When I began to study herbs and herbalism it was with the desire to make medicines using the plants I grow on my own property, medicines that will aid in comforting myself as well as those I love. I was immediately overwhelmed with scientific and/or unfamiliar terminology. In an attempt to better understand these terms, I decided to write about each one, defining it in as many ways as possible. As I synthesize myriad definitions from multiple sources, I will relate them to the plant allies I am growing, harvesting and working with..reinforcing my studies.
Until recently, I had stepped inside a liquor store maybe once or twice in my forty-six years. I can recall buying a couple of bottles of inexpensive wine to give as gifts in the 1990s. In the spring, I bought my first bottle of 100-proof vodka.
The term alcohol (at least in herbalism) is a bit ambiguous. I have learned it is very important to understand the differences between common types of alcohol - rubbing (or, isopropyl alcohol), ethyl (or, ethanol) and the dangerous…methyl (or, methanol) .
☠ NEVER USE METHYL ALCOHOL or WOOD ALCOHOL in ANY herbal preparation! ☠
When I first began learning about using alcohol as a solvent I was overwhelmed by the concept. So many tutorials and instructional manuals discuss the dangers associated with using the wrong type of alcohol or, the wrong alcohol-related ratios. The wrong type of alcohol can be absolutely toxic - and so, it is extremely important to understand which alcohol is used in making which type or preparation (i.e. a tincture, a liniment). Ratio is important too, but I have learned the concept is not too scary and, there are ways to make it simple.
Here are some general notes I have made for myself to better understand the use of alcohol as a solvent in herbal medicine-making:
Types of Alcohol
Rubbing Alcohol (also known as isopropyl rubbing alcohol or ethyl rubbing alcohol)
All rubbing alcohols are unsafe for human consumption.
Isopropyl rubbing alcohols do not contain the ethyl alcohol of alcoholic beverages.
Ethyl rubbing alcohol is NOT the same as ethyl alcohol (used in beverages); it is toxic.
Rubbing alcohol should ONLY be used externally (i.e. liniment).
Ethyl Alcohol (also known as ethanol, grain alcohol or drinking alcohol)
Relatively safe for human consumption (when not used in excess).*
Provides preservative action when used in herbal preparations.
It is a psychoactive substance.
It is the principal type of alcohol in alcoholic beverages.
Alcoholic beverages are labeled using a system that measures alcohol-by-volume, or alcohol proof. Unlabeled or ‘homemade’ grain alcohol/moonshine may be toxic when used in herbal medicine-making.
Methyl Alcohol (also known as methyl wood alcohol or methanol) ☠
All methyl or wood alcohols are unsafe for human consumption.
Methyl alcohol should NEVER be used in herbal medicine-making. ☠
Methyl alcohol may be toxic and lethal if consumed; may cause organ damage.
Ethyl alcohol is the alcohol to which James Green refers in the quote at the beginning of this post. I’ve learned ‘drinking alcohol’ is a valuable solvent (or menstruum), extracting the alcohol-soluble constituents from plant material while often providing preservative action.
A dilute alcohol, such as 100-proof vodka (50% water and 50% ethyl alcohol) is an ideal solvent because it extracts both alcohol-soluble and water-soluble agents, provides preservative action and also remains safe to consume (it does not pose the same dangers as high-proof alcohols).
What is Alcohol Proof?
Alcohol proof (in the United States) is defined as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. And alcohol by volume is defined as the number of milliliters (mL) of pure ethyl alcohol present in 100 mL of solution at 68° Fahrenheit...so what does THAT mean? Divide the proof by two, I’ll discover my percentage of alcohol…
The 80-proof label tells me the alcohol I have purchased is 40% alcohol (or I recognize, 2x the percentage). In 100 mL of vodka, if 40% is ethyl alcohol, the remaining 60% is water.
The 100-proof label tells me the alcohol I have purchased is 50% alcohol (or I recognize, 2x the percentage). In 100 mL of vodka, if 50% is ethyl alcohol, the remaining 50% is water.
But…what about high-proof alcohol, like 190-proof? Well, according to April Graham (the herbalist behind the popular Instagram account and YouTube channel, She Is Of The Woods), I should not be using high-proof alcohol…because it is dangerous! Pharmaceutical industry-level danger.
So why do so many books, tutorials, and programs instruct students to use high-proof (often 190-proof) alcohol as a solvent? My understanding is that a 190-proof alcohol is 95% ethyl alcohol and only 5% water! Why would I need to use such a high percentage of alcohol in my solution? Well, it seems some plants require a higher amount of alcohol to extract their constituents.
Resins, balsams, camphors - and other constituents I have yet to extract (nor imagine I will) - are drawn from fresh plants using a high amount of alcohol. However, I am using fresh plant material exclusively from my own backyard (native and naturalized ‘weedy’ species); I can’t imagine I will ever need to use high-proof alcohol in any of my tinctures (or, as a preservative).
When I began reading about herbs and herbalism, I was first focused on the actual plants. Which plant allies am I currently growing? Which will I seek to use for the health of my family? How best are the constituents of those plants extracted? What delivery methods are ideal for my family?
I began learning about extraction methods…the first method I attempted was tincturing. Making a tincture required me to lightly chop fresh plant material and soak it in a solution. I used 100-proof vodka (50% water, 50% alcohol) as my solvent.
Yea, that’s great. Vodka. Uh, what is vodka? I really had no idea. Yea, I’m pretty inexperienced in the alcohol arena. So, I had to do some research. In addition to learning more about the origin of alcohol, I also learned certain dilute alcohols (alcohol diluted with other “ingredients” like water or honey) make better sense as solvents for certain preparations.
Ethyl alcohol - or, drinking alcohol - is sourced from various types of cereal grains, tubers (think: potatoes), by-products of sugarcane (think: molasses) and fruits.
When April Graham discusses making flower essences shelf-stable, she suggests using honey liqueur. Why? If I wish to make a flower-based preparation, I may wish to use a dilute alcohol of honey mixed with vodka rather than a fruit-based alcohol (such as a brandy, sourced from fruit wines). Why? Honey boasts wildflowers as its source! Makes sense, right?
What Must I Remember?
rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol is used externally only
ethyl alcohol (drinking alcohol) is used internally and safe at 100-proof or less
high-proof alcohol is often unnecessary; it should be used only when extracting certain plant constituents which require a higher amount of alcohol