What Is an Herbal Tincture?

Tincture basics and how to make them

Herbal tinctures

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

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An herbal tincture is a concentrated liquid herbal extract that's used medicinally in traditional cultures, homeopathy, or traditional Chinese medicine. It's typically made by soaking herbs and other plant parts (and sometimes other natural substances) in alcohol for weeks to extract the active constituents.

Herbal tinctures are commonly sold in wellness and health food stores, some drug and grocery stores, and online. You may also be able to buy them from some alternative-medicine practitioners. Although many tinctures can be taken orally, some tinctures (such as arnica and compound tincture of benzoin) should only be used externally.

Tinctures can be made from a single plant or a combination of plants. Which plant parts are used depends on the species of plant, but common herbal tincture ingredients include:

  • Fresh or dried leaves
  • Roots
  • Bark
  • Flowers
  • Berries

Do They Work?

There's no simple answer to that question—it depends on the ingredients and intended use. The evidence (such as it is) for some of the most common tinctures is discussed in the sections below.

Some common tincture ingredients have been researched to one degree or another, but most are poorly understood by science. Some are completely untested.

Regardless, the use of herbal tinctures and other herbal remedies has become incredibly popular worldwide. That's due in part to the availability of ingredients in developing countries and in part because of increasing acceptance by the general public in America and Europe. Other factors leading to their popularity include:

  • Growing preference for natural remedies
  • Belief that natural products are superior to pharmaceuticals, which the medical community says is erroneous
  • Dissatisfaction with conventional treatments such as pharmaceutical drugs
  • High cost of many drugs, especially newer ones
  • Improvements in the quality, safety, and effectiveness of some herbal medications due to research and technology

Currently, as much as 80% of the world population may be using herbal remedies in some form. The tincture form is considered a good way to deliver the potential benefits of herbal remedies.

Uses

Herbal tinctures are used for a wide variety of medical conditions. Conditions they're commonly used for include:

Again, evidence that herbal remedies are safe and effective for these uses is available to a limited degree in some cases and completely non-existent in others.

Herbal tinctures

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Types

Many Chinese formulas or single herbs are produced as tinctures. Some of the common ones include:

  • Benzoin
  • Propolis
  • Elderberry
  • Echinacea
  • Turmeric

Tincture of Benzoin

A common component of first aid kits, tincture of benzoin should only be used topically. Its primary use is as a medical adhesive, and it's been an accepted part of conventional medicine for decades.

Benzoin is a hard resin produced by trees, and the tincture is often used to help bandages and wound-closure strips stay in place. It is also said to protect the skin from contact allergy to the adhesive and reduce irritation.

However, some people are allergic to benzoin, and the allergy appears to be more common in people who also have sensitivities to fragrances.

Some research suggests that benzoin may help with the absorption of medications through the skin and that it may protect the cells. A 2017 study on delivering nicotine through mucosal cells showed that benzoin promoted absorption and also appeared to prevent cellular death that can happen in response to nicotine.

Propolis Tincture

A substance produced by bees to build beehives, propolis is being explored for myriad medicinal effects. A 2019 review of studies says it has a "complex composition and associated broad spectrum of activities." Research has shown that it has benefits as an:

  • Antibacterial and antifungal
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antioxidant
  • Immune-system modulator
  • Neuroprotectant

It also has some positive evidence as a treatment for:

Elderberry Tincture

Elderberry fruit contains multiple flavonoids, which are well known for having a beneficial effect on health and are used in many medications and herbal remedies. The flavonoids in elderberry include quercetin and anthocyanins. It's also an antioxidant.

Elderberry is often used to stimulate the immune system, especially for fighting colds, influenza, and other conditions involving upper respiratory symptoms. A meta-analysis of studies on elderberry published in 2019 found that it was effective for this use and may be a safe alternative to prescription drugs.

Research also indicates that it may:

  • Lower inflammation
  • Lessen insulin resistance
  • Improve dietary absorption (though this has only been tested in a lab)

Researchers urge further study of these three effects, as they might help prevent and treat obesity and related conditions involving the metabolism and immune system.

Warning: Toxic Components

Many components of elderberry shrubs are potentially toxic because they contain a chemical that can release cyanide. It may be dangerous to handle these components of the plant while making your own tinctures and they should never be consumed by humans or animals. Ripe berries are safe to consume as long as their hard seeds have been removed.

Echinacea Tincture

Echinacea remains one of the most frequently used herbal products among older adults. It's primarily used for its suspected immune-boosting effects, and especially for treating and preventing the common cold.

Studies describe echinacea as an:

  • Antioxidant
  • Antibacterial
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Immunomodulant

A 2016 review of previous studies concluded that a proprietary echinacea extract could prevent colds, reduce the length of a cold, and make cold symptoms less severe so that they require less medication.

However, a 2019 review said it was debatable whether echinacea's preventative effect was large enough to be meaningful and said no evidence showed it shortened the duration of infections.

Turmeric Tincture

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a spice widely used in Indian cooking. The active component in turmeric is curcumin, a substance research shows to be:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antibacterial
  • Anticancer
  • Antioxidant
  • Anti-aging

It's been used traditionally (and, to a degree, researched) as a treatment for skin conditions like atopic dermatitis, arthritis, wound healing, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

However, a downside of curcumin is that it has low bioavailability, which means very little of what you ingest ends up circulating in your bloodstream. Some research has even called it "nonbioavailable."

Still, research continues into curcumin's medicinal value and scientists have been learning how to make it more bioavailable by combining it with other substances. Currently, though, its use appears to be limited by this shortcoming.

Risks

Herbal tinctures aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Despite popular misconceptions that "natural" products are always safe, they can have side effects and interact negatively with drugs or other herbal remedies you're taking. Some can even be toxic.

Be sure to talk to your doctor about anything you use medicinally, including natural products. Your pharmacist is a good resource for this as well.

A 2014 study on the safety of herbal tinctures and supplements found that some may have negative effects, especially with prolonged use. On top of that, people who are allergic to plants may have an allergic reaction to tinctures, some of which can be life-threatening.

Be sure you thoroughly research anything you use medicinally and that you are familiar with its potential side effects. Use small amounts at first to gauge your reaction and build up slowly to the recommended dose.

How to Make a Tincture

Making tinctures is fairly easy and, depending on the ingredients, may save you money over commercially prepared tinctures.

Before you get started with DIY tinctures, though, be sure you know the possible risks of the ingredients you're using and what plant parts are considered safe and effective. You don't, for example, want to use your homemade elderberry tincture only to end up in the emergency room because you included the toxic root and leaves.

Some plants contain other potentially toxic compounds known as pyrrolizidine alkaloids. In addition, certain plants may be contaminated by pesticides and heavy metals.

The components of tinctures and tincture-making are fairly simple:

  • Plant parts or other natural ingredients
  • Alcohol
  • Jars with airtight lids, such as canning jars
  • Bottles and droppers
  • Bottle labels

Basic Recipe

Once you've done your research, you're confident in the ingredients you've chosen, and you have everything gathered, you're ready to begin. If you're using fresh herbs, a 1-1 plant-to-alcohol ratio is typically recommended. If you're using dried herbs, the recommended ratio is 1-4.

  • Wash your herbal ingredients.
  • Coarsely chop them up.
  • Place into a jar.
  • Add alcohol and seal with the lid.
  • Label the jar. (Labeling instructions are below.)

The mixture should then sit for six weeks or longer. It may help to give it a shake now and then. Once it's ready, open the jar and strain out the plant parts. You can continue storing it in the jar or transfer it to tincture bottles right away.

Types of Alcohol

Alcohol is considered an excellent solvent because it is food grade and can extract herbal constituents (such as resins and alkaloids) that are poorly soluble in water. The alcohol used in commercial herbal tinctures may depend on the type of herb.

  • Herbs with water-soluble constituents are best extracted with a lower percentage of alcohol.
  • Other constituents can only be extracted with higher levels of alcohol. 

Commercial herbal tinctures often use a pure alcohol solvent made from corn, grape, wheat, or cane and distilled at or above 190 proof. Herbalists sometimes make herbal tinctures in small batches using vodka (80 to 100 proof). 

Tincture Bottles

Sterilized dark amber glass bottles are classic tincture bottles. The dark glass protects the herbs from ultraviolet light. The bottle and dropper are made of glass because plastic can interact with the alcohol in the tincture. Since tinctures are concentrated extracts, the dropper helps to measure the small amounts in which tinctures should be used.

The tincture jar and bottle should be labeled with details such as:

  • Common name
  • Latin name
  • Plant part used (include whether it is fresh or dried)
  • Plant source
  • Type of spirit and alcohol percentage
  • Batch number
  • Date
  • Any special instructions (e.g., external use only)

A Word From Verywell

The decision to use herbal tinctures and especially to make your own shouldn't be taken lightly. You need to make sure you're familiar with the potential benefits and risks of the ingredients and, once you've started using them, watch for side effects, allergic reactions, and interactions with other medicines you take.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking "natural" automatically means "safe." As always, involve your doctor(s) in any decisions you make regarding treatments.

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