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What is a Salve?

M.C. Huguelet
Updated May 17, 2024
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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 is the treatment of dry skin, particularly on the hands.Preparations 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 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 these formulas. 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 balms also contain sun block to shield the area from sunburn. These 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 remedies 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 remedies 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 preparations were often promoted as a kind of cure-all in the US during the 1800s. Depending on their formulations, these remedies 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.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
M.C. Huguelet
By M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide range of publications, including WiseGeek. With degrees in Writing and English, she brings a unique perspective and a commitment to clean, precise copy that resonates with readers. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By anon995271 — On Apr 16, 2016

Burt's Bees Hand Salve. I use it daily. In the beginning I used it three or four times a day. My hands were that dried out. It got under the dry skin and helped peel layers off to get to the new skin. Especially around finger tips and nails (the worst). But anyhow, it works great. My fingertips aren't hard as rocks and the wife's happy.

By Markerrag — On Aug 19, 2014

@Melonlity -- One can typically figure out if a salve is any good or not thanks to the wonder of the Internet. Within seconds, you can research any salve out there and see if it works as claimed.

Hey, there are some salves that do work as advertised and are quite good. However, the ones being touted as a miracle cure are the ones of which to be suspicious.

By Melonlity — On Aug 19, 2014

Be careful about those who claim a salve is a cure all for anything that ails you. People making such claims have been running around since the days of the Wild West (and even before that) and have bilked a lot of people out of their money over the years.

Some of those salves may be helpful, but be wary about them. A good question is how one can tell a good, helpful salve from one that doesn't work nearly as well as claimed.

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide...
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