Why Do Herbal Tinctures Contain Alcohol?

For thousands of years, herbalists have been using some form of alcohol to extract the powerful and healing properties of plants to create tinctures.

But why do we continue to use alcohol, especially when we’re constantly being told to restrict our alcohol consumption? Is it bad for our health, and is it even safe to consume?

Here, we’ll take you through the powerful properties of alcohol and the reasons why it’s still the preferred solvent for tinctures.

Alcohol is a powerful (and safe) solvent

Alcohol is an excellent solvent for herbs, because it can extract the compounds and active ingredients that aren’t water-soluble, such as essential oils, alkaloids and resins. It’s also the only edible solvent that can effectively extract the ingredients required.

The body can absorb alcohol quickly

Alcohol-based tinctures are extremely fast-acting, because alcohol can enter our bloodstream very quickly. Our tongue and cheeks contain lots of capillaries which quickly absorb the alcohol. This means that when we place some drops under our tongue, we’re not actually digesting the extract. Rather, it’s entering our bloodstream almost immediately to deliver the tincture’s potent properties.

Alcohol is a preservative

Alcohol gives herbal extracts a longer shelf-life – in most cases at least five years. Or think of an aged Whiskey.

Alcohol allows us to create potent tinctures

Alcohol-based tinctures are also highly potent and concentrated, meaning only a very small dose is required to reap the benefits. In fact, everyday food items such as an overripe banana and fermented fruit and vegetables contain approximately the same amount of alcohol as a single dose of a liquid extract.

Understanding ratios and alcohol percentages in tinctures

The formula of a tincture will most likely show the ratio of herb to solvent, and the alcohol percentage. Ratios in herbal tinctures help us to understand how much plant material is present relative to the volume of alcohol. In this way, ratios tell us how concentrated an extract is. For example, a tincture of 1:2 contains one part plant material to two parts alcohol. The amount of alcohol used will depend on the unique properties of the herbs and how much water they contain. The alcohol percentage refers to the percentage of ethanol in the tincture. Tinctures usually have 25% ethanol as a minimum.

Which alcohol is used to make tinctures?

Most tinctures use ethyl alcohol, which is a high-proof alcohol that is commercially available and very safe for consumption. Given that the amount of tincture taken is very small (usually between 20-40 drops) the amount of alcohol consumed is negligible.

Alcohol has been used as a solvent in herbal tinctures for centuries. It remains popular today for its fast-acting properties, its potency, and its ability to preserve the shelf-life of tinctures. Given that only a very small amount of alcohol is consumed when we use a herbal tincture, it remains a very safe and effective way of delivering our favourite herbal remedies.