What Is An Ointment?
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An ointment is a slightly viscous herbal remedy that is generally applied topically to help relieve aches and pains or to provide moisture for cracked, blistered, or injured skin. Ointments are usually made from thick oil, or otherwise rendered fat or natural esters and waxes. Ointments may be composed of no more than just the base oil, or it may be medicated by allowing herbs to macerate in the oil. Oftentimes, ointments can be mixed with essential oils – a feature that is very common in ointments found in drugstores.
Ointments are highly portable, efficacious, and handy. More often than not, most modern ointments come in the form of solid waxes or esters (called salves), although in earlier days, ointments were largely based from highly viscous oils such as castor oil, olive oil, and coconut oil and resembled tinctures more than the ointments we know today. Ointments were even used at one time strictly as emollients, although its use evolved overtime to include more medicated purposes.
What are ointments used for?
At its most basic level, ointments are used for moisturising and healing injured skin. When employed in this way, such ointments typically contain no more than just a moisturizing base (whether oil, wax, or ester). It is usually applied to boils, sores, minor lacerations, cracked or peeling skin, and skin that have become sensitized due to allergies. Because it is employed to moisturize and restore the natural condition of the skin, the most basics ointments lack any medicated additions save the inherent healing properties of the compound solely. A second type of ointment, called medicated ointments – are typically used to relieve aches and pains and to reduce inflammations. These ointments typically contain secondary compounds that are mixed along with the base oil. In most cases it possesses either a warming or cooling benefit when applied topically, either of which facilitate soothing, as well as elicit the faster absorption of the medicated compounds through the skin.
What are ointments made of?
Despite the fact that the function of ointments are not that far apart from the function of liniments, ointments have a distinct characteristic that sets them apart from other topical medicines in that they are composed of a far more viscous substance that is derived from either thick, typically hydroscopic base oils, rendered fats (traditionally obtained from animal fats), organic waxes (i. e. carnuba wax / beeswax) or organic esters (i. e. jojoba oil). Ointments may also include other organic matter (herbs, flower petals, spices, etc) that is initially macerated into the base oil for a prolonged period of time prior to its being used. Some medicated ointments may also be composed of a combination of macerated base oils and an addition of essential oils. In a nutshell, ointments are either semi-liquid, or solid (i. e. creams / salves).
How are ointments made?
There are two very basic ways to make an ointment. If employing thick oils, you may choose to use the oil as is or otherwise grind or powder some herbs to be macerated in the oil for some time. You may strain this afterwards, and employ it straight-up, or add a few drops of essential oil to the resulting compound for further efficacy. If you opt to use waxes, esters, or rendered fats, it is best to skip the maceration method and simply opt for essential oils to use, as they are undoubtedly the 'faster' option. If essential oils are unavailable, you may actively imbue your choice of wax, fat, or ester with herbal essences by gently heating it along with your choice of herbs for a few minutes, and then straining the resulting ointment afterwards to allow it to cool and subsequently set. Because ointments are made to be applied liberally in large areas of skin, you should avoid using essential oils or herbs and spices that are potential allergens.
A note on the equipment used to make ointments: because you will be dealing with oils, waxes and esters, it is best to use lead-free glass equipments, as they can be used to heat oils safely, without affecting the chemical composition of the oils or the herbs that you choose to include in your concoction. Be careful during the preparation process, as hot oils, waxes, etc. can be very dangerous. It is better to select containers made from glass or heat-resistant plastics to avoid mishap during the decanting and storage phase where most accidents typically occur.
Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, © herbs-info.com 2013
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