Oils, and Ointments, and Liniments. Oh my!

Sometimes herbal medicine can be dificult to navigate. Liniment, salve, and plaster are words that we don’t use in just about any other context, so when you’re new it can be difficult to make sense of it all. But don’t worry. We’re here to help. The goal of this blog is to explain the unique meaning of common terms, list out the roles of typical herbal ingredients, and share a few must-haves for every

Oil 油
Oils can cover a number of different medicinal modalities. This may refer to single essential oils like tea tree used in the case of nail fungus or lavender for relaxation. It may refer to a blend of essential oils with a carrier oil, such as the famous White Flower Oil. Lastly, to draw the medicine out of raw herbs and into an oil, a carrier oil of choice may be heated to just before smoke-point and then poured over the herbs, sealed, and set to rest for 1-3 months. 

Ointment 膏
Ointments, salves, or creams may be made from carrier lotions, oils, or even beeswax to apply topically to the skin. In most cases, these carriers are combined with powdered herbs or essential oils to treat specific ailments. Some may be thick and creamy, almost solid at room temperature, whereas others are more thin and runny.

Liniment  酒
A liniment is prepared much like the herbal oils but using rubbing alcohol, sorghum spirit, or rice wine. Of course, the alcohol is not heated as it would remove the alcohol content. Instead, raw herbs and the alcohol are combined and set to rest for 1-6 months in order to completely infuse.

Patch 膏, 贴
You may notice that the first Chinese character (膏) is the same one translated just a bit earlier as ‘ointment, cream, or salve.’ Why would you use the same word for a topical cream and adhesive patch? They seem pretty different. But at their base, they are almost the same product. To make an herbal patch or plaster, an herbal ointment is simply spread on an adhesive patch and fixed to the skin to provide an ongoing, slow release of medicine into the body.

When to Use What?
In many ways, the herbal formula used to make the oil, ointment, liniment, or patch is incredibly important. But before jumping to the list of ingredients, it’s helpful to know when to use oil and when to use liniments. Of course, with much homeopathic remedies, the list below is a guideline, not a rule. 

Oil is best used when the pain is chronic, dull, achy, and swollen but not throbbing. Typically there is no bruising, the pain is muscular, and the skin is not broken. Oils are often used for soreness after a workout. 

Liniments, on the other hand, are best used in cases of acute, sharp pain, with inflammation, swollenness, throbbing, bruising, and possible broken skin. In this case, damage may be done to the bones or sinews. Liniments are frequently used before sport training. In the Shaolin Monastery, monks often would coat their bodies in an herbal liniment before beginning a session of sparring to prevent injury. 

Patches and Ointments may be best for chronic pain such as arthritis as they remain on the skin for an extended period of time to offer prolonged relief. 

Common Ingredients and their actions:
Tian Qi
: Promotes circulation to relieve pain while also stopping internal or external bleeding.
Menthol: Cools the skin and reduces inflammation. 
Safflower: Reduces inflammation, alleviates pain, and unblocks stagnation. 
Camphor: Relieves pain, reduces arthritic swelling, and fights muscle spasms. 
Mugwort: Promotes circulation, relieves pain, warms the body, and increases energy and immunity. 
Ginger: Warms the skin and reduces inflammation. 
Frankincense: Reduces arthritic pain and tight muscles or tendons. 
Myrrh: Combats pain and swelling and kills bacteria.
Kudzu: Relaxes muscles and prevents atrophy. 

A Few Must-Haves
The diversity of topical herbal medicine is just as vast as the plant kingdom itself! There is no end to combining different herbs and oils in new ways to treat various aches, pains, menstrual cramps, headaches, indigestion, injury, or even sun stroke. The list is long and the best way to learn what you need is to try a bunch for yourself.  A few of our favorites that you may want to have on hand at home are listed below:

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