herbs: Plantain, Calendula, Chickweed, Cleavers
  • EOs: Lavender, Peppermint
  • Other: Ice, Clay (esp w/a few drops of lavender or peppermint)

Learn how to ID some common summer skin herbs here.
More herbal recipes here.

The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions.