Gardener’s Balm – A Shea Butter Skin Salve


Winter is coming, and I can feel it in my hands.

I don’t know if it’s a result of growing up in the damp and drizzly Pacific Northwest, but my hands can’t stand New York winters.  The dry, biting cold air sucks every drop of moisture from my skin, turning my hands into cracked, scaly lizard claws.


Ordinary moisturizers don’t do it for my winter lizard skin – I need something heavy-duty.  But all the really thick, powerful hand creams I could find in my price range were petroleum-based.  And while I don’t have an anti-petroleum vendetta, I wanted something that would do more for my damaged skin than just holding in moisture.

Enter shea butter.

I’ve known for almost a decade that my dry hands love shea butter more than just about any other skincare product out there.  But I didn’t learn why until I started doing the research* for this post.  Apparently, raw shea butter has one of the largest percentages of nonsaponifiable materials of commercially available natural oils (Source).  And those nonsaponifiable components have been linked to a wide variety of skin healing benefits, including eczema, dermatitis, and of course, dry, damaged skin (Source).


Raw shea is good stuff.

It also gives a wonderfully thick, smooth texture to skincare products.  Shea butter-based creams hold in moisture and stick around much longer on my hands than creams based on coconut oil, cocoa butter, or one of the liquid oils.  In two years of experimenting with homemade soaps and cosmetics, I’ve found nothing better than shea for producing really robust, heavy duty healing salves.

I may be a bit hooked.

There is one downside to raw shea.  It has a rather… distinctive scent.  It’s not a bad scent, per se, but it’s a strong one – deep and earthy – and it can easily overpower or clash with other fragrances.  There is a refining process that removes most of the scent from shea butter, but, unfortunately, it also removes most of those lovely skin healing compounds.  So I’ve learned to be creative with my fragrance combinations and turn a potential liability into an asset.


Disclaimer: This bottle was a gift. Oh, Apple Tree! is a network marketing-free zone.

For this particular salve, I use a blend of lemongrass and frankincense essential oils.  The bright lemongrass plays beautifully against the earthiness of the shea, lightening the overall effect, while the frankincense lends a subtle spiciness.  The result is a wonderfully fresh, yet earthy scent that reminds me of green things and digging in the dirt – one of the reasons I think of this as my gardener’s balm (it’s also great at softening up hands that have spent most of the day caked in mud).

I hope your hands love it as much as mine do!



*If you’re curious what I found in my research, check out: The American Shea Butter Institute, U.S. Patent Number 7435424Shea Butter, by W.G. Goreja, and this article from the American Journal of Life Sciences


Gardener’s Balm

Yields 4 fluid ounces of salve, or two 2 ounce tins

Adapted from Humblebee and Me, an utterly fantastic site for homemade skincare products.

This is an awesome recipe for gifting.  It’s super easy to scale up, lasts for a good solid year without any preservatives, and is pretty universally welcomed.  I bought containers** very similar to these last year (the actual ones I bought are discontinued) and made skincare products for all my family (although, if I didn’t have to worry shipping my gifts, I would have gone for these cute glass containers instead)

I’ve listed measurements by weight and drops only in this recipe, because the amounts are small enough that it would be hard to get the precision needed with volume measurements.  And it’s tricky to measure the volume of chunks of shea and beeswax.

Aside from shea butter, this salve also uses beeswax and grapeseed oil to even out the texture.  You could easily substitute another liquid oil like olive oil for the grapeseed oil.  (After researching for this post, I’m tempted to throw some avocado oil into the mix, because it’s even higher than shea butter in those nonsaponifiable compounds.)  I don’t recommend substituting anything else for the beeswax, though.

About essential oils – they are a great, natural alternative to artificial smelling, and potentially skin irritating fragrance oils.  The essential oils can be switched around or omitted entirely since they’re only being used for scent here.  Be careful about substituting another citrus essential oil, though.  Most citrus-scented oils contain photosensitizing compounds, meaning they can make your skin more susceptible to sunburn.  Lemongrass oil is one of the few exceptions.

As always with essential oils,  they are potent chemical compounds and can be hazardous to use on young children or while pregnant.  If either of these things apply to you, do your research and make decisions you feel comfortable with.

Sources** – I’ve used shea butter from Amazon with good success.  Other good sources for skincare and soap supplies include: Bulk Apothecary, Mountain Rose Herbs, and Essential Depot (disclaimer: some of these are affiliate links).  My favorite source for excellent supplies at wholesale prices is New Directions Aromatics, but they require a $100 minimum order, so unless you really want to DIY all the things (ahem), you should probably go with one of the other sources.

10 grams beeswax, sliced thinly
115 grams shea butter
50 grams grapeseed oil
20 drops lemongrass essential oil
5 drops frankincense essential oil
any combination of containers totaling 4 fluid ounces of volume (I like to use two 2 ounce tins)

Combine beeswax through grapeseed oil in a small pot.  I set the pot on my kitchen scale, press the tare button to zero it out, and add the ingredients to the pot one by one, zeroing out the scale between additions.

Heat the oils gently over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.  Remove from the heat as soon as the last of the beeswax dissolves.  Allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes, until the pan is warm to the touch but not hot.  Stir in the essential oils, and pour mixture into tins.

Refrigerate the salve until it’s fully solidified.  Because this is a 100% oil-based product (i.e. it contains no water), your salve should last a solid year if kept in a cool, dry place.  Even under non-ideal storage conditions it’s pretty durable, which makes it a great gift for friends and relatives who may not get around to using it right away.


**Disclaimer:  This post contains affiliate links.  When you shop through one of these links, you help support all the work I put into producing quality posts, at no additional cost to you.  Thank you!

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