Using essential oils and herbs

We love herbs, and one wonderful way to make use of them is with essential oils. Each herb, and hence its essential oil, is a treasure trove of benefits for our senses, our health and well-being, and our moods and mental states. However, essential oils are highly concentrated and very potent. They can do harm if used undiluted or at too strong a concentration. Here are some points to bear in mind when using essential oils:

Less is more

  • Essential oils are very powerful and very, very little is needed to experience their benefits. Using too much can lead to sensitisation, and large doses can cause burns, dizziness and headaches.
  • Once absorbed into the bloodstream, it is up to the kidney and liver to clear them from your body. Using too much can put a strain on these organs. Depending on the oil, just a small number of drops are generally sufficient.
  • Essential oils can burn and irritate the skin, eyes, and mucus membranes if used at too strong a concentration. Wash your hands after handling concentrated essential oils.
  • Each oil is different and some are more potent than others, so read up a bit, or talk to someone in the know, about any new oil before you use it.
  • Never apply essential oils undiluted, especially on broken skin, and never take them internally.
  • Remember that the scalp is especially absorbent so be very careful if using essential oils on your scalp. (Personally we prefer to use herbal infusions for hair, or to blend essential oils with the oils of a conditioning treatment.)
  • Some people are especially sensitive to some essential oils. Do a skin test before using a new oil if you are prone to allergies or sensitivities.
  • Some oils can cause sensitivity to the sun and should not be used during or just before sun exposure. These include lemon and most other citrus oils, bergamot and verbena.
  • Pregnant women are sometimes advised to avoid essential oils entirely. We think this is a shame, as many oils have great benefits for pregnant women. However, caution is important, as essential oils are powerful, and some can have detrimental effects in pregnancy, for example to stimulate early labour. Take this issue seriously if you are pregnant and research individual oils before using them.
  • Young babies’ sense of smell is very important to bonding and in establishing feeding, and they are highly sensitive. Use essential oils especially sparingly around them.
  • Essential oils are highly concentrated, and can be contaminated with pesticide residues. We advise using only organic essential oils for this reason.

Oil and water don’t mix

Mixing pure essential oils with water is not an effective way of diluting them.  Oils will not be equally dispersed though water just by stirring or shaking them around, and so can still lead to sensitisation. Oils first need to be blended with an emulsifier or carrier oil before being added to a water solution.

Fortunately, there are several natural emulsifiers you can easily use:

  • Salt is great one. First add the essential oil to some salt and allow it to sit and become absorbed. Then add the salt to water and/or any other ingredients, making sure the salt is properly dissolved.
  • You can blend essential oils happily with olive oil or coconut oil and the essential oil will disperse equally throughout the oil. (Bear in mind that while the essential oil will blend with the olive or coconut oil, the oily mixture will still repel water. In other words, the essential oil will be equally dispersed through the oil, but the oil will still separate from water.)
  • The fat in full cream milk functions as an excellent emulsifier, and milk mixes readily with water, so this is another great way to add essential oils to bathwater, for example. Add a few drops of essential oil to a little milk (this works even better if you warm the milk a little), then add the milk to your bath.
  • Egg yolk is an excellent emulsifier often used in food (think of mayonnaise) and which also has benefits for skin and hair, but remember that anything containing egg will need to be refrigerated if not being used immediately, and used within a relatively short time.
  • Alcohol is also an emulsifier, but must be relatively pure. Vodka and brandy work well.
  • Cornstarch is another good emulsifier and adds a lovely satiny feel to mixtures.
  • Beeswax is a wonderful natural emulsifier with many skin benefits.

Whatever emulsifier you use, it is always still a good idea to give any watery solution containing oils a good shake or stir before use.

Remember that there are other ways to use herbs, especially if you grow your own. Fresh or dried herbs can be used very effectively by making infusions (teas), grinding herbs to a powder, pressing herbs, or soaking them in alcohol or (for very delicate herbs) cool water.

Some herbs to try

  • See here for some suggestions for using herbs in hair care.
  • Here are some you can try with shaving oils.
  • Also have a look through the blog posts for various references to herbs.