In 1964, Dr. Jean Valnet said, “It is conceivable that the day will come when the true therapeutic value of natural substances will be given proper recognition.” It seems that the day has arrived, judging by the increasing popularity of essential oils. The name stands for quintessential oils and they are composed of the natural aromatic compounds found in a plant—when you crush a mint leaf, you have essential oils on your hands. Bottled essential oils are extremely concentrated versions. For instance, it takes 150 pounds of lavender flowers to make one pound of lavender essential oil. One drop of peppermint essential oil is comparable to 27 cups of peppermint tea and 60 roses are needed to make one drop of oil.
History of Essential Oils for Health and Home
The use of essential oils has a long history. Egyptians used oils such as sandalwood, myrrh, frankincense in cosmetics, food preparation, religious rituals such as mummification, and in medicine. The Greeks, Romans, Persians, Indians, and Chinese used them in similar ways.
Essential oils were “rediscovered” by French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, in 1937; he used lavender oil to heal his hand after a laboratory explosion. He went on to coin the term aromatherapy and also to use them to treat WWI soldiers for gas gangrene. After WWII, most medical professionals had turned away from the use of herbs but Dr. Valnet, a French army physician, spent 30+ years developing a system for the use of plants and oils in everyday medical applications.
Distillation is the most common method of obtaining essential oils. The plant material is suspended over boiling water and the rising steam lifts the oils out of the plant. As the steam rises, it is collected within tubing and begins to cool and condense. At this point, the water and oils can be separated; the water can be used to make hydrosols, such as the rose water used in cosmetics, and the oils are bottled for sale.
Other forms of collection are expression, enfleurage, and solvents. Expression is when the plant is pressed for its oil, similar to making olive oil; this is most often used with rinds such as lemon. Enfleurage is when the oils are incorporated into fat and then separated by the use of solvents. Finally, the use of solvents involves dissolving the plants in a solvent such as benzene and then evaporating the solvent. These oils are called absolutes and are used for plants that can’t be distilled, such as vanilla and jasmine. At this point, you may be wondering if you can make your own essential oil. It is possible, but the equipment is very costly and each oil requires a large amount of plant material.
How to Use Essential Oils
The most common ways to use essential oils are through a diffuser or in a “carrier”. A diffuser is similar to a small humidifier except that it breaks down the oils into tiny particles so that they are more easily absorbed by the body. Use a diffuser for about 15 minutes out of every hour; this gives the body time to absorb the oil. Diffusers can be particularly useful when battling a respiratory problem or when needing some mental clarity or energy.
The second use is in a carrier oil, oftentimes coconut or jojoba oil. In general, use 3-5 drops of oil per teaspoon of carrier oil (even less for infants, young children, and pregnant mothers). Lavender and tea tree oil are usually the only essential oils that are sometimes used “neat”, that is, directly on the skin.
Of course, essential oils can be used in many other ways, such as in soap recipes, homemade cleaning products, in bath water, and even on a piece of clay (which can then be placed in the car, near pet bedding, or on an outdoor table to keep bugs away).
Essential Oils in Cleaning Products
Many homesteaders avoid the harsh chemicals found in cleaning products and prefer to use things like vinegar and baking soda. Adding a few drops of essential oils to these homemade products can greatly enhance their cleaning power (and make the task more pleasant!). For instance, floors can be mopped with water, a heavy dash of white vinegar, and a few drops of essential oils. Lemon is antimicrobial and is known for cutting through grease and grime; it is also uplifting to the spirit. Similarly, one could use orange or grapefruit.
Another recipe for an all-purpose cleaner is one teaspoon of borax, ½ teaspoon of washing soda, one teaspoon of liquid castile soap, and 18-20 drops of essential oils.
Essential Oils in Cosmetics
Essential oils really shine when it comes to making homemade beauty products. The skin is the largest organ in the body. Consider replacing your hygiene products that contain generally nastiness with healthier, homemade ones that can be customized for your needs.
For instance, coconut oil, baking soda, and tea tree or lavender oil can be used as a deodorant—they naturally kill odor-inducing bacteria while helping you avoid aluminum. Rose, lavender, and/or frankincense can be added to a facial oil to soften and heal skin and reduce signs of aging. Add rosemary to a base shampoo or use in an after shower spray to reduce flakiness and encourage thickness and growth. I also like to add peppermint to coconut oil shapes that I use for oil pulling.
Using Essential Oils with Animals
Animals will instinctively make use of essential oils. For example, they may rub against pine trees in order to soothe sore muscles or they will search out beneficial plants when their stomach is upset. However, remember that animals have a sensitive sense of smell (a dog has 220 million olfactory receptors as opposed to a human’s 5-6 million) and essential oils must be used in very small amounts. Also, tea tree is highly toxic to birds and essential oils should be used with great caution with cats, as ones containing phenols, ketones, alpha-pinene, or d-limonene can be toxic to them.
There is a growing concern about the pesticides and orthophosphates found in flea repellents. Consider making your own flea repellent spray with one cup of water and six or seven drops of oils such as peppermint, eucalyptus, and/or citronella. Citronella would also help keep mosquitoes that harbor heartworm at bay. If making a spray for cats, use lavender and/or rosemary. This spray can be applied daily. A few drops of these oils can also be placed on the pet’s bedding or collar.
Risks of Essential Oils
All natural doesn’t mean no risks. Keep the following in mind:
- People are undecided about ingestion because essential oils are so concentrated. Oils should not be used directly in the eye. Except for lavender and tea tree oil, most oils require dilution in a carrier.
- Use smaller amounts for children. Avoid oils that contain menthol, such as peppermint, around babies. Oils such as lavender, frankincense, chamomile, orange, lemon, calendula, and tea tree are generally considered safe around young ones.
- Pregnant and nursing moms should also use smaller amounts. Be sure to check for oils that are safe to use; some, such as cinnamon, oregano, pennyroyal, and thyme should not be used.
- Test for allergies but using a small amount first.
- Be sure to use a therapeutic grade brand.
Lavender is the most popular essential oil and is the best oil for a beginner to experiment with. It has been in use for over 2,500 years and some scholars believe it was the oil Mary used to anoint Jesus. At that time, the names spikenard, or nard, were derived from the Greek name for lavender, naardus, which, in turn, was named after the Syrian city Naarda (Dr. Axe). As mentioned above, lavender oil was one of the first essential oils used, when Gattefosse used it to heal a burn he received from a laboratory explosion.
Again, lavender oil can be used “neat” (though one should still test for allergic reaction on a small patch of skin). It can be applied directly to burns, insect bites, stings, or small cuts. Place some drops on a cool washcloth for headaches or sunburn. It can be used in homemade beauty products to enhance skin health, encourage hair growth, and to reduce acne.
Lavender is considered an adaptogen—this means it helps the body to deal with stress. As such, it encourages relaxation and stress-reduction but also helps to gently energize. It can be used in a diffuser to help the family unwind at the end of a hectic day. I often put a drop on the edge of a child’s pillow when he or she wakes up with nightmares or worries.
Another versatile oil (and cheaper than most) is tea tree oil, made from the Melaleuca plant that is native to Australia. It has powerful antifungal, antimicrobial, and antibiotic properties. Like lavender, it can be used neat, though it should not be used for infants under six months old.
Tea tree is particularly useful for skin issues. Dab a drop onto acne, add some to your child’s shampoo if there is an outbreak of lice in his or her school, or use in the treatment of ringworm or athlete’s foot. It can also be useful in the removal of warts or skin tags; just dab the spot directly. Furthermore, it can help in the healing of cuts, stings, or sunburn. I have mixed it with baking soda and smeared the “poultice” onto mosquito bites and poison ivy. It soothes the itchiness, reduces the swelling and heals the skin.
Because of its antimicrobial properties, tea tree is very useful around the house. It can be used to freshen laundry (particularly if it has “soured”) or carpet. It can be used to clean cutting boards and counters or in bathrooms to keep molds or fungus at bay. Mix it with apple cider vinegar to get rid of mold and if possible, let the object dry in the sun.
A Japanese study found that students had a 54 percent reduction in errors when lemon essential oil was diffused into the classroom! As you can guess, lemon helps with mental clarity and alertness. Nearly everyone feels a lift in spirits; just take a sniff from the bottle whenever you are feeling fatigued or downhearted.
Lemon contains d-limonene, which is an effective antioxidant. As such, lemon essential oil can be used in cleaners for around the house, particularly in the kitchen on places such as counters and cutting boards. It can also be used in a diffuser when a “bug” is going around the family.
Lemon is considered an immune stimulant and a digestive tonic. Some people suggest placing one drop in a large bottle of water for everyday drinking. Some also suggest placing a drop in a teaspoon of honey when battling a sore throat, chest congestion, or an upset stomach.
Lemon can cause photosensitivity, so avoid exposing skin that has lemon oil on it.
Just the thought of peppermint probably makes you feel cool and calm, no? Peppermint oil is particularly useful for muscle tension and soreness, oral health, and for digestion and nausea. It can be added to coconut oil to make a soothing rub for sore muscles or overworked hands and feet or place some drops on a cool washcloth for headaches. For healthier teeth and gums, place a drop in coconut oil or homemade mouthwash, swish, and spit. In hot weather or when you’re feeling drained, place a drop in cool water and splash on your neck and the inner wrists. Some people like to use a drop in their water to improve digestion. Likewise, you can use your peppermint/coconut oil and rub it on the back of your neck and on your chest to help with nausea or motion sickness.
Essential oils are an easy way to gain the many benefits of plants. And with their beautiful scents, experimenting has never been so enjoyable!