In order to engage with the healing and health-giving properties of herbs, we need to prepare them into a format so we can use them in an effective way.
One of the ways we can do this is by infusing herbs into oil.
Herbal Infused Oils
Infused oils, or fixed oils are created by soaking herb material in a pure vegetable-based oil such as sunflower, olive or almond oil, and they allow the fat-soluble parts of the herb to be extracted.
They are mostly used externally as massage oils, or as bases for creams, ointments, salves and balms.
Infused Oils v Essential Oils
Infused oils should not be confused with essential oils which are completely different and need to be used with care.
Essential oils are highly concentrated and need to be diluted in a base oil. Essential oils should never be taken internally, except for a very small number of them, and many will burn you if you apply them directly to the skin.
Infused oils are much more user friendly and they can be made very simply at home. There are two methods to make infused oil, the hot infusion method and the cold infusion method.
Cold infusion is the simplest method but it takes the longest time, usually around 3-6 weeks.
Hot infusion is much quicker and can be done in a few hours. It involves heating the oil very gently - so gently in fact that you need to use a double boiler (details below).
Some herbs work better with one type of infusion than another.
You can use fresh or dried herbs to make your oil infusion, but for beginners I would recommend dried herbs because moisture can become an issue in this method of extraction. If there is moisture in the herb, it may cause mold to form in the oil, so using a dried herb helps to eliminate that problem because you are starting off with plant material that is bone-dry.
It's really, really important that you never make a preparation from a herb that you don't have sufficient background information on, or understand its potential strength. Also some infused oils are safe to be used on wounds or broken skin, but others must not be used that way, so its important to know these things about your herbs before you start working with them.
Also, just as people can have reactions to certain types of medicines, some people can have reactions to certain herb plant groups, so when you are applying a herbal-based oil for the very first time, it's always a good idea to try just a small amount and then give it some time, preferably 24 hours to make sure you haven't reacted to it.
How to Make an Infused Oil
FIRSTLY - The COLD infusion method:
1. Take a medium sized, clean, bone-dry jar and half fill it with the dried herb you wish to infuse, or fully fill it with fresh herb.
If using dried herb, the herb will likely expand and fill up the jar, so its important not to fill it any more than just over half way.
2. Top up the jar with a pure, non-blended oil such as olive, sunflower or almond oil. Olive oil is particularly well suited for the cold infusion method because it rarely turns rancid.
3, Use a non metallic implement to push down & stir the herb to dislodge any air bubbles that may be lurking inside, - its important not to shake the bottle vigorously as this will create more bubbles. The oil needs to be in direct contact with all parts of the herb to minimise the danger of mold forming, which oxygen bubbles can bring about.
4. When you are happy that the herb is completely submerged in the oil. add the lid and place the jar in a sunny location for anything between 3-6 weeks. The sunlight will encourage the plant to release its active constituents into the oil.
5. Make sure for the first week you remove the lid each day to check for mold, and also very gently shake the jar making sure you don't create air bubbles. Then once a week, just check for mold. Exposed plant material can result in mold, but as long as the herbs are submerged under the oil and there are no bubbles, you will be fine.
6. Once the herbs appear slightly translucent or 3-6 weeks have passed, simply strain the oil using a muslin cloth or jelly bag, then bottle and label the oil. Don't forget to write on the label the date you created it. You will get about a year shelf life before the oil starts to go rancid, so it's important not to make too much.
7. If you want to make a more potent oil, add the infused oil you just made to a new batch of herbs and repeat the process all over again. You can also add a few drops of the same type of essential oil to increase the healing potency.
SECONDLY - we have the Hot infused method:
This will involve heating the herb in the oil in order to extract its constituents. its quite straight forward and a lot faster than the cold method, but you do have to be very careful about over-heating the oil.
For this method you need to use indirect heat, and you can do that by using a double boiler which is a glass or ceramic bowl sat on top of a pan of boiling water. You can also buy a double boiler system which is like two glass saucepans that sit on top of each other.
The secret of a double boiler is to only allow the steam to touch the upper glass bowl, not the boiling water itself.
1. Add the required quantity of herb and oil into the top bowl of your double boiler. As a rule of thumb, if using fresh herb, use as much herb as the oil can cover. If using dried herb use less herb to allow for the herb to expand when it re-hydrates.
2. When the water in the pan is boiling, place the bowl on top making sure it is not directly touching the water and only the steam is heating the bowl.
3. Cover the glass bowl if you can, and simmer gently for 2-3 hours.
4. Allow the oil to cool sufficiently to be handled and then as with the cold infusion method, strain the oil, bottle it and label it.
7. Again, If you want to make a more potent oil, add the infused oil you just made to a new batch of herbs and repeat the process all over again. You can also add a few drops of the same type of essential oil to increase the potency.
A standard infused oil will usually keep for up to a year, but is best used within 6 months.
Once you have your oil, you can use it directly on the skin, or you can use it in other preparations like balms, creams and ointments, which I have covered in other articles I have listed here.