Herb harvesting season hasn’t hit yet, so I’m still working on things that don’t come directly from your garden, meadow or vacant lot. I do prefer to garden and wildcraft as much of my medicine as I can. I like to know where the ingredients come from both for the safety of the moment and for the purposes of quality control and getting a sense of what really works.
But there are a few things that I’ve learned to do with essential oils over the years that I simply can’t replicate with fresh, dried, infused or tinctured herbs. And given that I can’t make my own essential oils I’m always on the look-out for high quality essential oils. This is more of an issue than you might think. While essential oils may look and smell very similar regardless of the manufacturer, there can be huge differences in the quality and the actual ingredients. Big Herba can be as problematic as Big Pharma (as well as being less regulated).
For this reason I suggest doing some research in order to find a good local supplier of essential oils. In Central Europe, Karel Hadek is a reputable source that I use. In the US, Mountain Rose Herbs is a well-respected company.
Now let's get on to the eminently practical things you can do with essential oils. Obviously essential oils can smell very good. You add them to salves, soaps, candles and bath water for fun, relaxation and health benefits. Some people really enjoy putting them in those little candle-powered aromatherapy diffusers. And there are extensive lists of aromatherapy benefits that may or may not be born out in practice. Given that they smell so good, many people just use them and hope.
I am sure that some of the benefits espoused by aromatherapy probably do have some practical use. The smell of lavender has a clearly demonstrable effect on stress and anxiety. I’ll grant the aromatherapy industry that. But for many people, aromatherapy is still an under-documented field. And my specialty is herbal remedies that you can use at home and which simply work.
So, here are my five amazing tips for things to do with essential oils that are not based on aromatherapy but rather on the same mechanisms as other herbal medicinals.
Tea tree oil for yeast infections
This is one of those few areas of herbal medicine where I suspect the pharmaceutical industry of actively covering up information. Given the incredible anti-fungal power of tea tree oil, it simply makes no sense that we see so little use of tea tree essential oil. Instead we have a plethora of pharmaceutical anti-fungal medicines in pharmacies, many of which don’t actually work.
Years ago, when I went through the wringer of medical fertility treatments and hormone medications, my immune system was extraordinarily weak. As happens with immune deficiencies, I soon had fungal infections everywhere. It was so unpleasant that I tried every pharmaceutical I could get my hands on. Nothing worked. The infections either didn’t respond at all to the treatments or they went away briefly and soon came back. I tried all kinds of other things as well (even boiling my socks and underwear). Nothing worked and doctors were no help, simply saying that I had to keep trying and live with it.
Finally, I read about this simple recipe using tea tree essential oil diluted in olive oil. The strength may depend on various factors, so start with a low concentration and carefully work your way up. You do NOT want to use undiluted tea tree essential oil anywhere on your body, let alone on sensitive areas. It is powerful enough to destroy cells and wreak havoc on your mucus membranes.
Put two tablespoons of olive oil in a small glass jar with a good lid. Add 10 drops of tea tree essential oil. And voila you have topical anti-fungal medicine. You can use it on intimate areas. It should have a distinct cooling feel. If it doesn’t, add more tea tree. If it stings, add more olive oil. You don’t want it to hurt. You can use somewhat higher concentrations for the no-fuss treatment of athlete’s foot.
A slightly different use of tea tree oil is effective with thrush and other mouth and gum infections. Dilute the tea tree oil in warm water instead of olive oil and use it as a mouth wash. It doesn’t taste delicious and it isn’t advisable to swallow it. In fact, you might want to refrain from this if you are pregnant, pending further research. Tea tree shouldn’t be used internally during pregnancy, given what is known or suspected at present.
Mint for Eczema
I don’t personally suffer from eczema, a blessing for which I am grateful. But I have encountered a number of people who have seen my homemade salves and asked me for a salve for eczema. Some of the first were family friends with a two-year-old daughter. This was a fairly wealthy family and they had been to all the major experts and tried many pharmaceutical treatments. The little girl had terrible eczema on her hands and wrists which itched so much that it was usually bleeding from her scratching.
At the time, I was just starting out in herbalism and when the family asked me about herbal salves, I really had no idea. I remembered reading that mint is good for eczema and I assumed that was like saying ginger is good for upset stomachs, i.e. it helps a little most of the time but sometimes not at all. Mint is after all a very common, mild herb consumed by almost everyone. If it was some sort of miracle cure we would have heard about it. We use it for toothpaste. It isn’t a medical secret.
Or is it?
I gave the family a jar of my mint salve, which I had made because I love the way it feels cool on chapped lips. And I really like the smell of mint. I had used infused mint oil and mint essential oil for this salve. And in a week the family was back begging for more. They had never seen their daughter’s eczema so calmed.
Since then I’ve seen this happen again and again. I am confused as to why the pharmaceutical industry, which isn’t actually adverse to using mint, doesn’t use it more intensively in salves and creams for eczema. It is obviously very effective, both as fresh infused oil and as essential oil.
For the quickest remedy, just make diluted mint essential oil. Again use olive oil or whatever neutral oil doesn’t irritate your sensitive skin. Put 2 tablespoons of neutral oil in a jar with a good lid. Add 10 drops of mint essential oil. If that is gently cooling and doesn’t irritate your skin you can even try more mint oil. It should be gently cooling and should not sting or irritate the skin. If it hurts, don’t do it.
Patchouli for Lice Prevention
We have never had lice in our family since discovering this little trick, so I can’t say whether or not getting them correlates with forgetting to use it or not. But I have read that putting a few drops of patchouli oil in warm water and using that water to comb your children’s hair is a great way to prevent lice.
I started doing this about two years ago. About a year ago my son’s preschool class had a lice outbreak. We were fortunately spared. Maybe it was the patchouli oil. Studies have shown that lice avoid patchouli oil and many anecdotes by parents point to the same conclusion.
I personally like the smell of patchouli. Unfortunately, my children’s preschool teachers don’t, so I have to go easy on it.
Geranium for Tick Repellent
Another essential oil to use as bug repellent is geranium. A few years ago I ran across this idea on a blog about dogs. The dog owner put a drop of geranium on her dog before going out in the woods each day and then found no more ticks on her dog.
I tried this on my cat and on my children and on myself. For my children and me I use geranium oil diluted in almond oil. (There is some evidence that ticks may like olive oil, which is my usual base.) For the cat, I just put a drop behind her neck, which she admittedly hates. My children and I have never had a tick while wearing our geranium repellent. We have had ticks when we forgot to put it on. I’d say the record is pretty good.
My cat does still get ticks unless she is wearing both geranium repellent and a chemical repellent collar. That said, we live in an epidemic tick area where bacterial diseases carried by ticks are so common that my husband and several neighbors have had serious illnesses because of them. Without using both the geranium oil repellent and a collar (even if using either alone), our cat will return from daily rambles in the summer literally studded with ticks. So, geranium oil alone may work even for animals in areas with an intense tick problem. In any event, geranium oil has at least added to the protection of our cat and largely solved the problem for the humans of the household.
Sage for preventing the spred of viral infections
This is something I need to do more often myself. You know how it is when flu and cold season comes around. Especially if you have small children, it is nearly impossible to keep infections from spreading in the household.
Sage essential oil is another tool in your arsenal. This time it is closer to the traditional idea of aromatherapy but only in technique not in the actual function. You heat a small amount of water on a cook stove or in a small container on a wood stove or in one of those candle-powered diffusers. Add a few drops of sage oil.
If you have boiling water, be careful not to put your face right into the steam, unless you’ve only used one drop. To produce a strong effect for an entire room you may need 10 or 20 drops but the steam could hurt your eyes if you get right in it.
The idea is to spread the strong sage essential oil throughout the air as much as possible during the peak infection period when someone in the household is sick and others don’t want to get sick. Airborne sage will contribute to cutting down the spread of infection. Some herbalists claim that smudging with dried sage elicits a similar effect.
That said, the first line of defense is always covering coughs and sneezes and lots of hand washing.
Note: Please remember that this doesn’t constitute medical advice and you should consult a doctor for medical conditions.