Making herbal body oils for self-massage is actually surprisingly simple. It just involves letting the plant steep in the oil of your choice, and then straining out the plant material once the oil has been infused with it. I first made my own herbal body oil, olive oil infused with chamomile, when I was taking part in an apprenticeship in home-based herbalism at Thyme Herbal in Western Massachusetts last summer. It made a wonderfully aromatic and calming oil. Since then I’ve made a several body oils using a few different approaches, and I can share with you some of the things I’ve learned.
There are several considerations when making body oil. Once is whether to use fresh or dried plant material. If you make the oil with fresh plant material, it is recommended to let the plant wilt for one or two days before using it to reduce the moisture, which will help prevent the oil from turning rancid. I didn’t do this on the times I’ve I used fresh plant material, though, and the oil turned out fine. As an alternative, just use dried plant for plants that have a high water content. I get fresh herbs from a medicinal herb CSA I belong to through Sawmill Herb Farm, and I get dried herbs at Flower Power in Manhattan or Radicle Herb Shop in Brooklyn.
Another is how to infuse the healing properties of the plant into the oil. There are three main options. The one that takes the most time is to put the plant and the oil in a mason jar and let it steep indoors for at least one moon cycle, or four to six weeks. This is how I made my first body oil. The one that is the quickest is to use a slow cooker, which takes about a day. I put the mixture of herbs and oil in a mason jar in the slow cooker filled with water on the warm setting in the afternoon and took it out the next day in the late morning. I got an inexpensive Black and Decker slow cooker for this purpose and it worked very well. A middle option is the solar infusion method, leaving the herbs and menstrum out in the sun. Typically it is recommended to leave them in the sun for a week or two, but when I used this method I just left the jar out on my fire escape in the full sun for about four days. In the heat of a New York City summer, that turned out to be plenty of time. When you use this method, it’s recommended to shake the container daily. I have been pleased with how the oil has turned out with each of the various methods. Going forward, I expect that I’ll use the solar infusion method in the summer, the slow cooker in the winter, and the method of letting the herbs steep for a moon cycle in the spring and fall.
Another consideration is what plant to use and what the ratio of plant material to oil should be. I tend to use calming plants that lift the spirit, relax the body, and ease pain. The plants I have tried so far include rose, chamomile, arnica, and lavender. Arnica and lavender together is an especially lovely combination. Regarding the ratio of plant to oil, Thyme Herbal recommends one part fresh plant part by weight and three parts oil by volume for fresh herbs, and one part dry plant by weight to five parts oil by volume. I typically just cut up the plant and put it in a mason jar, lightly packed, and then cover it with oil, leaving some space at the top of the jar.
And a final consideration is what type of oil to use. This depends on your needs and your constitution. The Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman says that the best oils to use are pure plant oils such as olive, sunflower, or almond, but that any good pressed vegetable oil can be used. The book Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom by Acharya Shunya provides a detailed explanation of the properties of various kinds of oils. Sesame is three-dosha balancing and is useful for back pain, arthritis, sciatica, and muscle pain. Coconut oil is pitta pacifying, nourishes hair and skin, cools and lubricates the skin, and reduces heat. It is recommended to be combined with sesame for more effectiveness. Almond is vata pacifying, revitalizes the senses and nervous system, and has anti-aging properties. Castor oil is vata and kapha pacifying. It is anti-aging and rejuvenative, counteracts low pack pain and stiffness, and helps overcome inflammation of the muscles. Ayurveda also uses butter and ghee for massage, but since I’m a vegan I haven’t tried these.
I now regularly make and use my own herbal body oils as part of my self-care routine. I massage myself daily with an oil I have made. Lately, I’ve been experiencing muscle pain and stiffness, and so have been using arnica and lavender steeped in a combination of almond and sesame oil. This has dramatically decreased my pain and has also been a grounding and calming addition to my daily regimen. I’d strongly recommend making and using herb-infused body oils to anyone seeking to improve their sense of well-being.