If you’ve ventured into the herbal marketplace at all, you’re probably familiar with herbal teas and capsule supplements. But are you familiar with tinctures, bitters, and essential oils? In this article we will look at 18 different types of herbal preparations. You may run into slightly different descriptions from the ones below as you’re shopping or doing further research. Herbal medicine is often called the people’s medicine and has a long world history that continues today. That can make having standardized techniques and recipes challenging. As long as you understand the basic idea behind the preparation, you should be able to handle whatever you run into in the herbal marketplace.
I consulted a few different sources for information on how long different preparations will last. If there wasn’t a definitive answer, I defaulted to the shorter length of time. The times are based on proper storage (see A Few Words about Proper Storage later in the article). You can also check the label of your preparation or contact the company.
One caveat worth mentioning before we continue; we tend to think that more is better, but using more of a preparation than is recommended isn’t necessarily better for you. Take the time to do your research on herbs that interest you (including talking to your health care practitioner), and check the label before using a preparation.
Let’s Start with the Basics
All herbal preparations start with crude herbs and involve some kind of solvent; either water, alcohol (ethyl if being taken internally, sometimes methyl if being used externally), glycerin, apple cider vinegar, oil or some kind of combination. We’ll begin with preparations that stand on their own and that can be used as a base for other preparations.
CRUDE HERB – The unprocessed herb plants or plant parts that are either fresh or dried. Crude herbs are often cut and sifted or powdered to make preparations. How long should it last: Dried leafy herbs – 6 -12 months; Dried roots, barks and berries – 14-16 months
ESSENTIAL OIL (EO) – Made by distillation, cold expression, cold press, or solvent extraction using herbs. The type of method used depends on the herb. EO is very concentrated compared to the crude herb. Used topically, for aromatherapy, in steam inhalations and in creating other herbal preparations. Uses for ingestion are controversial due to health safety concerns. How long should it last: 1-4 years
EXTRACT/TINCTURE – These terms are often used inter-changeably and are sometimes referred to as macerations. Extracts/tinctures are made with either fresh or dried herbs depending on the herb. The herbs are covered with a solvent (alcohol, glycerin, apple cider vinegar) and left to sit for a set period of time. The plant material is strained out and the resulting liquid is the extract/tincture. An extract/tincture made with glycerin is called a glycerite. Used for ingestion and good for those who have trouble taking capsules/pills. Drops of the extract/tincture are added to water for drinking or added directly in the mouth depending on the solvent. Shake well before using. How long should it last: Alcohol extracts/tinctures – 3-5 years; Glycerites – 1-3 years; Apple cider vinegar extracts/tinctures – 1 to 2 yrs.
The solvent for an extract/tincture is called the menstruum. The container label should tell you the ratio of herb to menstruum. An example of the ratio is 1:5. The first number represents the herb and the second number represents the menstruum. For a 1:5 ratio, the preparation is made up of one part herb and five parts menstruum. An extract/tincture with a 1:10 ratio will have fewer active components than a 1:5 one because it is one part herb and ten parts menstruum.
Standardized Extracts – You may see this term with some herbal preparations. It means that the preparation has been made in a way so that each serving has the same level of selected active herbal compounds.
DECOCTION – Made with water and the tougher parts of herbs such as bark, roots and berries. The herbs are put in cold water and then brought to a boil. The heat is reduced to a simmer for the recommended time and then the herbs are removed. The herb-infused water is the decoction. It can be ingested and/or used topically depending on the herb. Decoction granules are made by the decoction liquid being dried into a powder. The powder is then made into granules sometimes with the addition of a starch. Granules contain concentrated amounts of the active herbal compounds. They are typically used by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners. How long should it last: It can be refrigerated for up to 24-48 hours, but it is better made fresh. Decoction granules can last up to 3 – 5 years.
INFUSION – Made with water and the leaves and flowers of herbs. Water is brought to a boil and poured over the herbs and covered to steep. Your typical cup of herbal tea is an infusion. The herbs are steeped anywhere from ten minutes to one hour and then removed from the water. The herb-infused water is the infusion. It can be ingested and/or used topically depending on the herb. How long should it last: Made as needed. It can be refrigerated for up to 24-48 hours, but it is better made fresh.
HERB INFUSED OIL – Made with herbs that are either “cooked” in oil (hot-infused) over low heat or soaked in oil (cold-infused or macerated) for the recommended time. Used topically. How long should it last: 6 – 12 months
MACERATION – Made with herbs that are soaked in a cool or room temperature solvent (water, oil, etc.) for the recommended time. The herbs are removed from the solvent and the remaining liquid is the maceration. Often used with herbs whose active compounds are delicate and would be destroyed or degraded by heat. It can be ingested or used topically. How long should it last: Water macerations – up to 24-48 hours if refrigerated; Oil macerations – 6 to 12 months; Alcohol macerations – up to 5 years.
Moving On from the Basics
BITTERS – Made with an alcohol extract/tincture of bitter herbs. Sometimes they may be lightly sweetened with honey, maple syrup or other sweetener. Used to help with digestion. How long should it last: 18 -24 months
COMPRESS – Made with a clean absorbent cloth soaked in either an infusion, decoction, maceration or tincture and applied to the skin. It is prepared hot or cold depending on the need. It can be used for sore muscles, swelling, rashes, minor pain relief (e.g. headaches), minor burns, splinters, minor wounds, etc. How long should it last: Made as needed.
ELIXIR – Made with an extract/tincture of herbs using water and alcohol and sometimes a sweetener, like honey, is added. The active herbal compounds are more concentrated than a syrup because it is made with an extract/tincture. Used as a way to make liquid herbal preparations more palatable. How long should it last: Great question. As of this posting I haven’t found an answer . . . very frustrating. Alcohol is a good preservative but it will depend on the ratio of everything in the elixir. Your best option is to check the container label or contact the company.
HYDROSOL – Made from water and other by-products from the steam distillation of a particular herb (e.g. lavender). Used topically for its aroma. How long should it last: 1 – 2 years
LINIMENT – Made with and extract/tincture of herbs and rubbing alcohol or apple cider vinegar. It can be used topically for minor sprains, bruises, sore muscles, etc. Warming or cooling herbs can be used to make the liniment. How long should it last: Alcohol liniments – up to 5 years; Apple cider vinegar liniments – 1-2 years.
LOZENGE/DROP – Made with an infusion or decoction, a dried herbal extract or powdered herb and honey or sugar. For lozenges, a dough is made, shaped, cut into pieces and left to dry. Drops are made like a hard candy incorporating the infusion or decoction. Used for herbs that soothe the throat. How long should it last: In the fridge – several weeks; In the freezer – several months
OINTMENT /SALVE – Made with wax (bees, carnauba), oil and herbs or an extract/tincture. They are used topically. Ointments/salves sit on top rather than sinking into the skin. It can be used for rashes, minor cuts or scrapes or other minor skin issues. How long should it last: 6 – 12 months
PILL/CAPSULE – Made with cut or powdered herb(s) or herb extracts that have been dried. Capsules are filled with the herb material. Pills are pressed into shape and often use binders to hold them together. Sometimes the pills/capsules contain fillers (check the label). Pills and capsules are taken orally. Used as an easy way to carry and ingest herbs. How long should it last: 3-6 months after opening. You can also check the expiration date on the bottle.
POULTICE – Made with chopped fresh herbs that are boiled and applied to the skin hot. The herbs are held in place for the recommended amount of time with gauze or other clean material. It can be used for sore muscles, rashes, minor burns, splinters, minor wounds, etc. How long should it last: Made as needed.
SYRUP – Made with a combination of an infusion or decoction and honey, glycerin or sugar. Used as a way to make herbal preparations more palatable. How long should it last: A few weeks up to 3 months.
TONIC –Made with an alcohol extract/tincture of tonic herbs (adaptogens), such as Ginseng, Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, etc. Taken regularly to help strengthen and balance the body. How long should it last: 3-5 years
Other herbal preparations include creams, lotions, massage oils, suppositories, pessaries, juices and throat sprays. Since herbs are used as food as well as medicine, you can also find herbs used in wines and beers, and in cooking oils and vinegars.
A Few Words about Proper Storage
Proper storage is the key to having your herbal preparations last as long as possible. Light, oxygen and heat cause herbs and herbal preparations to spoil and the herb’s active compounds to degrade. Also, once an herb is cut or powdered, it has more surface area where oxygen can get to it so it will degrade faster. (Obviously if the cut or powdered herb is in alcohol/oil/vinegar, oxygen can’t get to it as easily.) You will want to keep your preparations in tightly sealed containers in a cool, dry, dark place. Many preparations come in dark-colored bottles to help block the light. If you have fresh or dried herbs, avoid storing them in metal containers. Opt for ceramic, dark colored glass or plastic containers instead. Store them away from heat sources such as ovens and dishwashers.
The more you open a container, the more often your preparation is exposed to oxygen. If you have a large container of a preparation, you may want to move some of it into a smaller container for regular use. That way you still have access to your preparation without exposing all of it over and over to oxygen.
Mark the container with your purchase date to track how long ago you bought it. With some preparations able to last over a year, it’s possible to lose track of how long you’ve had them. If the powdered contents of a capsule have solidified into a mass, it’s time to toss the bottle. If a liquid preparation is cloudy or a preparation smells or tastes “off” or different from when you first got it, dump it.
So What’s a Consumer to Do
It bears repeating – before you go shopping, do your research on the herbs that interest you.
Think about the things that matter to you. Do you want an organic preparation? One that is non-GMO? Sustainably wildcrafted? Vegan? Fair trade? Gluten/dairy/nut/etc. –free? Do you have sensitive skin that might be irritated by a topical preparation? Do you have any plant allergies? Do you want to avoid preparations with alcohol? Do you have trouble swallowing pills/capsules? Do you have time in your day to brew and drink two or three cups of tea?
Take the time to check out different companies online. I usually like to look at a company’s “about” page to see if I can get a feel for them. If you have a farmers’ market in your area, there may be small companies who sell their products there and you can talk directly to them. Check out the typical things like price, quantity per container, and how long a container will last you.
If you are feeling adventurous and want to try to make your own preparations, there are plenty of websites and books that offer instructions and recipes. You will most likely have to buy some cooking equipment and proper storage containers as well as track down the ingredients. Make sure you read through everything before you purchase anything so you know what’s involved.
Where to Learn More
In my research for this post, I have combed through a few books and many, many websites snatching up nuggets of information here and there. I did find a couple of semi-comprehensive lists of preparation definitions from reliable sources, but they were buried either in the middle of a whole lot of text or in the middle of other lists of definitions. I didn’t think it was fair to send you on a treasure hunt, so my apologies for not having a nice collection of links.
If you are interested in bringing herbs into your life, my advice is to start looking for books on herbs and herbal medicine (either in stores, online or at your library) to learn from and to use as references anytime questions pop up. Rosemary Gladstar is a well-known herbalist, so any of her books would be a good place to start. That being said, there are a lot of good books out there so take time to explore.
Next article – Things to Consider Before Using Herbal Supplements