A few bottles of essential oils are an important part of the DIY toolkit, but some people don’t ever try them because they are so expensive. I can’t deny that they are pricey, but once you start using them, and you see how far they stretch and how many uses they can be put to, you’ll start to understand why they’d be a bargain at twice the price. Best of all, the most useful oils (to my way of thinking) are the cheapest.
My picks are: lavender essential oil, peppermint essential oil and tea tree oil. These three would make a good starter set for anyone, and are also a good trio to take traveling with you. All of them are on the low end of the essential oil price scale.
[Ah! Before I go on, Erik reminds me that not everyone knows what essential oils are. He’d never heard of them before he married me. Essential oils are the distilled, concentrated scent essence of plants: “volatile aroma compounds” according to Wikipedia. They are also called volatile oils. Most are made processing fresh plant matter in a still, though some are made through other extraction processes. As scenting agents, essential oils are great alternatives to synthetic perfumes, and they play a role in the world of alternative medicine. I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in my experience here in the U.S., they are sold in health food stores, in the cosmetic sections, in tiny bottles on special display racks. You can also order them online, where you can often get a better price by buying larger quantities. ]
Lavender Essential Oil: Soothing, universally appealing, and endlessly useful
Put a dab directly on the skin* to soothe itchy bug bites
Use it on small burns to speed healing and soothe the pain.
Mix a few drops with a cheaper, nuetral oil (olive oil will do) and massage it into the skin to ease tired, aching muscles. Try the same thing for sunburn.
Put a few drops in your hot bath to unwind
Lean over a steam bowl filled with hot water and a few drops of lavender for headaches, sinus problems, or just a really bad cold.
Pass a bottle around the car on a long trip when everyone is getting fractious, or use it on your own to survive your commute. Sniff and breathe.
Rub a few drops on your temples when before you go to sleep.
If you make your own balms and lotions and other potions, lavender is s very useful scent. If you can only have only one essential oil, this is it. It’s a mild oil, it doesn’t cause photosensitivity, and most people like the scent.**
Add a few drops to one of my olive oil lamps for scent.
You can also use it to scent homemade cleaning products. It is somewhat antibacterial.
*Unlike most other essential oils, lavender essential oil does not have to be diluted before applying to the skin.
**Even though lavender oil is pretty well received by most people, there’s always going to be some people who don’t react well to it. Test any new-to-you essential oil by dabbing a little on your inner arm and waiting to see if anything happens. Pregnant women should be cautious of all essential oils.
Peppermint Essential Oil: The Workhorse
If I had to choose just one scent for my homemade cleaning products, I’d choose peppermint, because a whiff of it is stimulating–and I need plenty of stimulation to clean the house.
- Stir a few drops into a cup of baking soda to make a scented scrubbing powder
- Mix baking soda, castile soap, and peppermint drops to make a scrubbing paste
- Put a few drops in your mopping water
- Add it to your vinegar & water cleaning spray
If you have an upset belly due to overindulgence, put a drop of peppermint essential oil into a quart bottle full of water and shake. No more than 1 drop! Too much will make you sick.You’ll be surprised how strong one drop is. Sip on this. It should feel good. Don’t force it down–if it’s making your stomach upset, it’s too strong. Dilute it more. Used sparingly, the peppermint oil really helps your shocked stomach relax. It’s saved me after many a too-large meal, especially when I’m traveling.
Make a quick and dirty toothpaste by mixing a few drops of peppermint essential oil with a small amount of baking soda.
Put a drop on your otherwise empty toothbrush to really clean the moss off your teeth and tongue.
You can put a few drops in your bath for that nice “ahh” feeling–it opens the nose– but be careful because too much of the oil on your skin becomes strangely and unpleasantly tingly.
A drop or two in a steam bowl will help clear the nose and open the sinuses, ease headaches and even help nausea. Just a whiff out of the bottle will help all these things, too.
Apply a drop to your temples to ease a tension headache. Combine with lavender.
Note: Be careful applying peppermint essential oil directly to your skin–you may find it too intense, it might burn or itch. Always use the minimal amount necessary. You may want to mix it with a neutral oil and keep a little bottle of that on hand. It will prevent any discomfort and make your essential oil last longer.
Tea Tree Oil: The Panacea
Tea Tree Oil, or melaleuca oil, is distilled from the leaves of Melaleuca alternifolia, a tree native to Australia. It has a strong, camphor-like scent that people seem to either like or hate. It has impressive antiseptic, anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. I’d recommend a reading of the Wikipedia entry on it. Tea tree oil is basically anti-everything, so you use it when you want to kill bugs dead.
A note on buying it: in my experience, tea tree oil is not sold in the little racks alongside all the other essential oils. For some reason it is usually to be found somewhere else in the medicine/cosmetic section of a health food store, usually in larger bottles. Tea Tree Oil also pops up in drugstores sometimes–and it’s even a standard fixture in our local Trader Joes.
Some of the tea tree oil products you find on the shelf are already diluted for specific purposes. If you buy it straight, consider diluting it with water or oil if you’re going to put it on your skin. I don’t have any problem with direct application, but it is strong stuff.
Add it to any homemade cleaning solution when you want extra santitizing power.
Try putting some in a spray bottle filled with water or vinegar and using it on moldy or mildew items. I’ve used it very successfully on mildewed camping gear.
Apply it neat to pimples using a cotton swab. If it dries or irritates your skin, dilute it with a carrier oil, which is almost any plain oil, even olive oil. (No, olive oil won’t make your pimples worse).
Use it on small wounds.
Use it in homemade deodorant preparations.
Mix a few drops in a bottle of water to make an antiseptic astringent. Shake before each use.
You’re not supposed to swallow it, but you can dab it on cold sores.
Apply it to toenails with fungal infections. Apply it to warts. Try it on athlete’s foot. Apply to anything fungal.
It kills lice. You can mix it with oil and comb through the hair, or put it in shampoo.
Pet Safety Note: A couple of commenters have noted that tea tree oil and other essentials are toxic to cats and may also be to dogs. For more on this issue, see this article.
In general, we are very cautious with our cats, and don’t use essential oils on them, knowing that cats are unable to metabolize many substances that humans (and sometimes dogs) can tolerate.