What is the BEST Menstruum to Use for Your Herbal Extracts and Infusions? (A Discussion of the Five Most Common Solvents)
As a new herbalist many years ago, I used to wonder which solvent (menstruum or base liquid) was the best for getting the most medicinal properties from the herbs I was using. Once I realized not all solvents are the same and they extract different herbal constituents, I did some research to find out which ones are the best for our family’s needs.
As I have started teaching others how to use herbs in their home and daily life in the past few years, I’ve noticed this question comes up a lot as beginning herbalists begin to experiment for themselves. You can find a lot of information on how to start using herbs in my series and also in my course, The Confident Herbalist: A Guide to Home Herbalism.
Once people realize you can’t just interchange a solvent like alcohol for vinegar for example, and get the same result in the extract, questions inevitably come up as to which menstruum is the best and why?
The answer is: It all depends.
It depends on a number of factors: the composition of the herbs being used, what you are using the preparation for, and the needs of the individual(s) using the extract.
All the solvents used for making herbal extracts have pros and cons, benefits and downsides.
Let’s find out which one(s) are the best for you to use in your herbal extract making.
I’ve written before about the different kinds of herbal extracts and also about water as a good solvent for extracting certain constituents from herbs. But here I’ll break down the chemical constituents (in general) that the different menstruums will best extract from the plant matter.
NOTE: I use the term menstruum interchangeably with the word solvent. They are the same thing. A solvent (menstruum) is simply the liquid chosen to extract the chemicals, or constituents, from the herb.
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What is the BEST Solvent or Menstruum for Extracting Constituents from Medicinal Herbs?
A menstruum is any liquid or viscous agent that is used to extract constituents from herbs through either heat, maceration, agitation, percolation, or a combination of the methods. Some common solvents include alcohol of varying proofs, vinegar (acetic acid), glycerine, water, honey, oils, and others.
I’ll be discussing the five most commonly used menstruums in this article: alcohol, water, vinegar, glycerine, and oil. They’re not all equal, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s good to know these things as you decide how you want to get the best herbal preparation possible for your efforts.
1) Alcohol as a Menstruum:
Alcohol is the most common solvent for extracting herbal constituents. An alcohol extract is called a tincture, and these are easy to make and use for the home herbalist. Some herbs such as resins, require higher proofs of alcohol than others, but most herbs extract just fine in 40% to 60% (80 proof to 120 proof) alcohol, such as vodka.
80 to 120 proof alcohol is considered a medium ethanol content extract, and is my favorite range of alcohol to use in our own personal tinctures. No dilution is required (generally), and it’s ready to go!
One of the reasons I like this range of alcohol proof is that the remaining percentage is water. You’ll see when I discuss water extracts coming up next why this range of alcohol proofs are great for obtaining the most desired chemical constituents you can, in my opinion.
Here are the general elements alcohol extracts from the plant matter:
Acrids and bitters
Resins (needs the highest proof alcohol possible, up to 95%, which is 190 proof, such as Everclear)
Alcohol does NOT extract these elements well:
So, if you are looking for a menstruum that will extract most of the medicinals from the plant matter, alcohol is a great choice. If you are wanting a more mineral rich extract, then alcohol is not your best bet.
Alcohol is an excellent preservative as well. In my experience, an alcohol tincture made with 80 proof or higher alcohol (I have not tested lesser proof alcohol) will last for many years. I’ve used tinctures I’ve made over six years ago, and they are potent and strong.
The downsides of using alcohol as an extract include:
Some people can’t or don’t want to take alcohol in any form
Concerns about using alcohol with children
But I should say here that the amount of alcohol you use in a typical dose is very small. You can find out more about dosing here.
Water as a Menstruum:
Water, even though the preservative value is low, is my second favorite solvent for extracting necessary constituents from herbs. Water extracts include teas, decoctions, strong infusions, cold infusions, etc. Also, depending on the proof of the alcohol you choose to use, you will be getting some constituents in a tincture extracted with the water.
The problem with water extracts is that they only last for a couple of days, even refrigerated. This is because bacteria thrives in water.
However, the upside is that water is actually a fairly good solvent for extracting a range of constituents. According to Thomas Easley in his book The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, water extracts these constituents quite well:
Aromatic & simple bitters
Tannins (astringent herbs)
Starches and carbohydrates (tonic and sweet herbs)
Water does NOT extract these compounds well:
Essential or volatile oils
NOTE: You can probably now see why I personally enjoy alcohol proofs of 80 to 120 (and most often simple 80 proof). Because a good portion (40-50%) of the alcohol in this proof range is alcohol, and the remaining is considered to be water, you already have a nice combination without doing anything extra as far as measuring out solvents in specific ratios.
With this said, if your aim is to create a highly nutritious (instead of medicinal) extract, pure water is the best way to go. Alcohol tinctures of high mineral content herbs such as nettle, chickweed, horsetail, etc. are just not going to give the nutritive power that a good old strong water infusion will.
Personally, I love my herbal teas and strong infusions. They really can’t be made ahead, but when you make herbal teas, it gives you a chance to really enjoy the plant matter right before you drink it up!
Here is an article about different kinds of water extracts to consider making. They’re not all teas!
You can find out more about making herbal teas in this eBook, Creating Herbal Teas for Pleasure and Health.
Glycerine as a Solvent:
Glycerine is my third favorite extractive to use. It’s actually a form of alcohol (glyceric alcohol) and is the by-product of the saponification process in soap making. This is one reason why handmade soaps are so wonderful: They retain the natural glycerine, whereas commercial soaps do not.
Glycerine is exceptional for soothing and softening the skin. You can find out more about natural soap making here: How to Create Your Own Handmade, Natural Hot Process Soaps.
For making herbal extracts, you’ll want to be sure to use food grade glycerine to ensure safety.
Glycerine extracts these compounds well:
Alkamindes from pungent herbs
Tannins (astringent herbs)
Acids (sour herbs)
Polysaccharides, saponins, and glycosides (from tonic, sweet herbs)
Glycerine does NOT extract these constituents well:
Mucilage (although it extracts better than alcohol)
In my personal use, I rarely use glycerites. They are too sweet for me, and I just prefer to use and make tinctures for most of my medicinals. However, glycerine is wonderful for helping with compliance in taking herbal preparations by mouth because the taste is generally a tad better than alcohol tinctures.
Vinegar as an Herbal Solvent:
I love using vinegar to extract minerals and nutritives. Herbal vinegar extracts are wonderful for use externally as liniments, and internally as well. I think everyone is aware of the powers of raw apple cider vinegar as a health tonic, even without extracting beneficial herbal compounds.
Raw fruit vinegars are also useful in culinary endeavors, skincare, haircare, and more. When herbs are extracted in vinegar, you have a great health tonic!
For best potency, a vinegar should be at least 5% acetic acid, which is the element that extracts and preserves. If you are making your own homemade vinegars (see links above), you’ll want to be sure to test the pH if you want to use them for making extracts.
Extracts made using vinegar are called acetums.
Vinegar extracts these compounds well:
Some essential oils
Some alkamindes (pungent herbs)
Some bitters (alkaloids)
You can see that vinegar as an extractive is not nearly as powerful as the above three menstruums.
Vinegar does not extract these compounds well:
Carbohydrates in tonic herbs (sweet herbs)
I actually make quite a lot of infused vinegars, mainly for cooking and using in skin and hair care. I also will use infused vinegars as cleaning agents around the house. Here’s a great all purpose cleaner to take a look at. Infuse some citrus peels along with the lavender, and you have a powerful, great smelling cleaning spray!
Oil as an Herbal Menstruum:
I love my herb infused oils! I always have several herbal oils infusing at a time. They are great for cooking, as well as fabulous in making body care products like salves and soaps. Infused oils are excellent additions to your home first aid kit too.
In general, though, oils are quite a poor solvent for most compounds.
Here are the constituents oil extracts well:
Aromatic & pungent herbs (alkamindes and some resins)
Any oils in the herb
Pretty much, oils do not extract anything else very well, so you can see it’s pretty limited as a solvent.
Note: Most of this information was gleaned from Thomas Easley’s book, The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, and there is a full list of the resources I used at the end of this article for further reading as well.
Healthy Bones Tea Blend, An Example
I recently made an herbal blend for supporting the skeletal system and healthy bones. The nice thing about making herbal blends is you can often use them in different herbal preparations! I meant this blend specifically for tea, a water infusion.
The reason I decided to make this blend into a water infusion, or herbal tea, rather than a tincture is because the herbs it contains are very high in mineral and nutritive content, specifically to support bone, skin, hair, and nail health with its collagen and connective tissue supporting constituents.
You can see a video of me creating this blend on YouTube. I also discuss formulating teas.
Anyhow, if I wanted to, I could also use vinegar as a solvent for this blend because it works great for extracting minerals and nutritives. Then I would use that vinegar in cooking, as a drinking tonic, etc.
However, I would not use this blend for the reasons I created it (as a nutritional supplement and bone support) in an alcohol or glycerine extract because they just wouldn’t be effective for my needs.
Can You Combine Menstruums for the Best Extract?
The answer to this question is yes, you can. For example, many herbalists will add a bit of alcohol to their oil or vinegar infusions in order to extract a bit more of the constituents alcohol can handle. Also, being that alcohol is the best preservative out of all the solvents, some people like to add alcohol to their herbal syrups to increase the shelf life.
For alcohol to be used for preservative reasons, you’ll need at least 25% alcohol in the formula for best results.
As far as adding alcohol or water to these solvents, I think glycerine is the best menstruum to consider adding other solvents to. You can add some alcohol (although this defeats the purpose if you are using glycerine as an alternative to an alcohol tincture) or water to glycerine to obtain a nice extract.
In fact, I advocate adding 3/4 ratio of glycerine to 1/4 ratio of water to help the herbs release their constituents more easily into the extract. You can find out more about making extracts in my series, How to Start Using Herbs, or my home herbalism course, The Confident Herbalist.
There was an herbal store in Las Vegas, Nevada when I lived there that sold extracts with a combination of vinegar and glycerine. Very interesting. They were slightly sweet and quite tart. Frankly, I preferred the taste of my usual alcohol tinctures.
Also, adding alcohol to vinegar can create a nice powerful broad spectrum extract too. This combination is called an acetous tincture.
You can also add a bit of alcohol to your oil infusions as well. It won’t really extend the life of the extract, as oil goes rancid depending on the type of oil it is, and at that point, it’s no longer good. But the addition of alcohol may help extract extra constituents.
Final Thoughts on the Best Solvents (Menstruums) for Your Herbal Extracts
I know this was a kind of chemistry lesson article, but I think you’ll agree it’s pretty useful to know what works and what doesn’t in making your herbal extracts.
I’ve seen too many beginning herbalists (myself included back in the day) make the assumption that you can simply substitute one solvent for another, thinking you might only get a “weaker” extract (for example, alcohol versus vinegar).
The fact of the matter is, you won’t get the same kind of extract at all.
I’d love comments in the comments section if you think I’ve missed anything or you would like to add any other information! Good luck in your herbal endeavors!
You might also enjoy these related articles:
How to Start Using Herbs, Part 5 (or any of the articles in this series)
And there are so many more on the website! So head on over, browse around, and enjoy! :-)
Have you been wanting to take a course to get your home herbalism skills up and going quickly, safely, and effectively while setting the foundation for further learning? You’ll love The Confident Herbalist. If you’ve been wanting to learn more about herbalism but feel overwhelmed with all the information out there, this course is your solution.
I also love the courses over at The Herbal Academy of New England. They are extremely thorough and well-researched.
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,
P.S. I hope you’ll sign up for the weekly newsletter and never miss a thing! You’ll also gain immediate access to the Resource Library where you can find all kinds of herbal and self-reliant guides to support your journey.
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Cech, Richo. Making Plant Medicine. Horizon Herbs. 2000.
Easley, T. and Horne, S. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine Making Guide. North Atlantic Books. 2016.
Green, James. The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. Crossing Press. 2000.
Nagel, Glen. Traditional Roots Conference 2017. Mastering Menstruums in Herbal Extracts: https://traditionalroots.org/files/2017/04/Mastering-Menstruums-in-Herbal-Extracts-final-5_16.pdf
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. In no manner, stated or implied is any of my content meant to treat, cure, diagnose, or prevent any illness or disease. Please be sure to seek medical advice from your medical professional before using herbs or essential oils. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.