Ointments, Salves, Creams, Cosmetics and Other Concoctions…

«Ointments are preparations intended for medicinal or cosmetic use»

The healing power of plants has always been known. Different cultures have found in them the best way of healing. They are sustainable remedies provided by our own environment and that are within our reach. In Indian or ayurveda medicine («life and knowledge»), species such as cinnamon, turmeric or saffron and other plants were included to fight a disease or unbalanced condition. Tibetans use meditation to understand disease and collect herbs taking into account the suitable astrological influence. Their books contain the so-called «enlightened medicine trees» where each leaf symbolised a disease. The Chinese perform mixtures of two to twenty plants; they consider them to be the key to healing.

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© Education Unit of the Botanic Garden (UV)

The exchange of cultures in Europe helped to establish places to collect, study and work with plants: these were the botanical gardens, former medicinal gardens. There herbariums were prepared and medicinal plants were grown. Although botanical gardens serve another purpose today, we do not want to forget our beginnings. There are many ways to use medicinal plants, either in tea beverages, liquors or syrups, or taking them as pills or chew. For external application there are compresses, that is, an infusion fabric made with ground fresh herbs and spread on a piece of cloth. They can also be used in oils to permeate the skin. This time we will talk about ointments or salves. In this issue of «The Vibrant Garden» we will explain what they are, how they are prepared and what makes them different from creams.

WHAT IS AN OINTMENT?

The word ointment, unguentum in Latin, comes from the verb ungere, meaning «to spread». Ointments are preparations intended for medicinal or cosmetic use. They are characterised by being composed of a mixture made with fats or oils, which gives them texture, and a plant with medicinal properties. The two substances make the preparation solid enough to be applied topically, that is, externally and locally on the skin. They are not diluted with secretions from the skin, forming instead a protective layer over it.

Ointments, unlike creams, do not contain water, only fats or oils. Lipsticks are an example. This composition makes them different from creams, which are light, smooth and oily so that they blend with skin secretions and so that the active ingredients contained can be absorbed through the skin.

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© Education Unit of the Botanic Garden (UV)

ACTIVITY: Prepare an ointment

What you need
—500 grams of petroleum jelly or paraffin oil. You can use the ones intended for the lips, which can be purchased in any supermarket.
—60 grams of dried plant (see table). You can easily find dried plants at a good price in herb stores and markets.
—A glass container.
—A pot.
—A wooden spoon.
—A filter (you can use a sock).
—A jug.
—Gloves.
—A plastic or glass container to store the ointment.

What to do
1. Melt the paraffin or petrolatum jelly in a double boiler. Add the dried plant and cook on low heat for a couple of hours.
2. Pour the mixture into the filter holding it in the mouth of a jug.
3. Drain the liquid in the filter using gloves, because it will be hot.
4. Pour the mixture into jars while it is hot. NOTE: This operation must be performed quickly because the petroleum jelly and paraffin solidify at room temperature.
5. Let it cool at room temperature, and store the container in a cool, dry place.

Precautions

Ointments should be used only externally. Contact with eyes and mouth should be avoided. It is appropriate, before applying the ointment, to obtain information about the plant you are using, because it might have contraindications, and to test it on a small patch of skin to check that you are not intolerant to the remedy prepared.

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Plants that can be used and their applications
Plant PARTS APPLICATION
Eucalyptus
Eucalyptus globulus Labill.
Leaves – Decongestant and oxygenating.
Marshmallow
Althaea officinalis L.
Roots – Wounds and skin sores.
– Facilitates removal of splinters.
Marigold
Calendula officinalis L.
Petals – Swelling or dry skin: wounds, dry eczema, sore nipples in breastfeeding, scald and sunburn..
– Antifungal and astringent.
Common self-heal
Prunella vulgaris L.
Aerial parts – Bleeding hemorrhoids.
Comfrey
Symphytum officinale L.
Leaves and roots – Wounds, lip protection.
– Erythema caused by diapers.
St. John’s Wort
Hypericum perforatum L.
Flowers – Localised nerve pain such as sciatica, strains and cramps.
– Swelling of the breasts during lactation.
Camomile
Chamaemelum nobile L.
Flowers – Insect bites, wounds, itching eczema and anal or vulvar irritation.
Mint
Mentha spp.
Leaves – Burns, wounds, headaches when applied to the temples and forehead, expectorant when applied to the chest.
Balm
Melissa officinalis L.
Leaves – Skin sores, insect bites and repellent.
Primroses and cowslips
Primula spp.
Flowers – Sunburn and skin blemishes.
Nettle
Urtica dioica L.
Aerial parts – Haemorrhoids.
Rosemary
Rosmarinus officinalis L.
Leaves – Muscle and joint aches.
© Mètode 2011 - 66. Online only. Green Wave - Summer 2010

The team of the Educational Unit of the Botanical Garden of the University of Valencia includes Mª José Carrau, Pepa Rey, and Olga Ibáñez.