What Is a Salve?

A woman using a hand salve.
Avocados are used to make dry skin salve.
Aloe vera is a common ingredient in salves.
Fingertip with a dab of drawing salve.
Article Details
  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 14 July 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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Salve is a broad term used to describe lotions, ointments, pastes, and creams that soothe or heal an area of the body that is excessively dry, irritated, burned, or wounded. In many cases, salves contain natural ingredients that can promote the healing process and reduce discomfort in the area being treated. They are commonly used to treat severely dry hands, chapped lips, and sunburned skin. A somewhat controversial paste known as drawing salve is thought by some to “draw out” infections and foreign bodies through the skin.

One of the most common uses for salve is the treatment of dry skin, particularly on the hands. Salves formulated for this use are usually quite thick and often contain naturally derived fats, such as avocado and sesame oils. These fats impart moisture and nutrients to dry hands. In addition, the dense formulation of these salves acts as a barrier on the skin’s surface, protecting it from cold weather and wind, dish soaps, and other elements which can contribute to dryness.


Chapped, cracked lips are also frequently treated with a salve. Lip salves often consist primarily of a fairly solid fat, such as beeswax, which seals moisture into the area and prevents further damage by the liquids that frequently meet the lips. In many cases, they are also fortified with a medicinal ingredient like peppermint oil, which creates a cooling sensation on the skin and reduces the soreness that often accompanies chapping. Many lip salves also contain sun block to shield the area from sunburn. These salves are often sold in small tubs or twist-up sticks.

Many people use salve to treat tender, sunburned skin. Some of the most common components of sunburn salves are aloe vera and calendula, natural extracts believed to relieve inflammation and alleviate pain when applied to affected skin. Many people choose to refrigerate sunburn salves to enhance their cooling properties. It is important to note that sunburn treatments should not be applied to open, blistered skin, as they can inhibit the body’s natural healing process and promote infection.

A folk remedy known as drawing salve is believed by some to withdraw infections, foreign bodies, and even tumors from beneath the skin to which it has been applied. These types of salves were often promoted as a kind of cure-all in the US during the 1800s. Depending on their formulations, some drawing salves are relatively harmless and may even be useful in treating minor injuries like insect bites or splinters. The modern claim, promoted by some practitioners of alternative medicine, that drawing salves can be used to shrink cancerous tumors is unsubstantiated by medical research, however. Additionally, drawing salves created for this purpose often contain corrosive substances that can cause serious damage to the skin.


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