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? Other questions are answered to: Which alcohol is best for tincturing, how long does it take, and more. 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. You see, 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 and mainstream, especially in good health food stores, many people are turning to them to help support and supplement their health needs. You can purchase tinctures online and in stores, but….
Did you know you can make your very own tinctures? Easily?
What Exactly is an Herbal Tincture, Anyway?
A tincture is simply a liquid alcohol 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 alcohol.
Some herbalists define tinctures as an extract in a solvent other than water, but to be very precise, a real tincture is made using 80 proof or higher alcohol as the solvent.
Here are examples of other kinds of extracts:
A water extract is simply a tea or decoction. A glycerite is an herbal extract made with vegetable glycerine. And an acetum is the proper term for an herbal extract made with vinegar.
You can find out lots more about these extracts and how to make them 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, are quite safe with fewer side effects as compared with OTC or Rx. 'Nuff said.
FTC Disclosure: There are affiliate links scattered here and there throughout this article. If you click through one and make any kind of purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you!
How to Make a Tincture
Now I’m going to let you know all the tools you’ll need to make a good tincture (there are not many, and you probably have them right now), the steps for making a tincture, and how to use and dose your herbal tinctures. Once you start making your own, you’ll love the results!
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.
NOTE: If you use vinegar, the resulting extract is an acetum. If you use glycerine as the solvent, then the resulting extract is a glycerite. If you combine vinegar and alcohol, what you’ll have is an acetous tincture.
I'm just a fan of alcohol 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?
What constituents can alcohol extract?
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 acts quite quickly on the body.
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 are very well preserved.
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 in a typical dose. You can find out more about dosing herbal preparations here.
Even for children, the amount is probably even smaller than your typical toxic cough syrup!
I’ll bet you’re wondering: What is the best alcohol to use for your tinctures?
You can use any alcohol proof from 80 to 100. The proof tells you how much percentage of the liquid is alcohol. An 80 proof alcohol has 40% alcohol and 60% water, while a 100 proof alcohol has 50% alcohol and 50% water. The higher you go in proof, the greater the percentage of alcohol to water. You can find higher alcohol proof products, and these are best for resins and resinous plants.
As far as most dried herbs go, 80 proof alcohol works just fine and is the proof I usually choose. When I choose to use fresh herbs, I’ll let them wilt for a few days, becoming (almost) dry. I’ve found 80 proof works fine in this case too. What you need to watch out for is that your plant matter doesn’t contain too much moisture, because it will dilute the tincture. This is one reason why dried herbs are useful.
However, fresh herbs are wonderful to use in tinctures too! If you are going to use fresh herbs, it’s best to slightly dry them or wilt them as I do. OR, if you go with a higher proof alcohol, such as 100 proof or higher, you should be just fine.
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. This is because I like to use regular 80 proof alcohol, which is the easiest to find in my area, to tincture my plants. And 80 proof alcohol, as I said above works best with dried herbs or with fresh herbs that are wilted or nearly dry.
For herbs you don't have available fresh or to dry yourself, you can purchase them from quality bulk herb shops online. I’m partial to Starwest Botanicals! **Their culinary bulk herbs are fabulous as well.
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 and gallon sizes, if you need to make a large quantity! I find that a quart size Mason jar is just fine for most family 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.
The thing you need to remember i f you choose to keep your tincture in indirect light or a sunny window is the warmth will help the plant matter break down more quickly (and this is good). But you’ll need to remove the tincture from the sunny window as soon as you know the plant matter is spent.
You’ll be able to tell your herbs are spent and ready to be strained by how they look. They won’t have the vibrant color or the turgidity of fresher plants.
For storing your tinctures while they process---simply 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 an Herbal Tincture Using the Folk Method and Standard Method
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 simply filling my jar halfway full with willow bark, then filling the jar to within an inch of the top with my alcohol. This is the folk method, where you don’t actually measure out the herb or the liquid. For tinctures you use at home, I have found that just eyeballing my tincture amounts works fine. That's just the way I do it. This method is also known as simpling.
The mathematical way of creating a tincture is also good to know, especially if you plant to sell your tinctures or are a clinician.
The standard ratio using the weight of the herb in grams to the volume of alcohol used in milliliters is another method you can use. Generally, this is a 1:5 ratio, but tinctures can be standardized from a 1:2 to a 1:10 ratio. The closer the ratio, the stronger the tincture will be.
To figure out your ratios, you weigh the herbs, then you measure the liquid using a graduated cylinder or some scientific container to be sure you have the correct amount of liquid. So let’s say you measure out one ounce of dried herb. If you want a 1:5 ratio, you’ll meaure out 5 liquid ounces of the solvent. If you are using metric measurements, you could measure out 10 grams of herb and 50 mL (milliliters) of liquid.
You can find out a lot about the mathematics in this method in Richo Cech’s book, Making Plant Medicine, which I highly recommend. You can also find out more in this article: The Folk Method vs. The Standard Method of Making Tinctures: Which is Best?
There are many regulations about using herbs in preparations sold to the public to be aware of, and standardization, along with a great deal of record-keeping and good manufacturing practices, need to be taken into account if you are going to sell your tinctures.
However, if you are simply making your own plant medicines for yourself and your family, or if you are including tinctures after providing one-on-one consultations for clients, you have a little more leeway, and this is where I just like the folk method.
You can find out more about the FDA’s cGMP regulations in Rosalee de la Foret’s article based on notes taken in a lecture by Roy Upton an an American Herbalist’s Guild Conference.
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 because its lack of taste helps me taste the herbs better) over the herbs to within an inch of the top of the jar. Shake well.
For your first shaking, I like to agitate it for at least 30 seconds to be sure the herbal matter is completely wet and saturated.
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 or on a shelf. That way, I don’t forget to shake them occasionally throughout the week. The other thing about being able to see your tinctures is that you will be reminded to shake them once a day or so.
However, you can also put them away in a dark cupboard. This is completely up to you!
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. You’ll always use ratios related to the measurement of the herb by weight and the liquid by volume using the standard method.
But even though I use the folk method, I personally like to add my own ratios to the labels of my tincture jars so that I have a reference for how much herb to solvent I used. This way, I have my own “standard” for our family. This method works just fine for home use.
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: Dosing and Acute vs. Chronic Complaints
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! Especially if you are on medications, pregnant, nursing, immune-compromised, etc., please check for contraindications to any medications you’re on. See the legal disclaimer for more instructions at the end.
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!
This is just one tiny example of how using herbs for your health is so beneficial and can bring your body back into balance.
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. You can learn more in The Confident Herbalist: A Guide to Home Herbalism.
Basically----Always do your research. My personal rule of thumb is to find at least three sources you trust 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 an idiot.) 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, necessary and can complement each other.
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 six to seven decades, at least, children (and at least two generations of adults) have grown up believing that they need to go to the doctor and 'take a pill" to get better. And now, herbal medicine, which is the people’s original medicine for thousands of years, is looked upon with suspicion by many.
It's time to change all that!
Knowing how to use herbs for your health and the health of your family is empowering and one of the best things you can learn to do in your journey to self-reliance!
Have you ever made and/or tried an herbal tincture? What was your experience? I'd love for you to share!
Here are some other related articles you may enjoy:
And there are many more over on the blog! So go over and browse around! :-)
Before I sign off, I also want to mention that if you are interested in learning about using herbs for your health, you should really check into The Herbal Academy of New England. They have online science and research based courses for all levels of experience and interests in herbs.
Hugs, Health, & Self-Reliance!
P.S. I hope you'll sign up for our newsletter and never miss a thing! You’ll get access to the brand new Resource Library that I’ll be updating every week with guides, eBooks, checklists, and lots more on the topics here on Healing Harvest Homestead. You are a valued part of this community! Just fill out the form below:
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.