Your Essential Oil Toolkit

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. ]

The Picks:

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.

Some ideas:

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.

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  1. I like this post, but that’s because I love essential oils too, especially the ones you mentioned but also lemon verbena.

    One other use for lavender essential oil is to rub a few drops on your feet to get rid of fungal problems; the itch will go away after 1-3 uses.

    • Good point. I use a citronella balm for biting bugs. The disadvantage with it, I’ve noticed, is that bees love the smell. So it’s fine at night, but if I wear it during the day I have to sit very, very, still while visitors crawl over my body, sniffing.

      Have you noticed bees sniffing around you out there in NC? Or did the mosquitoes eat them?

  2. Make sure you _never_ use tea tree oil on your cat. Even a little bit overwhelms their little livers and it can kill them easily.

  3. These are definitely the top three essential oils I use, and usually the ones I bring along for travel. A few other uses:

    * A drop of lavender oil under your nostrils before a flight makes the recycled air much more pleasent and calms you down.

    * Peppermint oil (usually diluted) can ease the itching of bug bites.

    * I’d adjust the recommendation for a drop of peppermint oil in a glass of water to 1 drop for 1-2 litres/quarts of water. Even at 1 drop per liter/quart, I find it strong. Also remember that peppermint oil is stimulating, so it’s a bad idea before bed.

    • You’re right about changing the cup to litre/quart. I was typing while tired! I’ll change it in the post.

      And you know, I think peppermint, tea tree and lav are all good on bug bites!

  4. “Concentrated scent essence” starts my allergies to kick in. No one has ever convinced me to try essential oils since scents of most kinds really bother me. There are few scents in commercial use that I can tolerate without suffering–cologe, perfume, etc. When any plant touches me, I break out in hives. Yes, I have rough time growing anything. You make it all sound so appealing.

  5. I stopped by your pages because of the rocket stove entry but then stumbled onto this page. I would like to offer some friendly advice. If you want to get the highest quality essential oils (therapeutic grade) then look to Young Living oils. These are pure oils, no fillers and are safe to consume internally. Most of the oils sold at health food stores have warnings on the label stating that they are NOT to be ingested. My family uses Young Living oils exclusively for all of our health and wellness needs for the past 2 years. Very informative article by the way! [email protected]

  6. Great post.
    I use 2-3 drops of lavender essential oil on my pillowcase to ensure a good night’s sleep whenever I’m stressed or overtired.
    The Australian government, during WWII, issued small bottles of tea tree oil to its soldiers to use on their feet to prevent/heal fungal infections from wearing wet/sweaty shoes & socks. I use a tea tree oil rinse ( 2-3 drops in a cup of water) on my feet, applied with a washcloth, whenever I’ve worn my sneakers for a full day – then I use a tea tree oil spray (same mix in a spray bottle) inside my shoes and dry them in the sun – helps prevent that grungy smell and look.

  7. While I love essential oils, it is important to note that some of them can be toxic to pets, particularly cats. Sadly, the three you mentioned are considered toxic to cats, which sucks because I really like those oils. I think it is primarily an issue with their livers. They are unable to metabolize the oils and they build up to toxic levels.

  8. There is a small but noticeable number of people (I am one of them, and I know others who aren’t related to me) who get really nasty migraines from lavender oil, so be careful when plotting to make your whole house smell that way by adding it to cleaning products and every lotion you own! For the record, being sensitive to lavender makes shopping at any natural health and beauty store a real pain.

    Also, I’m not sure why this isn’t a really common use, but peppermint oil is the absolute best solution I’ve ever found to those encroaching ants in the kitchen every spring. Mix up a little water with a few drops of peppermint oil, wipe down all the surfaces and the floor, and they simply vanish. (Mint oils are neurotoxic to many insects, and they will head out to find a more hospitable location.) Some people say you can mint-oil bomb a badly infested basement to get rid of them altogether, but I haven’t had that experience yet.

    • I came home one day to find what seemed like an entire colony of ants in my mailbox. I put some Young Living Peppermint essential oil on a cotton ball and put it in the mailbox. All the ants disappeared by the next morning and never came back…

  9. Do you know of any way to make one’s own essential oils? I have a melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) in my Long Beach back yard that is abundantly happy. I’d love to be able to just use the excess foliage.

    • Essential oils are usually made by distillation: i.e. you need a still to make them. Believe me, I’ve wanted one for years.

      We scratched our heads over designing a homemade still for Making It, but you really can’t get around the welding—-I tried some less involved workarounds like stove top stills–none of which worked at all. We had to cut the project idea in the end because asking folks to weld seemed a little extreme. And if they already know how to weld, I bet they can make a still without our help.

      Excuse me for rambling on….

    • To be honest, it would be the perfect excuse to get my husband to teach me how to weld.

      Especially if I don’t tell him what I’m making the still for…….

  10. Anyone have any tips on growing lavender from seed? I scattered some seeds in the spring but nothing germinated.

    Or is it better just to transplant plants from the nursery?

    • We’re all for seeds, but in the case of perennials like lavender, it’s a whole lot easier just to buy seedlings from the nursery– especially since you probably only want a couple plants, right? Get the youngest seedlings you can–the ones in the little pots–not the tempting, big plants in big pots. The little plants will grow fast and are likely be healthier than older ones. And they’re cheaper.

  11. I struggled with nail fungus (yuck) for several years, with regular appointments with a podiatrist. I was given a choice–smelly stuff to paint on my toenails and remove once per week with nail polish remover, or some internal medication that required liver tests. I picked the paint-on stuff. It was working, slowly, over a period of months, but I was tired of the routine, and the nail polish remover, etc. So, I did some research and found tea tree oil. The difference was amazing. I put it on twice per day, and in the time it took for the nails to grow out, they were clear, and have remained so. That was in 2006.

  12. Add lavender oil to your tea tree cleaning solution to up the disinfectant power–there is a synergistic effect. Add eucalyptus oil to the peppermint oil in your steam inhalation–sinus relief for several hours! Peppermint oil deters mice as well as ants. I put some on cotton balls in the fall and leave along the back wall of cupboards where we have had problems with mice entering in the past–haven’t had them for years. I use geranium oil, diluted in water, to bathe itchy bug bites. It is irritating if used neat. Lavender oil is fantastic for 1st and 2nd degree burns in my experience. Regarding lavender and headaches, most people find a drop or two soothing, but a lot to be stimulating, so avoid or use just one drop if prone to headaches. Regarding lavender from seed, best to start it indoors weeks ahead or buy a plant from the nursery. It likes a Mediterranean climate, so can be fussy to establish in cooler climates. Munstead lavender is a bit more cold-tolerant than some others. Here in New England, I cover it with Christmas tree boughs in early January to protect it from mid- and late-winter freeze/thaw cycles.

  13. Tea tree oil can kill human tissue, too, if it gets in open wounds.

    It’s water sensitive, so it loses efficacy quickly (IIRC, within a day) when diluted with anything but a pure oil.

    • Good to know about the water thing, thanks! I haven’t heard anything about the killing-tissue problem, though–as I understand it’s being looked at very closely by the medical community as a possible solution to persistent staph infections in wounds.

  14. If you make your own oils, would love to read about the process. I have many lavendar plants and have dried a significant amount this year.

  15. Years ago, I learned to dab tea tree oil on bug bites and it SOOOO helps get rid of the itch.

    I’ve been using it that way for at least 20 years and didn’t hear about the adverse affects on cats until this year. Monte, our 15 year old cat, has never suffered for OUR personal use of it (on our own bodies), but we never put it on her.

  16. Such a great article! I think the three oils you picked are certainly my top three for soap making. They’re super popular for all the reasons you’ve already mentioned.

    Once when I was in college I had this horrible throat infection that wouldn’t go away despite multiple rounds of antibiotics. A friend’s mom, who happened to be a naturapath, suggested that I gargle with a water/tea tree oil solution. It worked!

  17. i get my essential oils (and other lovely products) from MountainRoseHerbs. The founder of Young Living – D Gary Young – is surrounded by controversy and the prices of the oils are very high.

  18. I get my oils from They source their oils from the same places throughout the world as Young Living and DoTerra, and they have a comparison list for blends so if you like one of the high priced blends from one of the big network marketing companies, you can get it from youressentialoils for about half the price. I’ve been using them for 6 months, and the quality is excellent.

  19. What is the trick to opening a new essential oil bottle? I am pressing down and turning and it just clicks… my hands are now numb. It’s certainly a bother…. any pointers out there?

    • The 10 or 15 ml bottles from most essential oils companies have a cap equipped with a tamper-proof ring that usually snaps free at the first use, and after that the lid screws off like a normal bottle. It’s not a press-and-twist lid. I have seen some lids that are press-and-twist, however. If you have the non press-and-twist type, just take a knife or a sharp object of some kind and cut the little plastic nobs that hold the ring that shows the bottle has not been opened. You have many other options for companies with lids that come off easily. See

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