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Herbs or Essential Oils – Which is Better?

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This is a guest post by Amber Bradshaw of The Coastal Homestead discussing two of the hottest trends in alternative medicine – herbs and essential oils.

Are herbs or essential oils better? We compare price, ease of use and safety, and offer suggestions for trusted herb and essential oil resources.

Herbs or Essential Oils – Which is Better?

The use of herbs and herbal oils have both been documented for thousands of years, from hieroglyphics to teachings in the bible. (Editor's Note:  Ancient texts more commonly reference infused herbal oils or pressed oils rather than distilled or essential oils.)  Herbs and essential oils have been used in medicine, food preparation, preservation, healing, and rituals.

Now we have a new era of people who want to reconnect with Mother Nature and holistic practices. In the last decade the herb and essential oils movements have grown enormously. Essential oil sales alone were in the billions last year and estimated to grow to over eleven billion by 2020.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both herbs and essential oils. In this post I've done a step by step comparison of the two, sharing my research and opinions. Hopefully I've provided you with enough information to make your own decision on what is right for you and your needs.

What’s the Difference Between Herbs and Essential Oils?

Herbs are the plant, root, stem, flower or leaf, either fresh cut or dried.

Essential oils are the concentrated essence of the plant. Essential Oils are distilled and the whole plant constituents are not present, just the oils.

A good comparison for this is the process of extracting vitamin C from an apple. Scientist discovered vitamin C was good for us so they isolated the compound and extracted it and put it in a pill. They failed to realize that the other 10,000 compounds and constituents of that apple help make the vitamin C bio-available to our bodies.

When working with herbs, it's best to build a relationship with them in their environment and where they grow. You cannot get that by opening a bottle.

In choosing between herbs and essential oils, it is good to research the benefits of both for the specific condition or use.

Always ask your doctor or other medical professional when taking herbs or essential oils for health. Many herbs interact with prescription drugs and are not recommend for use by someone who is pregnant or nursing.

Which is More Affordable – Herbs or Essential Oils?

In working with herbs for over 30 years, I never looked into the big essential oil companies (MLM Multi-level marketing). I never felt the need or desire to, since I have everything I need right outside my door. But during my recent research, I was in utter shock and extremely saddened by the monetizing and monopolizing of Mother Nature. In my opinion, the prices they (MLM companies) are charging people for essential oils is outrageous.

Healing and health should belong to everyone. It is not meant for the rich or the select, it was given to us all. Weeds are herbs, trees are herbs, flowers are herbs – and all of them can provide food and medicine without spending a dime. I can show you a weed in your yard that can do the same thing as that 10ml $60.00 essential oil bottle. Education is the key in knowing how to use and apply these herbs in order to save money.

Herbs (either wild or home grown) win for affordability.

Which is Better for the Earth – Herbs or Essential Oils?

In the herbal classes I teach, I talk about sustainability and what it means. Respect for the earth and its resources needs to be an essential part of that journey. Essential oils are not necessarily a sustainable or earth-friendly product. Making essential oils can take hundreds, even thousands, of pounds of plant material to make one pound of essential oil. The article “Concerns over Essential Oils” states:

…it takes 50-60 pounds of eucalyptus to produce one pound of eucalyptus oil, 200-250 pounds of lavender for one pound of lavender oil, 2,000 pounds of cypress for a pound of cypress oil and as many as 10,000 pounds of rose blossoms for one pound of rose oil. Production of these source crops takes place all over the world and is often organized by large multinational corporations with little regard for local economies or ecosystems.

Make no mistake – essential oils are big business.

Overharvesting for both herbs and essential oils has placed many medicinal species at risk of extinction.We are at risk of losing invaluable medicine and perhaps the cures to diseases. Commercial exploitation has also sometimes led to traditional medicines becoming unavailable to the indigenous peoples that have relied on them for centuries or millennia. Worldwide, between 50,000 and 80,000 flowering plants are used medicinally. Of these, at least 15,000 may face extinction due to overharvesting and habitat loss.

When it comes to being earth-friendly, local herbs harvested responsibly (either planted or wild) win this one.

If you would like to get involved in saving our herbs and plants, contact United Plant Savers.

Which is Easier to Use – Herbs or Essential Oils?

Although many gardeners and herbalists have herb gardens that rival any nursery, not everyone has a plethora of herbs at their disposal. Making tinctures, decoctions, infusions, etc. can also be time consuming and rigorous. Certain herbs can be hard to obtain or won’t grow well in your climate and wild herb identification and foraging can take time to learn.

Essential oils are easy to purchase from your local health food store or online and very portable, so for these reasons essential oils win for ease of use.

(Editor's Note: Many times local herbs may be substituted with good results. Some herbs, like plantain, grow wild over much of the planet, and all you have to do to use it is crush and apply to the affected area. I'd argue that at least in some cases, herbs are easier to use than essential oils.)

Which is Safer to Use – Herbs or Oils?

One of the herbal and essential oil trends that I have noticed recently is the sheer lack of education and the lack of research people invest when it comes to all things “natural”. Opium is natural but it kills over 25,000 people per year. Mushrooms are natural (and delicious) but just a tiny bite of the wrong one is fatal. Even drinking water can kill you if you drink too much too fast. “Natural” doesn’t equal safe – too much of a good thing can hurt or even kill you.

Essential oils are 75 – 100 times more concentrated than whole herbs. One drop of essential oil could be equivalent to a handful or pounds of the herb. Just one drop of lemon essential oil is equivalent to one pound of lemons.

Individuals are medicating and overdosing themselves and their children with essential oils due to lack of education. The Tennessee Poison Center (TPC) housed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center reported the number of essential oil exposures doubled between 2011 and 2015 and 80 percent of cases involved children.

Essential oil companies and their distributors have been issued a warning by the FDA because they are giving medical advice, recommending dosages and making claims of curing sickness and disease. They are diagnosing and treating customers with no medical training and very little herbal background, which is dangerous.

Due to their extremely concentrated nature, some oils must be treated as hazardous when spilled. For instance, Mountain Rose Herbs shares that a tea tree oil spill should be absorbed with an inert material, sealed in a container and taken to a hazardous waste disposal site. Herb spills can be swept up and composted.

Because of the misuse of oils in recent years and their strong concentrations, herbs win for safety.

Are herbs or essential oils better? We compare price, ease of use and safety, and offer suggestions for trusted herb and essential oil resources.

How to Choose When to Use Herbs or Essential Oils

I don’t think you have to choose between one or the other (herbs/essential oils) but rather incorporate them both as needed. The most important thing is to do your research to use your choice of herbs or essential oils safely. Always double check with your health care provider if you are on prescription medications, nursing or pregnant before using herbs or essential oils. Note: Essential oils should never be used on cats and small animals. See Animal Aromatherapy and Essential Oil Safety from the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy for more information.

There are good resources available to help you use herbs and oils safely. One of my favorite resources for herb use is Rosemary Gladstar's “Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow, and Use“. The Herbal Academy offers a number of online courses to help you use herbs safely. You can learn more about their courses here. Laurie also includes herbs and essential oils in her Common Sense Home Remedies series e-books.

Anything Strong Enough to Be Used as Medicine Should be Used with Care

Whether you choose herbs or essential oils, always use caution, especially the first time you use a new herb or oil, and don't use undiluted (neat) essential oils directly on the skin. Essential oils should only be used internally under the care of a trained healthcare practitioner. Although rare, allergic reactions can happen. It is also possible for sensitivity to build up over time, especially to essential oils.

Which do you prefer – herbs or essential oils? Leave a comment and share your experience.

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Amber Bradshaw

This post is by Amber Bradshaw of My Homestead Life.

Amber and her family moved from their tiny homestead by the ocean in South Carolina to forty-six acres in the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee.
While building their off-the-grid homestead, they live like the days of old – cooking without electricity, collecting water from the creek and raising chickens, goats, pigs, turkeys, bees, and guineas. They've recently filmed their journey for a TV show on the Discovery Channel and the DIY Network/HGTV called Building Off The Grid: The Smokey Mountain Homestead.

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31 Comments

  1. Wonderful post, Amber. Thank you for dispelling the myth that Essential Oils are miracle cures. I, too, prefer infused oils to essential oils, where you can extract a lot of the good plant constituents. The one spot where I believe essential oils to be better than herbs alone is when you need a fast antimicrobial. Then I like to combine a few drops of essential oils with an herbal infused vinegar, oil, or witch hazel. Essential oils do “antimicrobial” very well. I also like to use them for flavour, or scent. Like in a solid perfume or in a lip balm.

  2. Hmm. Until I read the guest author’s biography I wondered if you, Laurie, had somehow read my mind and written down my viewpoints! Essential oils are wonderful, IF you know how to use them and when you shouldn’t. Too many people are too cavalier in the usage, thus resulting in calls to poison control. This carelessness will eventually result in essential oils (and soon thereafter) herbs being considered “dangerous” by our government and then become highly regulated and thus, not available for purchase. I am making a deliberate effort to learn to grow, preserve, and use herbs.

  3. Thank you for offering this giveaway! I’d like to try the luffa soap and I’ve never used soap nuts so it would be fun to win either package! The Beyond the Basics course from Vintage Remedies looks like it would be very useful. I really appreciated Amber’s article as I have wondered about some plants becoming extinct with all the essential oil MLM stuff going on. In addition, I have a friend who became super sensitized to oils from over-use, as many have. I appreciate that you are getting good information out there! To me, sticking as close to what God originally provided for us always makes the most sense, so herbs are a win! I’m getting ready to watch a replay of your talk on the Self Reliance Summit, Laurie – I always learn something new from you and I appreciate all of your efforts to educate people!

    1. Thank you, Brenda. I’m glad you enjoyed the Self-reliance Summit. I was more fired up about EOs a few years when they were recommended by a local friend, and I invested in an assortment of them. Then I found out I’m one of the people who are extremely sensitive to even small amounts, so I have to be very careful with their use. Whole herbs are much easier on my system. I also had a not so great experience with the MLM company that was being promoted by the friend. Way too much emphasis on selling and not nearly enough time spent on education.

  4. I first of want to say I am a newish subscriber for maybe a month or so now and all the practical information and encouragement for those of us wanting to incorporate a homesteading type lifestyle is fantastic! I look forward to reading your email every week! I agree essential oils must be used with
    Caution and truly we need to make sure we are using pure oils not infiltrated with harmful pesticides and herbacides. I have just completed some training on Hydrosols which are a super safe alternative to essential oils but also weave in the herbal benefits/components of the plant material. I truly feel a balance of herbs and essential oils and knowing the protocol on when to use which for what is the key!

    1. Welcome, Hannah, and I’m glad you enjoy the newsletter. Hydrosols are something I haven’t experimented with yet, but I have friends that make them and they look like a more practical alternative for many uses. Once you get started, there’s always more to learn!

  5. What would interest me about the herbal/EO bundle is:

    1. Skin care products & remedies (I’m a retired mechanic with chemical damage to the skin of my hands & forearms due to the use of harsh solvents & degreasers for many years.

    2. Herbal remedies to treat UTIs because I’m susceptible to those types of infections. I’ve used a Macedonian herbal tea in the past but it is unavailable locally & somewhat expensive to obtain online.

  6. Thank you so much for this article. I can honestly say that I did not know that there was a difference between infused oils and essential oils. I still in the beginning phases of learning different herbs and their uses, so information like this helps me tremendously.

  7. Informative article. I love that you said that anything strong enough to be used as medicine should be handled with care. We have used oils for almost 20 years and it’s amazing to me that people almost seem to have a dual thought process about them – “it’s a miracle cure” along side “it’s just oils”. You can’t think those things together. That’s how people end up using them wrong and doing damage.

    We’ve always used oils for the simple fact that for us, they seemed easier. I’d really love to know more about both, though. 🙂

  8. I think most helpful in the herbal/eo bundle will be the remedies for seasonal allergies and headaches. Also the 30 easiest plants for healing to grow.

  9. I am so glad for this bundle and the resources for learning more about herbs and essential oils. I’m incorporating both herbs and EOs into our health practices. The book from seed to apothecary caught my eye.

  10. Keep spreading the word, its human nature not to want to change but little bits of info makes them think.
    Have a great day. 🙂

  11. There is beneficial information in the book descriptions so can only imagine the wealth of knowledge at your fingertips when you have the complete book bundle–no more guesswork.

    1. oop. I”m supposed to write about what I’d like to try/what would be helpful. Honestly, all of it. I’m trying to switch over to more natural products. The lip balm might be the most practical, though, because I use a lot of it. I’ve thought of making my own, I’ve just never gotten around to it.

  12. Great post! I see many different things in the bundle that would interest me. I use both herbs and essential oils and am knowledgeable on how to use them. But, you can never know too much and I’m always looking for more info to ingest. Home Grown Healing, the Common Sense books and the Adaptogens book all caught my eye initially. There is a vast difference between herbs and oils; I think it’s so needed for people to understand the different uses and this bundle looks perfect! Thank you!

  13. Herbs or essential oils, which is better? I really believe they have their own uses, strengths, and weaknesses. Herbs are usually slower acting but that is because they aren’t as concentrated ( but they contain compounds that the EO does not). It so depends on what you are treating. Chronic issues seem to respond better to herbs and homeopathic remedies unless there is severe pain and EOs work fast on that. Bee/wasp stings or blunt trauma swelling can be stopped in moments with EOs. Far faster to drip a drop instead of mixing up a poultice of herbs, etc. I used to use a lot of hydrosols when I had refrigeration and would just add a drop or two of EO to round out and make a more complete chemical profile. I don’t believe one or the other is better, they have different uses depending on the situation.

  14. When speaking of herb, I am not clear whether you are referring to ingestion or inhalation? I’m investigating getting an Herbalizer for both cannabis and other herbs. Because my GI system is quite impaired, inhalation might be better for absorption and dose standardization. Could you comment on the delivery method: inhalation versus ingestion?

  15. This is a great post. I started w essential oils but am quickly converting to herbs. I own a very small business called NaturalTherapyPacks which I make using the herbs instead of oils and I’m hoping to start a online course on herbs this fall if I can swing the money. Im finding that I want to be more knowledgeable about what I’m offering and find out why I’m using the herbs I’m using so I can make a more informed decision.

    I will be copying this for my herb notebook. Thank you!!!

  16. I used to belong to an MLM essential oil company. After I left it, I discovered two brands of essential oils available via Amazon that are a fraction of the price of the MLM oils, and which work! (One of the statements I heard over and over again from the company was that “most essential oils out there aren’t as good as ours, and they won’t work!”)

    PS – there could be more brands sold via amazon that work, but I’ve only tried those two. 😉

  17. Hey thought I’d add that I used MLM essential oils for years but recently discovered a comparable company that shows its lab contents from a third party, I now use Revive they are very affordable and I like that it’s so quick and easy to make my own diluted roller balls for our needs.

  18. I couldnt agree more! I’m also leary of just consuming essential oils like herbs. I tend to use them for more external things like muscle pain, skin ailments external wounds, bites and steams for colds. Peppermint is one of the only ones we use internally some times but only because I can’t seem to remember to make an extract. Herbs are much more sustainable and we don’t have to rely on corporate farms and factories like essential oils. Funny I’ve been thinking of writing something similar myself. It is important to take the time to learn how to use herbs. That’s why we blend organic loose leaf teas, I feel that’s the gentlist easiest way to help the body and very accessable!

  19. Amazing article. I used both herbs and EOs. The ease of use part is a super important point, and also the availability. Just used Eucalyptus and Camphor EOs for my nephew’s sinuses – its practically impossible to find fresh herbs for this. One critical point though – the oils are now so commercialized and so many companies are there, that almost everything is fake and bad quality. I could get a few good brands in LA, but since we moved to Dubai it had been a nightmare to find oils. I finally found a great regional brand who have a good range, so I am happily back to using EOs. Leaving the coordinates here for any other seekers in the middle east – www. aromatierra.com.

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