I get asked this question a lot, “Which one should I choose to invest my time learning about – herbs or essential oils?”

My short answer: Learn about both! Herbs, essential oils – and let's not forget about hydrosols – all have their place in my toolbox.

It’s easy to get caught up in essential oils and want to run for them as a solution to every problem. The truth is, essential oils are very concentrated substances and should be used with caution. Although they can be the perfect remedy for some issues, they are not ideal for all situations.

Essential oils, hydrosols, and herbs are all tools we can use, depending on the health issue, the age of the person, and other factors.

When to use Herbs

Herbs are very likely going to be the most frequent tool you will use for children under age 6. Herbs can be ingested and used for internal issues without the same risks that essential oils have. They are also effective when infused into a carrier oil for topical use.

Here are some examples:

Colicky baby? Make some fennel tea, which has carminative and anti-spasmodic properties.

Want to provide a calming bath? Add some lavender-infused bath oil, which is an aromatic nervine.

Bumps and bruises? Grab your bottle of arnica oil and apply on the site.

Pink eye? Apply a dampened chamomile tea bag over the closed eye. Chamomile has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-histamine actions to provide relief and reduce itching.

Adults can also benefit from using herbs for a number of health issues. For example:

Insomnia? Drink some tea with sedative properties, such as chamomile.

Adrenal issues? Decoct astragalus, ashwagandha, licorice, or a number of other adaptogens to help your body fight stress.

Tonsillitis? Consume sage tea, which provides antimicrobial benefits.

Exposed to cold/flu germs? Ingest elderberry syrup, which has numerous clinical studies backing its performance in shortening colds before they take hold.

Already fighting a cold? Use echinacea, which “inhibits an enzyme (hyaluronidase), which is secreted by bacteria, and helps them gain access to healthy cells.” (source)

When used properly, herbs are both gentle on the body and very effective tools for families to use.

When Not to Use Herbs

If you aren’t sure what herbs you should be using for your ailment, stop. Research and educate yourself first before choosing and consuming an herb.

Although most herbs can be used reasonably with no ill effect, some do have safety concerns. Be sure the herb(s) you have chosen to use do not have any safety issues that pertain to you. Are you pregnant? Then you may wish to avoid using Goldenseal for your painful cough. Instead, reach for the Hyssop. Some herbs, such as Skullcap, which is effective for inflammation or the flu, should not be used by children, pregnant or lactating women, or diabetics.

I use the Botanical Safety Handbook to reference herbal safety information (linked to in the amazon ad below).


When to Use Essential Oils

The two most common ways to use essential oils are by inhalation and (diluted) topical use.

While herbs are generally internally (consumed) for best effect, essential oils are ideally used externally (topically or inhaled).

Essential oils provide results within seconds or minutes of being used. Some examples:

Bug bites? Stop the itch by applying Tea Tree (diluted). Recipe: Bug Bite Soother.

Achy joints? Massage with anti-inflammatory essential oils (diluted) such as German Chamomile, Ginger, and/or Spikenard. Recipe: Inflammation-Away Lotion.

Sluggish brain? Diffuse Rosemary. (source)

Varicose veins? Use circulatory stimulants such as Cypress, Bergamot, and Grapefruit diluted in jojoba oil and apply to legs – you will feel them tingling in no time. Recipe: Lovely Legs.

Want to make your own household cleaners? In a base of white vinegar add antimicrobial essential oils such as Lemon, Tea Tree, and Peppermint like this Bathroom Spray.

Remember: always dilute, unless otherwise noted. Read: Diluting Essential Oils and Carrier Oils.

When Not to Use Essential Oils

I always encourage people to go slow with essential oils. Due to their concentration, they are easier to “overdose” than their herbal counterparts.

If you have little ones in the house, you will need to be especially careful to follow safe dilution guidelines.

Always store essential oils out of the reach of children. Avoid using essential oils that should not be used on children, such as Cassia, Eucalyptus, Fennel, Garlic, Lemongrass, Peppermint, Wintergreen, and others. Just because the herb may be safe to give to children, does not make the essential oil safe, so be sure you know the safety differences of herbs and essential oils. Read: Essential Oils and Children, Menthol-Containing Essential Oils and Children, Thieves & OnGuard essential oil blends – what you must know before using thieves-type blends.

Steam distillation separates the volatile oils from the plant material, sometimes resulting in the loss of constituents that help balance out the whole plant, making them now necessary to use with caution. Basil in your pesto? No problem. Basil the essential oil? Use with caution. Read: What kind of “Basil” is lurking in your bottle and why it matters.

Like herbs, there are essential oils that are not recommended for use during pregnancy or lactation, although the list may not contain the same names. Cinnamon Bark, Hyssop, Myrrh, Wintergreen, and Yarrow essential oils are not recommended for pregnant or lactating women. Read: Essential Oil Safety During Pregnancy/Breastfeeding.

Unlike herbs, some essential oils are phototoxic. This means that they can cause severe sunburn-like reactions if your skin is exposed to the sun after application. Phototoxic essential oils include Bergamot, Bitter Orange, Grapefruit, Lemon, Lime, and Opopanax. Sweet Orange, steam distilled versions of Lemon and Lime, Mandarin, Tangerine, and bergapten-free Bergamot (I get mine here) are good alternatives, as they are not phototoxic. Read: Phototoxicity – How to Stay Safe in the Sun

In Conclusion

Both herbs and essential oils can be beneficial tools to have in your health arsenal – you don’t have to use one or the other exclusively. As always – research, research, research! Be sure you are using herbs and essential oils safely and they will be your close friends for years to come.

Where to learn more about herbs:

Books about herbs:

Where to purchase herbs:

Books about essential oils:

Where to learn more about essential oils:

 Where to purchase essential oils:

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