Salves, Ointments, and Balms—Which one to use when, and why.

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 product is much different.

Salves are typically made using fresh or dried herbs which are used to infuse into volatile oils (e.g., calendula oil, 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, can contain a larger variety of oils and 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.  I don’t mean to suggest that balms are somehow less beneficial than salves and ointments. Only differentiate that the uses of these products also differ slightly. I consider balms as a preventive health strategy (e.g., daily skin care) by using it to prevent skin dryness and distress. The idea here is that plant-based butters and waxes, along with semi-nourishing oils or vegetable glycerin.

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