Fed up with artificial colors, fragrances and taste enhancers

Science is complicated.

Just because something happens at the same time as another thing or just after another thing does not mean one caused the other. Sometimes it does. But sometimes they are just two things happening at the same time. Correlation is not causation.

But when something happens only when (or much more intensely when) something else happened right before it in many different places and at many different times to many different subjects, then the first thing probably does in some way, direct or indirect, cause the second thing.

That is what is happening and being reported by parents all over the world when it comes to artificial food coloring, fragrances and taste boosters—food additives with those indecipherable names clogging the ingredients lists of most packaged foods. One thing happens (a child eats something containing these substances) and then another thing happens (the child shakes, cries, screams, throws extraordinary tantrums, breaks out in unaccustomed skin rashes or has other reactions). Parents have reported these observations again and again, in every parenting forum I have ever come across.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But medical studies claim the evidence is “inconclusive.”

Granted, the spectrum of substances suspected of causing reactions is broad and the reactions caused are diverse. And not all kids react. Kids with attention and sensory issues tend to react more… a lot more.

It is also difficult to differentiate the energetic boost delivered by sugar and other simple carbohydrates almost always contained in the same foods from the effects of other additives. Most studies have tried to separate the two. But we don’t actually know that it isn’t the combination of sugar and the additives that is a problem for these children.

Many of the substances used to create colors, fragrances and taste boosters have been progressively banned in more safety-conscious countries in Europe, usually due to vague neurological effects, but new ones—all too chemically similar—are continually being invented.

As a parent with one child with high sensitivity to food additives and another child without particular sensitivities, I can clearly see the differences. One child doesn’t make a study, but the experiences of thousands of parents routinely dismissed and belittled by the medical establishment make for a very suspicious situation.

Given the massive lobbying capabilities of the food industry and the extreme profits garnered by these cheap substances added to foods to make them instinctively addictive to children, I call foul. I have not seen adequate research and investigation into this area yet, but the past few weeks have lit a fire under me.

Due to various allergy-type reactions to milk and other foods, I had both of my children tested for all standard food allergies about a month ago. Both of them tested negative in every category. The test did not include a test for lactose intolerance, which isn’t actually an allergy. But as soon as I got my son lactose-free milk, his symptoms cleared up.

My confidence in the allergy testing system is shaky at best, if they aren’t even with it enough to refer a kid with allergy-type reactions to milk for a lactose intolerance screening. I have also seen my ten-year-old daughter collapse, screaming with shaking hands for two or three hours at a stretch after eating a moderate amount of green food coloring on several occasions. I’ve seen her exceptionally irritable and impulsive after eating everything from a single piece of candy to a few handfuls of fake-cheese-flavored chips.

Then just recently, in the month since the allergy testing, she acquired some much coveted children’s lipstick with chemically induced “cupcake” flavoring. She smeared it on liberally and by her own admission ingested a small amount. This was after a day of eating only very familiar foods, but after a few hours she was covered with extreme allergic eczema from her knees to the knuckles of her hands.

Fortunately, anti-allergenic mint salve (see the recipe here) stopped the itching within thirty minutes and cleared up the eczema in two days, a result the doctor proclaimed “miraculous.” Our pharmacist told me antihistamines generally soothe the itching within 24 hours and clear up that level of eczema in seven days.

(Caveat and disclaimer: There has not been enough study of mint extracts for eczema. There are few side effects reported, but skin rashes should be consulted with medical professionals. If your doctor agrees, mint salve might help. I have seen it help in many cases, but with other types of allergies it had no effect.)

The lack of rigorous research on the harmful affects of food and cosmetics additives continues to be problematic. This is not a difficult issue. There is no need to color foods or cosmetics or enhance fragrances or tastes. What if companies were forced to compete based on the actual basic quality of their product, plain and simple, rather than relying on manipulative manufactured substances?

How does a company making lipstick marketed specifically to young children get away with including heavy-duty fragrances and taste enhancers that make children obsessively want to eat a product that has not been tested as a food?

I am constantly under attack from these products. My kids beg for the products they see in advertisements on children’s TV shows or that their friends have. Other adults gift them to my children. The worst of them are very dangerous. But beyond that many of them are just damaging and hazardous to long-term health. Some sensitive children react to these harmful substances immediately. But that does not mean that they don’t still silently harm the health of less sensitive children as well. It is altogether possible that children with sensory and attention “disorders” are our canaries in a coal mine.

Because I want to protect my children from hazardous substances contained in most of the products on the supermarket shelves and I actually stand my ground on it, I am called an “extremist” or accused of having “extremely high standards.” These shouldn’t be considered high standards.

Just make food. Just make lip gloss. I can grow the ingredients and make both from my own home with no chemicals and they taste great and they last.

Substances must be thoroughly investigated, including long-term health and neurological effects, before being approved for food or cosmetics use. Even more fundamentally, there is no reason for substances which manipulate and deceive the senses. No manipulative or addictive product should ever be marketed to children.

It is not that I want to control what other people do. I don’t want them around me. I don’t want them invading my space. I don’t want to be pressured over them. I don’t want my children manipulated by them or given them by friends.

If it isn’t cupcakes, it shouldn’t taste and smell like cupcakes. Cupcake flavor and smell should be what it is—flour, sugar, butter, real strawberries, in season, brief and real. Period.

What big pharma isn't telling you about eczema and mint: Home Medicine Cycle 10

A two-year-old ESL student of mine had terrible eczema all over her hands. It was bloody from her scratching. Her parents were desperate. They'd been to three of the top clinics in the country and had tried scores of pharmaceuticals. 

Creative commons image by Gogo of Wikipedia

Creative commons image by Gogo of Wikipedia

"Do you want to try one of my natural salves that's just bees wax, olive oil and some garden herbs?" I asked doubtfully. I was very new to herbalism at the time. I wasn't sure if it was a good idea to mess with something so obviously sensitive. "You probably shouldn't use it if she's allergic to bees."

"She isn't and we'll try anything!" her father said. 

It was early summer, like now, and I didn't even have the annual batch of salve brewing yet. I only had a few jars left from last year. I went and looked, hoping for plantain. But my plantain salve had long-since been snatched up. The only thing I had left was mint. I did a quick internet search and it said mint is supposed to be good for eczema, so I gave them the salve.

A week later they were back with brilliant smiles. The eczema was far improved. The mint salve worked better than anything other remedy they had tried.

Seriously. This is true.

It isn't that all of my salves are miracle cures. I don't tell you about all the experiments that didn't work. (Well, mostly I don't, unless there's a good warning lesson in them.)

Since then I've seen mint salve beat severe eczema twice more. I have yet to meet a serious case of eczema that mint salve couldn't improve. 

Creative commons image by Arie Farnam

Creative commons image by Arie Farnam

But this leaves me a little confused. If mint is this effective in treating eczema, why isn't it in all the pharmaceutical eczema creams? Mint is in toothpaste. It's not like big pharma and the cosmetics industry has any qualms about using mint. And yet, a Google search for "mint eczema pharmaceutical" doesn't turn much up. 

Mint is so effective with the types of eczema I have seen, even when compared with the most expensive pharmaceuticals, that the connection can't be a fluke, despite the clear need for scientific study on this. And mint is cheap. 

So why the silence on mint and eczema? My observations so far point to a couple of possible reasons.

1. There are a lot of types of eczema. I may have simply been lucky in running into people with a type of eczema that mint can help. 

2. The chemical compounds in mint that are beneficial in treating eczema may well be very sensitive to over-processing. Most industrially produced mint contains a lot of pesticides and mint used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals is heavily processed. It is very possible that industrially produced mint salve or cream wasn't found to be effective to treat eczema. Or the pesticides may irritate already sensitive skin.

3. As I said, mint is cheap. Specialized eczema ointments and creams from the pharmacy are expensive. Companies make big money on expensive creams. They have little incentive to take up something cheap and effective.

The more I learn about herbal medicinals the more I run into this same conclusion again and again. There is often nothing you can buy that will fix whatever problem you have or else the products are exceedingly expensive.  The key is making the medicine yourself, keeping it small, organic and as fresh as possible. That tends to be most effective when it comes to preserving volatile medicinal compounds. 

So, it seems reasonable to try mint salve, poultice or juice for eczema if you can produce it yourself or have a local, small-scale source that uses careful processing. Here is my recipe for salve. For eczema, I would use both fresh mint infused oil that you can make using the recipe and purchased mint essential oil. Diluted mint essential oil may not heal the eczema on its own but it is very soothing and cooling to anything that itches.

The mint is just starting to leave out prolifically at this time of year. While you're gathering mint, here are a few other uses to consider:

  • Mint salve isn't just useful for eczema. It will often help any sort of itchy skin condition, such as the flaking skin left after a sunburn has healed as well as mosquito bites.
  • Mint is delicious in salads, on deserts and in heavy meaty stews, particularly those containing lamb or mutton. 
  • You can make your own mint tea without all the pesticides that infuse commercial mint, by simply cutting stalks of mint with the leaves in tact and hanging them to dry in clumps in a place without direct sunlight. 
  • Mint tea is a good calming tea for evening when you want to sleep well.
  • It also helps with colds.
  • And it's good whenever you feel sluggish and heavy after a big meal, as it helps to cut grease and eases digestion.
  • Mint tea is also a great additive to other medicinal teas because it will often make teas that don't taste very good a lot more palatable.
  • You can also use a strong mint infusion (tea) to treat eczema if you haven't had time to make salve yet. Let it cool and then either soak the problematic spot or pour the infusion over it.

I love to hear from you. Feel free to comment using the bubble icon on the lower left below this post. How do you experiment with common herbs?  What is the most surprising thing that ever came up? You can also share this on your social networks using the icon on the lower right. 

Warning: Don't use undiluted mint essential oil on your skin and don't drink mint essential oil. Use fresh mint leaves to make infusions. Please also keep in mind that I'm not a doctor and this isn't medical advice. This is my personal experience and research and different people can have different reactions to herbs. You are welcome to use my experience as a basis for further experiments, but it's always a good idea to see a doctor about any significant skin conditio

How to make an effective healing salve: Home Medicine Cycle 9

Readers of my Home Medicine Cycle are usually looking for simple, practical ways to use medicinal herbs at home. I go to the doctor as do most of you, I expect. There are a great many good things about modern medicine. 

And yet there are a few things that fresh, home-grown medicinal herbs still do better than the pharmacy.

Skin care is one of them.

From supposedly incurable eczema to allergic reactions and small infected cracks that even antibiotics won't heal, I've seen a lot of skin problems that pharmaceutical ointments were not been able to handle. And more often than not, I've seen medicinal herbs from my humble garden clear them up in less than a week.

I say my garden is humble because it is. I don't grow herbs to sell them and I don't sell my remedies. In fact, I have a hunch that purchased herbs will never be as effective as home-grown and home-brewed remedies unless they are from a tiny cottage industry, because any time you put herbs into a big processing system they end up freeze-dried, preserved and over-processed, which appears to significantly cut their medicinal potency. Maybe there's a way to make effective commercial herbal remedies, but I haven't seen it yet. 

I'm a mother doing this for my family and for the odd friend who drops in. I have two beds of herbs and I gather a few others in nearby empty lots. What I do isn't industrial herbalism and anyone with a garden or even a few window pots can do a lot of what I do. That's the whole point of this Home Medicine Cycle. It's about practical herb lore, herbal remedies that just plain work and things you can do to take back your own health. 

So lets get down to business. The herb harvesting season is finally well underway. I'll be posting here more often over the summer and I'll often focus on one herb at a time and its uses and specific recipes. But this time I want to give you a core herbalist skill - the simple method of salve making. 

I first learned this from Jennifer Moore, an herbalist in La Grande, Oregon, and later read about similar techniques in The Herbal Home Remedy Book, which is a simple, practical guide that's easy for non-experts to follow. I've been making herbal salves for a dozen years now and this method simply works. I've perfected a few of the steps based on experience in my own kitchen. I hope that you can try this out and gain a tool for treating common skin problems, bruises, burns and skinned knees. 

Salve making has several steps. There are three basic stages--collecting herbs, making infused oil and cooking the salve.  The first stage takes however long it takes, but often no more than a few minutes if you have started growing your own herbs. The second stage takes from two to three weeks of mostly passive waiting. The final stage will generally take a couple of hours of kitchen time. I'll list the equipment you'll need for each stage in a box.

Collecting herbs

Step 1:  Choosing herbs and essential oils 

There are a great many herbs you can use to make herbal salves. I will go into depth on some of these in other posts and link from here whenever possible. You can even use only purchased essential oils diluted in a carrier oil and leave out the whole section on infused oils, but I recommend using infused oil together with essential oils, because they each provide different types of medicinal benefits and essential oils alone don't appear to provide the same kind of relief of symptoms.

The second stage of this guide will show you how to make an infused oil that is a key ingredient in medicinal salve. Here's a short list you can use to determine which herb or herbs might be most useful for your specific needs.

Herbs for infused oil:

Mint - image by Gogo of Wikipedia

Mint - image by Gogo of Wikipedia

  • Plantain leaves: For an excellent, speedy healing salve and to add to other salves
  • Mint leaves: For an amazingly effective eczema salve
  • Nettle leaves: For anti-allergenic salve (you’ll need gloves to pick and process them but just do the same as you would with other herbs and the result will reduce itching, rather than causing it)
  • The petals of calendula blossoms: For anti-fungal salve and burn remedy to use both to prevent athlete’s foot at the swimming pool and to treat mild sunburns
  • Yarrow blossoms: For a healing and mildly disinfectant salve that slows bleeding
  • Thyme blossoms and leaves: For healing and disinfectant salve to use on scrapes and small cuts
  • Lavender blossoms: For a good smelling salve that helps disinfect and dry out oily adolescent skin
  • Lemon balm leaves: For lip gloss that wards off cold sores with specific anti-viral action
  • Comfrey leaves:  For bruises, sprains and poorly healing (but thoroughly clean) wounds
  • Arnica leaves and flowers: For bruises
  • St. John's Wart flowering tops: For disinfectant salve for cuts and for burns (but keep in mind that the salve will increase the skin's sensitivity to the sun, the opposite of sun screen.)

It's also helpful to add some essential oil to your salve. While you won't need this for a couple of weeks, I'm mentioning these here because you may have to order the right essential oils through the mail and now is probably the time to do that, so that you will have them when the time comes. Choose an essential oil or two depending on your specific needs.

Essential oils for use in salve:

  • Mint essential oil is good to combine with mint infused oil for an excellent eczema salve. Mint essential oil is quite cooling and will help with any itchy condition, so it is good to add it to nettle, calendula and plantain salves that will often be used for itchy things.
  • Pine, sage or thyme essential oils help fight germs, so use them in salves that will be used on scrapes and cuts
  • Lavender essential oil smells wonderful and is mildly disinfectant. Good for anti-pimple face salve.
  • Tea tree essential oil is strongly anti-fungal but it doesn’t smell very good for general use. Use it for anti-fungal salves, such as for athlete’s foot.

Step 2: Collecting herbs

When you go out to collect herbs, make sure that the area hasn't been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. Many of these chemicals are highly toxic and those used on lawns and hedges are often not approved for food or medicinal crops, so they are likely to be even worse than those you find on non-organic produce. It is usually inadvisable to collect herbs in maintained parks or other places with mowed lawns, unless the owner has told you they don't spray (and given you permission to gather). 

In stage one you'll need:

  • scissors and/or clippers
  • a basket or paper bag
  • possibly some diluted geranium essential oil to ward off the ticks (see my post on this) 

The herbs I have listed are among the safest herbs for use in salves. Still, it’s best to choose herbs that you already know and can find locally when you’re first starting out. Check your identification of plants and be aware that while it’s rare, some people do have allergic reactions even to mild plants. 

Most salves use above-ground parts of plants, either leaves or flowers. It is rarely necessary to dig up or pull up the plants and this should be avoided. Use scissors or clippers to cut stems and flowers, whenever possible. This will avoid bruising the plants, which is better for your collected herbs and better for the plants that will grow medicine for you again in a few weeks.

Gather enough of the herb so that you can fill a small canning jar with pieces of it. For a family, one quart jar of infused oil per herb is usually plenty for the year. I sometimes make two jars for my most useful salves because I have a lot of friends who come around asking for them. You can store your herbs in the refrigerator for up to two days before going on to the next stage or you can dry them and use dried herbs for the next step, but I recommend using them fresh whenever possible.

Cutting herbs.jpg

Making infused oil

Step 3: Separating and cutting herbs

Separate small flowers such as yarrow and lavender and small leaves such as thyme from the stems by gripping the stem firmly in one hand and the flower or leaves more loosely in the other and pull the stems to strip off leaves and flowers. Cut large leaves or blossoms into half-inch pieces.

Step 4: Putting the herbs into infusing jars

In stage two you will need: 

  • a knife
  • a cutting board
  • clean glass jars with lids
  • olive, almond or another oil
  • a butter knife or chopstick
  • a spoon
  • sticky labels or paper and clear tape
  • a waterproof, permanent marker
  • a sunny window sill or an undisturbed spot outdoors

Try to use jars that are just large enough to contain your herbs. Your oil will be preserved better if the jar is pretty much full of herbs.

Sterilize your jars either by pouring boiling water over them or by running them through the dishwasher.

Gently pack your chopped herbs into clear glass canning jars. They will stay down correctly in the next step if you have packed them in a bit rather than letting them be fluffy and loose. Your salve will also be more potent.

Step 5: Pouring oil into the jars

Choose a base oil for your salve. I use olive oil because it is cheaper than most and good for dry skin. You can also use almond oil or even lard. It may depend on if you have any sensitivities to certain oils and what is available.

Pour your base oil into the jars until the oil completely covers the herbs. Use a butter knife or a chopstick to stab down into the jar and release air bubbles. This will require you to pour in more oil. Keep topping it off until the air bubbles are all gone and the oil stops trickling down inside the jar. Make sure all the bits of herb are under the oil. It’s important to keep them covered or they can grow mold. Use the back of a spoon to gently press stray leaves and petals down under the surface.

Step 6: Labeling your jars

Write the name of the herb and the date on each jar. Do not skip this step. You really will not remember and the herbs will not look the same once the oil is brewed.

Step 7: Brewing your infused oil

Gently close the lids to your jars. Don’t screw them down tight.

Then set your jars someplace where they will get direct sunlight for at least a few hours of the day. The rays of the sun will both act to preserve the oil and release the medicinal compounds of the herbs into the oil.

Check your oil once a day for the first few days. Stick your butter knife or chopstick down to the bottom of the jar again to release any extra bubbles and top off the oil again. Make sure all the leaves and petals are covered by oil and close it up again.

Wait two to three weeks and your oil will be infused by the energy of the sun.

Cooking the salve

Stage three can be done all in one day or you can strain your oil and keep it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks before making salve.

Step 8: Straining your infused oil

In stage three you will need:

  • a glass or ceramic bowl
  • cheese cloth or straining cloth
  • scissors
  • more clean jars to store your strained oil in
  • A pan (use enamel if possible, otherwise stainless steal, if possible use a pan that will only be used to make salve as it will be difficult to clean)
  • a stove with a low heat setting
  •  bees wax cut into pieces
  • a spoon
  • essential oils
  • liquid vitamin E or large vitamin E capsules and some very sharp scissors
  • new or recycled salve and lotion containers or small jars and plastic containers
  • a ladle or a measuring cup with a spout
  • a funnel
  • Sticky labels or paper and tape, a good permanent pen or a printer

Cut a large piece of cheese cloth for each jar of infused oil. Place a piece of cheese cloth over your bowl and carefully dump the contents of one of your herb-and-oil jars onto it. Grasp the corners of the cheese clothe and lift it so that all the herb material stays in the cheese cloth. Carefully wrap it into a package and wring it out like a wet swimming suit to get all the oil out of the herbs.

Look at the interesting colors of your oil. Some will be very dark green or almost black, others will still be light and golden, some may even be reddish. This depends on which herb you have used.

If necessary, you can store this strained oil for a few days before making salve but you now have to store it in the refrigerator and don’t forget to label it again!

Step 9:  Heating your oil

Pour your infused herbal oil into a pan. You can make several different kinds of salve by heating each type of oil separately, thus intensifying the properties of each herb, or you can make a salve that combines a little of each of the properties of the herbs. If you mix them all together you’ll have a general healing salve, but it won’t be as strong for a specific purpose. Even so, I often add a little plantain to a lot of different salves because it is good for almost everything.

Heat the oil slowly on a low heat while you prepare the other ingredients of your salve. Try NOT to let your oil boil. Some herbs lose medicinal potency if they’re boiled, so use a low heat and keep an eye on it.

Caution: Boiling oil is notorious with good reason. It can spatter, causing significant burns, and even catch fire.

Step 10: Adding wax and testing for consistency

Now is when this starts to look like magic. Once your oil is warm, add some pieces of bees wax to your oil and slowly melt them. The official ratio is about one ounce wax to one cup of oil but this isn’t exact.

I suggest starting with a chunk of wax about as big as a tennis ball for a quart of oil. Let the wax melt into the hot oil. Then turn off the heat and put a small amount of the hot oil onto a spoon and place it in the freezer for 3 to 5 minutes until it is cool but not freezing.

Then test out the consistency of the salve on your skin. You’ll want a different consistency for different things. A lip gloss should be pretty firm and a facial salve will also want a bit of set to it, while a salve for eczema or scrapes will need to be a little softer but still thick enough to hold its shape.

If the salve isn’t thick enough yet, add some smaller pieces of wax, let them melt and try the spoon in the freezer again until you get the right consistency.

Then turn off the heat and take your pan of the stove.

Step 11: Adding good smells and preservatives

This is where you get to use the essential oils you chose in step one.

Both essential oils and vitamin E are heat sensitive, so do this step once the heat is off. Add about 20 to 30 drops of essential oil per half quart of oil. Be careful not to put your face right over the pan while you do this. The vapor from hot essential oil is very intense and can burn your eyes and nose.

Stir and add a teaspoon of vitamin E or cut open and squeeze out five or six capsules of vitamin E. Vitamin E helps to make your salve last longer and it is good for your skin when it’s diluted.

Don’t leave undiluted essential oil or vitamin E on your skin. If you get it on you, wash it off. Even though it doesn’t hurt you immediately, it can cause skin damage.

Step 12:  Pouring your salve into containers

Carefully ladle your oil and wax mixture into salve containers when it is still hot. Don’t let it cool in the pan. The salve will be very hot and hard to remove from skin quickly, so be very careful not to spill it on yourself or on children.

Step 13: Labeling and storing your salve

Let your salve cool and solidify before you move it, but on’t forget to label your salve containers right away. It will be impossible to tell which kind is which later or even to remember what exactly you put in it, even if you made only one kind. Include the date. Salve made like this lasts six months to a year if stored in a cool dark place.

That’s it. You’ve made real medicine that can stand up well in comparison with specialty pharmaceutical salve or ointment for healing ability, anti-fungal action, eczema reduction or allergy control.

I love hearing from you. What are your experiences and experiments with herbs? If you haven't started using herbal medicinals yet, what sparked your interest in this topic? Feel free to comment with the comment button at the bottom of this post on the left or share this post with your social networks using the share button on the bottom right. 

Note:  Please remember that this is not medical advice for your specific needs. 

Five Amazing Things You Can Do with Essential Oils: Home Medicine Cycle 5

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.

Image by Hugo.arg at the Samogitian language Wikipedia 

Image by Hugo.arg at the Samogitian language Wikipedia 

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.