Is there really any difference between balms, salves, & butters? With so many products on today’s market, these terms may seem convoluted and difficult to differentiate. Is there really a difference? The simple answer is…yes and no.
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When IMSL began making a lot of the personal care products used here on the hill in order to reduce our chemical exposures (be sure to check out the article “Hidden Chemical Exposures – Should You Be Concerned?” for a more in-depth look as to why) it became increasingly apparent that there indeed were differences between balms, salves, butters, and even ointments & liniments! Not only differences in the terms used but in the process of making them and the appropriate application as well.
There is discrepancy in the use of these terms even within the herbal community itself. Many herbalists use these terms interchangeably, while others distinguish & acknowledge the differences. What does it boil down to? In IMSL’s humble opinion, the differences lie in the consistency of the product & the aromatics.
WHAT ARE BUTTERS
Butters, normally made with a combination of carrier oils (sweet almond oil, jojoba, olive oil, etc.) aka, liquid fats, and butters (the term “butters” also referring to the actual butter product themselves: cocoa, mango, shea) aka, solid fats. Butters will often have a small amount of wax (beeswax, carnauba, etc.), making the consistency thicker and firmer than that of lotions. Butters usually contain no waters (aloe vera gel, etc.) making this an anhydrous formulation.
Butters are highly moisturizing, and although thicker and firmer than lotion, will melt on the skin. When applied, this rich product may leave a “greasy” or slightly oily feeling on the skin for a bit, but as stated, are highly moisturizing to the skin, thus making them ideal for those with dry skin.
Variations of butters include whipped butter and lotions. Whipped butter is just that, a butter preparation that is whipped into a fluffy consistency. Lotions are made with a base of prepared butter(s) as listed above with the addition of adding waters (hydrosols or herbal infused water, aloe vera gel/juice, etc.) and mixing into an emulsion (combining water & oil). Lotions being of loose consistency and thinner than creams as they contain a higher percentage of water than creams.
WHAT ARE BALMS
The official meaning of the word itself according to a quick Google search is:
fragrant ointment or preparation used to heal or soothe the skin.
synonyms: ointment, lotion, cream, salve, liniment, embrocation, rub, gel, emollient, unguent
technical demulcent, humectant; archaic unction
It’s no wonder these terms are so confusing with so many synonyms! In the research to grasp and understand the differences between balms, salves, & butters, here is IMSL’s interpretation of what was discovered.
Balms are made for topical application and have a smooth & oily consistency. Balms normally contain medicinal properties and are thicker/harder than salves largely due to the higher wax ratio used in the making. Balms may often contain butters, but this is not always the case.
Typically, balms are made without the use of waters, making them an anhydrous formulation. They are also normally made using either herbal infused oils or non-infused oils. Balms can be made using essential oils, but that is not always the case.
The thicker consistency of balms allows a protective barrier to be established keeping moisture in more readily, lip balms being a great example. Balms make a great choice for protective issues as well as healing issues.
WHAT ARE SALVES
Salves, balms cousin, is the most closely related product to balms. Considered an unguent (a soft greasy or viscous substance used as an ointment or for lubrication), salves are an oil-based and anhydrous topical product. They most often are made using an herbal infused oil, wax, and often additional herbs & essential oils.
The wax ratio is typically lower than that of balms, making the consistency of this product softer than that of balms. This softer consistency allows it to be absorbed more readily into the skin, making this a great choice to support healing issues.
WHAT ARE OINTMENTS
Ointments, a softer & thinner product used mostly for healing issues, is typically made very similar to balms & salves only with less wax used, making it softer in texture, and with an added medicinal ingredient. Ointments are typically almost lotion in texture and are used for the treatment of specific medical issues.
WHAT ARE LINIMENTS
Liniments, or embrocation, used to topically relieve pain in both humans & animals, commonly used in the equestrian & farm worlds alike, are typically made using herbal infused solvents. These solvents, (ex. = witch hazel or rubbing alcohol) after being infused with herbs, are often added with essential oils and/or additional herbs to create a warm healing sensation on unbroken skin.
Balms, salves, or butters, the bottom line is knowing the ingredients & their intended use. No matter what you call them, every herbalist & product creator will have their own guidelines for which terms they utilize, knowing the basics will assist you when deciding which product you choose.
Although the grey areas remain, hopefully, this will help guide you in deciding on which products you make yourself or purchase. Are you aware of other factors not mentioned when trying to decipher the terms? Be sure to join the conversation below!
Love, Light, & Laughter ~