Balms, Salves, & Butters Knowing The Differences

by Suzan Ferreira
Balms, Salves, & Butters - What's The Difference example of basket full of products including balms

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.

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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.


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.


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.

Image of Dandelion Balm made by It's My Sustainable Life

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.

Balms, Salves, & Butters - Knowing The Differences examples of lip balms in tins


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.


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.


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.

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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.

Balms, Salves, & Butters - Knowing The Differences example of sleep balm with tin opened

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 ~

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Lisa Lombardo August 27, 2019 - 12:51 pm

Great information, Suzan! Thanks so much for sharing on Farm Fresh Tuesdays! I’m so happy to feature your wonderful post!

Marilyn Lesniak August 24, 2019 - 9:31 pm

Thank you for sharing at #OverTheMoon. Pinned and shared. Have a lovely week. I hope to see you at next week’s party too!

Dawnmarie @ EnjoyingtheDays August 22, 2019 - 12:13 pm

Actually, I am part of some people. I did not realize the differences between some of these. Thank you for sharing such detailed explanations. I am going to pin this so that i can find it again later.

Suzan Ferreira August 22, 2019 - 1:04 pm

I’m glad you found it to be useful, Dawnmarie! Thank you for pinning & reading.

Alice V August 22, 2019 - 3:38 am

this is so helpful! I never thought too much about the difference between a salve and a balm, always thought they were the same.

Suzan Ferreira August 22, 2019 - 11:36 am

Glad you found this helpful Alice. Thank you for stopping by!

Michelle August 21, 2019 - 12:24 am

Interesting post! I have tended to think of these as basically the same thing with different names. Now I know there are differences.

Jane August 19, 2019 - 10:31 pm

You’re a wealth of information & I constantly learn from you. Great to know the difference!👍🏼 And knowing the ingredients is very helpful. I use a lot of butter on a daily basis because the ingredients is natural.

Suzan Ferreira August 20, 2019 - 10:16 am

I love the deep moisturizing benefits of butters as well. I’m so glad you are enjoying the content Jane. Thank you for reading.

Carol August 19, 2019 - 5:55 pm

Great explanation and lots of good details – pinned and shared!

Suzan Ferreira August 19, 2019 - 6:53 pm

Thank you, Carol!

Kippi August 19, 2019 - 5:45 pm

Suzan I had no idea what the difference was until I read your post. Pinned!
Have a great day,

Suzan Ferreira August 19, 2019 - 6:53 pm

Thank you so much, Kippi!

Maria August 19, 2019 - 7:47 am

Thank you for the very informative information, I had actually always wondered why all the different names for what essentially seems like the same thing. Now I know and I will help me make purchasing decisions in the future!

Suzan Ferreira August 19, 2019 - 10:03 am

You are most welcome Maria! Thank you for reading.

T.M. Brown August 18, 2019 - 10:35 pm

I only had a vague knowledge of the difference, but this really defined it for me. Thank you!!!

Suzan Ferreira August 19, 2019 - 10:03 am

Glad this helped. Thanks for stopping by Tina!

Cindy August 18, 2019 - 5:14 am

Thank you for explaining the differences! You are so knowledgeable. 😊

Suzan Ferreira August 18, 2019 - 10:29 pm

Your sweet, Cindy. Thank you for stopping by!

Jen at My Average Life August 18, 2019 - 12:21 am

Haha! I didn’t really know that there was a difference.

Christa August 17, 2019 - 11:43 pm

So I’ve used all of these but never really knew the difference! I feel so much smarter now. 😀

Stacey Billingsley August 17, 2019 - 6:46 pm

Great information! I didn’t really know the difference except my mom had me use a salve to draw out things like splinters. It’s interesting to know what ingredients go into these!

Suzan Ferreira August 18, 2019 - 10:30 pm

Thank you, Stacey! So glad you enjoyed it.

Sylvia | Grace for a Gypsy August 17, 2019 - 6:20 pm

Very good information. My family is learning so much about natural treatments. Thanks for sharing such good information with us.

Suzan Ferreira August 18, 2019 - 10:31 pm

My pleasure, Sylvia! Thank you for reading.

Sian August 17, 2019 - 1:44 pm

I never really thought about them being different, just thought they were fancy names for the same kind of thing. Really interesting, thanks!

Suzan Ferreira August 17, 2019 - 2:21 pm

You’re welcome!

Karla Petersen August 17, 2019 - 4:01 am

I have never even THOUGHT about the difference, but I can see now that perhaps, in some situations one has benefits over another. Hmmm, much to learn, I have.

Jennifer Morrison August 17, 2019 - 3:29 am

Thanks for sharing so much information! I have super dry skin, so I think I always like salves and butters.

Leigh Ann Newman August 16, 2019 - 11:03 pm

I had no idea of all the subtle differences. Thank you so much for pointing them out.

Lisa Manderino August 16, 2019 - 9:31 pm

I love butters and balms, I learned a little bit more about oils and salves. Great information!

Lisa August 16, 2019 - 8:19 pm

We did not know the difference. Thank you for sharing.

Ramae Hamrin August 16, 2019 - 8:04 pm

What a great explanation. I’ve always wondered and thought it would be so neat to make my own!

Suzan Ferreira August 17, 2019 - 11:21 am

Give them a try, Ramae! Thank you for stopping by.

Angela August 16, 2019 - 7:45 pm

I will be honest, thought it was all the same. Like synonyms for one another. Thank you for the insight.

Darlene August 16, 2019 - 6:20 pm

Thank you for explaining the difference between them all! It can be very confusing out there but this clears things up!

Jen August 16, 2019 - 5:51 pm

Very interesting and informative post! Thank you for sharing!

Melissa Parcel August 16, 2019 - 5:01 pm

This is fascinating. I tend to call everything lotion but I won’t anymore!

Katie August 16, 2019 - 4:36 pm

I never knew the differences between these. Thanks for explaining it so thoroughly!

Cynthia August 16, 2019 - 4:31 pm

Very Interesting! I really didn’t know the difference between them before reading this post. Thank you for sharing!

Laura Lee August 16, 2019 - 4:07 pm

I honestly thought that salve and balm were synonymous. Good to know the differences!

Veronica Lee August 16, 2019 - 11:03 am

How interesting! I’ve learnt so much reading this!

Suzan Ferreira August 16, 2019 - 11:39 am

Thank you for stopping by, Veronica!

Sustainable Responsible Living August 15, 2019 - 8:49 pm

I never knew a lot of this and to be honest hadn’t really wondered about this – very interesting and glad I came across your post!!!

Suzan Ferreira August 16, 2019 - 11:40 am

Glad you found this interesting! Thank you for stopping by and reading.

Jenn August 15, 2019 - 7:49 pm

Interesting…I didn’t really know the difference. I make a salve and a balm, but don’t think I could have explained the difference so eloquently! Thanks for the education!

Suzan Ferreira August 16, 2019 - 10:58 am

My pleasure, Jenn. Glad you enjoyed it & thank you for stopping by!

Lori Roach August 15, 2019 - 4:32 pm

Thank you for all of the detail you brought to this post – it was a learning experience! I appreciate all of the information, and I’ll be watching your new product line as it develops.

Suzan Ferreira August 16, 2019 - 10:58 am

Thank you, Lori!!

Chas Greener August 14, 2019 - 12:05 pm

Such valuable and wonderful information and I learned so much. Thank you so much for sharing with us and I hope you’re having a wonderful week.

Suzan Ferreira August 14, 2019 - 3:51 pm

Thank you, Chas, for stopping by & your kind words!


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