What is a Tincture? (How To Make and Use Herbal Tinctures)
**This article is an overview about herbal tinctures: How to make one, how to use a tincture, and what exactly is a tincture? Also--find out why you should be using herbal tinctures for your health!
Many years ago, a friend of mine was telling me about this "weird" herb store that "even" sold TINCTURES! (He looked at me askance, as he said this.) Oh, my goodness! I had to laugh. He was shocked and awed by the fact that these mysterious tinctures (which seem so "witchy," right?) were actually being sold IN A STORE in our city!
Now that tinctures have become much more commonplace, especially in good health food stores, it's nice to know exactly what a tincture is! And....did you know you can make your very own? Easily?
What Exactly is an Herbal Tincture, Anyway?
A tincture is simply a liquid extract of an herb that you take by mouth. That's the simple definition. And it really IS simple. The nice thing about tinctures is they concentrate the useful chemical constituents and medicinal properties of the plant material into a liquid (usually alcohol, a vegetable glycerin, or even apple cider vinegar).
Many herbalists define tinctures as an extract in a solvent other than water (teas), but to be very precise, a real tincture is made using high-proof alcohol as the solvent.
By definition, a glycerite is an herbal extract made with vegetable glycerin, and an acetum is the proper term for an herbal extract made with vinegar. You can find out lots more about these extracts in Part 5 of my series, How to Start Using Herbs.
Tinctures, glycerites, and acetums are all forms of an herbal extract, or infusion. So, a tincture can be an extract, but not all extracts are true tinctures.
Before I explain how to make an herbal tincture, here is my quick personal take on homemade plant medicines: THEY WORK. WAY better, more efficiently, and without the side effects that come with allopathic or OTC (Over the Counter) medications. They support your health and wellness effectively and when used properly, safely. 'Nuff said.
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How to Make a Tincture
Things You'll Need to Make a Tincture
1) A Solvent
Your solvent is what the herbs soak in to extract the useful plant chemicals. Generally, people use alcohol. You can also use apple cider vinegar or glycerin. I've tried using apple cider vinegar, and it's ok. It is not as strong as alcohol, though, and it has less of a shelf life. I've never even tried glycerin, I have to admit, so I have nothing personal to add about it.
I'm just an alcohol fan when it comes to making tinctures. This is because it's the most powerful way to extract the useful plant chemicals for your health. Here's a bit more information about using alcohol as your solvent:
Why Do I Think Alcohol is the Best Solvent?
Alcohol is able to extract both fat soluble and water soluble molecules from the herb, plus a wider range of the plant constituents. In terms of how much of the beneficial plant chemicals are able to be extracted, alcohol does the best job.
Alcohol is extremely fast acting. If you've ever had a drink, you know how quickly you feel the effects. One of the reasons is that alcohol is absorbed through the mucous membranes directly into your blood stream, and this actually starts happening right in your mouth! The medicinal properties of the herbs in the alcohol tincture can start their amazing work right away!
Tinctures based in alcohol last a LONG time. Seriously. Years! There have been instances where old tinctures have been found that are decades old and are still useful (those made with alcohol, that is). I'm still using tinctures I made several years ago. As long as they are stored in a dark, cool place with a tight lid, they last and last and last!
If you are concerned about the alcohol content in a typical dose, don't be. It's rarely ever greater than 1/2 teaspoon.
Even for children, the amount is probably even smaller than your typical toxic cough syrup!
2) Your Herb(s)
Although many people prefer to use fresh herbs to make tinctures, I do not. I have used fresh St. John's Wort before, and it turned out fine--really lovely, actually. However, I just have this fear (probably unfounded, since I use alcohol for my tinctures) of fresh herbs going bad in my solvent.
Even though I grow or forage for many of my own herbs, and therefore obtain those fresh, I dry them first before tincturing. I'll use them fresh in teas! No problem.
But for my tinctures, I personally like freshly dried herbs best. For herbs you don't have available fresh, you can find high quality herbs from Starwest Botanicals! **Their culinary bulk herbs are fabulous too! I like them cut and sifted---again, just personal preference.
3) A Glass Container with a Tight Lid
Mason jars are my favorite containers for tincturing herbs. You can even get them in half-gallon sizes, if you need to make a large quantity! I find that a quart size Mason jar is just fine for most tinctures, though.
4) A Place to Keep Your Tincture While It's Processing
Here is another herbal debate. Some herbalists believe that tinctures need to be kept in a cool, dark place like a cupboard while they process. Others (like me), like to see them! First off, I think they are pretty, and it's fun watching them change. Also, I truly believe the sun from a sunny window provides an energy to the tincture it won't have otherwise. This is called a solar infusion. I've never once had an issue with processing tinctures in a sunny place in all the years I've been making medicines for us.
For storing your tinctures while they process---just put them in a place where you won't forget about them! And if you want to see them, don't be afraid to keep them out, like I do.
Directions for Making Your Tincture
Step 1) Determine the Ratio of Herb to Alcohol
There are many great resources to help you do this. Depending on the herb, whether or not it's fresh or dried, and even on your own personal beliefs, ratios can vary and still be effective.
The most mathematical book I've come across, if you need more structured guidelines, is Richo Cech's book, Making Plant Medicine.
Another great resource, if you are new to herbal experiments, is Rosemary Gladstar's Medicinal Herbs. It's the first book I ever purchased, so many years ago, and is where I began my herbal education. She has many great recipes for tinctures in this book, and these laid the foundation for my love of herbalism.
For my tincture today, I'm using a 1:2 ratio of Willow bark to alcohol. I don't measure, by the way. I just eyeball it. That's just the way I do it. However, I do not sell my tinctures commercially--they are only for use by my friends and family as needed.
There are many regulations about using herbs in preparations sold to the public to be aware of, and standardization, along with a ton of record-keeping and good manufacturing practices, need to be taken into account if you are going to sell your tinctures.
Step 2) Prepare Your Jar
Make sure your jar is super clean! I just use extremely hot water and soap.
Step 3) Add Herbs & Alcohol
Place your herbs in the jar, then pour your alcohol (I use vodka) over the herbs to within an inch of the top of the jar. Shake well.
Step 4) Find a Quiet Place for Your Tincture to Process
I like to see mine, as I said---so mine go in a window. The other thing about being able to see your tinctures is that you will be reminded to shake them once a day or so.
Step 5) Shake Daily
OK---This is not super essential, but it's a good idea. Shaking your tincture as it processes helps keep the herb in the most contact with the solvent. Also, it keeps you in touch with your tincture. You can watch the changes happening! If you don't get to it every day, a few times a week is fine.
Step 6) Wait Patiently
Most tinctures are ready to use after four to six weeks of infusing. I don't recommend any sooner than this. In fact, I have had some tinctures processing for over a year, and not only are they super strong, they are just fine. I've never once had dried plant matter go bad in alcohol.
Step 7) Strain out the Herb
Also called the "marc" the herbal matter is something you need to strain away. Depending on the herb and what form it's in (powder, cut & sifted, fresh, or dried), you may have to really press to get all the liquid out. I use metal strainers like these, and if I'm straining powdered herb, I'll add a few layers of cheesecloth on top of the strainer too, so I'll end up with a nice, clear liquid.
Note: Some herbalists never even strain their tinctures. They simply use the liquid while the plant material (marc) is still in the jar! Personally, I like a nice clear tincture, though.
Step 8) Bottle Your Tincture
You can either leave your tincture in a larger glass jar (like a Mason jar or an apothecary jar), or you can pour them into your dropper bottles, or both, as I did here.
I usually bottle up only what I need in amber glass dropper bottles, either 4 ounce or 2 ounce sizees.
Step 9) Label Your Tincture
I can't stress how important this is! It's a real bummer when you go to look for your Willow Bark Tincture and you can't remember which one it is because you just KNEW you'd remember! (Yep. It happens to the best of us. Ahem.)
There are very strict FDA compliance guidelines for labeling tinctures for sale, but you don't have to worry about this for personal use. I write the herb, the ratio of herb to solvent I used, the amount of time it infused, and the bottled date. However, if I'm in a hurry, I admit, sometimes I'll just write the herb's name on the bottle and leave it at that. :-)
Step 10) Store Your Tinctures
Store them in a cool, dark place. Many herbalists like to use amber glass jars because these are helpful for keeping out light, but I've found that if I'm storing them in a dark room or cupboard a Mason jar works just fine.
That's it! Easy Peasy!
How to Use a Tincture
These are just general guidelines for basic dosage of tinctures. Because all herbs are different and do different things to the body, the amounts you'll use will vary. But what I'll share here are basic guidelines.
There are two main kinds of health problems: acute and chronic. How you'll use a tincture depends partially on which of these you are dealing with.
An acute problem is usually short-term, may develop quickly, and respond well to medications. Things like headaches, cuts or wounds, gastric distress, etc. are examples of acute issues.
Chronic health problems develop over long periods of time, may be more difficult to treat, and need longer treatment times. Examples of a chronic health issue might be allergies, a dry cough, general fatigue, etc.
Pharmaceutical drugs are often used to treat the symptoms of chronic issues, but they simply mask the actual condition instead of healing it. Using herbal medicines wisely and correctly can help heal your body.
Dosages for Acute Issues:
For most acute problems you'll want to give a smaller doses more often over a short period of time because you want to see results quickly. So, you can give 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon tincture every hour or two for up to 6 teaspoons a day, depending on the problem. Remember, these are general guidelines.
For example, if I wake up with a headache, I'll take three full droppers (1/2 teaspoon) Willow tincture, and that usually will get rid of the headache immediately. If I need to, I'll take a bit more in an hour or two.
Here's another example: If I am having terrible menstrual cramps, I might take 1/2 teaspoon Cramp Bark tincture. This usually provides immediate relief, then as symptoms return, I take another dose, up to several a day if need be.
Be sure to research your herbs completely before using!
Dosages for Chronic Issues:
You can treat longer term problems the same as with acute issues if you want to get the unpleasant symptoms under control. But if you need to heal, you'll need a longer term plan. You take larger amounts over longer periods of time, and not as many times a day as with acute issues.
The problem most people have with using herbs to heal chronic problems is remembering to be consistent with the plan! For chronic issues, an adult would take 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon one to three times a day, depending on the herb.
Here's an example of how I treated chronic PMS: Every single month for many years, I had terrible mood swings the three to five days prior to my cycle. I mean: TERRIBLE. Everyone just stayed away from me, and this made me feel bad. Well, this went on for years because I was told (by a doctor) to just deal with it and I got "poo-poohed" when I tried to explain that I felt absolutely insane on those days!
Here's how I finally solved this chronic issue: I started taking Vitex and Motherwort Tinctures. I took Motherwort every day (1/2 teaspoon in the morning---or 3 droppers full) and again the same amount at night. I also took Vitex starting six or seven days before my cycle was to start. After a month of this I saw a great difference. After about three months, I was an angel during those days. Pretty amazing!
Dosages for Children:
First of all, I will say that I am very careful about using herbal preparations with children. But for a child who is 9 to 12 and of average size, 1 dropper full of tincture is a good starting point. That's about 1/6 of a teaspoon.
For children 4 to 6, start with about 15 drops (not droppers full). You can give tinctures to children younger than this, but I'll let you research that on your own and make that decision. (I am NOT a doctor.)
Also, always research your herbs before giving them to children, or anyone, for that matter! You can find out very specific information about dosing in Rosemary Gladstar's book, Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide. If you are new to using herbs, I believe this book is a MUST have.
It's quite a comprehensive overview for all the hows, whys, whats, etc. about herbs---plus there is a reader-friendly materia medica for some really wonderful and safe herbs and how to use them, along with many recipes. I love this book!
Final Thoughts About Herbal Tinctures
NOTE: It's important to know what you are doing with herbs. For example, some herbs are NOT meant to be used over the long term. Goldenseal, for example, has excellent antibiotic properties, however, it should not be used longer than three weeks, or drying of the mucous membranes may result.
Basically----Always do your research. My personal rule of thumb is to find at least three sources that say the same thing. And if any source differs, I research some more.
It's ok to start your herbal journey with GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) herbs, and experience the results with your own body. Again, please be sure to research, discuss with an herbalist, and yes, I'm going to say this because I must): Talk with your doctor first (even though, if your doctor is like mine, he might roll his eyes around in his head and smirk at you like you are a besotted fool.) Please note my disclaimer at the end of this article.
Herbal medicine is incredibly powerful and I believe it has a rightful place alongside allopathic medicine. I believe both are good and necessary.
It's very sad that our traditional ways have been "educated" out of us to increase the power of Big Pharma and Big Money. In the last five or six decades, at least, children have grown up believing that they need to go to the doctor and 'take a pill" to get better. And now, herbal medicine is looked upon with suspicion. It's time to change all that!
Have you ever made and/or tried an herbal tincture? What was your experience? I'd love for you to share!
Hugs, Health, & Self-Reliance!
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P.P.S. If you are interested in delving even deeper and learning more about using herbs and making your own plant medicines, how about taking a course! I've take lots of them over the years, and I always learn amazing new things! The Herbal Academy of New England has many excellent programs, which I recommend and have taken myself!
DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical doctor or medical professional. In no manner, stated or implied, is any information in this article, on my website, in my products, or elsewhere, meant to treat, cure, diagnose, or prevent any health issue. My statements are for informational purposes only and are simply my personal opinion based on experience and study. Please always seek advice from your doctor before using any herbs or herbal remedy. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
Gladstar, R. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide. Copyright 2012, Storey Publishing.
Cech. R. Making Plant Medicine. Copyright 2000, Horizon Herbs.