When to use Herbs versus Essential Oils

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When to use Herbs versus Essential Oils. The differences between herbs and essential oils are explained, as well as when an essential oil or a herb is a more appropriate use for a project, craft, DIY beauty or in cooking and baking.

When to use Herbs versus Essential Oils

Using natural remedies has become a huge trend in this day and age and it comes from centuries-long traditions. While we here in the United States may have gotten away from natural remedies a while, the tradition is back and much more common than ever.

These days, using essential oils and herbs is very common and you can find all sorts of recipes and ideas online and in books for everything from remedies and medicinal uses to religious traditions to homemade bath products, and more crafty projects as well.

So how do you know when to use a herb vs. an oil, other than just doing what a recipe tells you to do? When is one more appropriate than another?

This post aims to give you some basics on both herbs and essential oils and break it down for you as far as the what and the why of when to use each so that you can understand your choices better. Hopefully, this will help you decide which to choose, and in what circumstances, to get the best results.

Both herbs and oils come from plants. This may seem obvious, but that is where it all starts. Herbs are plants that can vary a lot in size and character, but more often than not, they are usually succulent and soft in nature and not the type with woody stems and parts. Rosemary is one example of a herb, however, that does not fit that description, as it has woody stems and soft leaves, but is used very commonly as a herb, so it is hard to pin down an exact description that blankets them all.

Herbs are used for culinary, medicinal, cooking and crafting uses. They are the dried parts of the plant, like the leaves, flowers, seeds of the plants that are aromatic in nature, and they can also have wonderful flavor as well.

Essential oils are basically the extracted oils from the plant, instead of the dried plant material itself. It takes a lot of plant material to have a substantial amount of an essential oil and if you tried to make your own oils at home with your own herbs, you would probably not yield much oil at all. Essential oils and herbs have use versatility in common, as well as both being used for centuries for religious, medicinal, and beauty purposes. Today, essential oils are widely used all over the globe for homemade remedies, and homemade items, just like herbs are. The oils are extracted most commonly by steam distillation and many oils come from the leaves, or the peel of the plants or fruits, but can also come from the bark or roots as well.

So what is the difference between essential oils and herbs other than the form they take?

Essential oils are 50 to 70 times more potent than a herb. The extraction process itself a huge difference too, of course. Large companies who sell them go to major lengths to ensure the potency and purity of an essential oil if they are marketed for remedy and health purposes. Companies really have to be careful about how they market an essential oil.

This is why, when you purchase an essential oil it may seem quite expensive – especially when compared to a herb – but understanding the process that goes into making an essential oil (and how costly the process is) as well as the rarity of the plant and where it is located, brings the price into perspective.

A little goes a long way when using an essential oil. Many (most) products we make at home using essential oils use just a few drops at a time. The average bottle of essential oil has about 250-300 drops in it. If you figure out that you are using your essential oil a few times a week and you use two or three drops each time, well that bottle will last you several months.

Herbs, when you use them, use a small quantity as well (a teaspoon or a tablespoon) unless they are a more potent flavor, and you may just use a pinch. However, that is much more than a drop or two at a time. Herbs will be used up more quickly is used as regularly as an essential oil. You can, however, grow and dry your own herbs. This can make them very cost effective.

Generally speaking, an essential oil will have a longer shelf life than a herb. I personally have found, several times over my life, an expired bottle of a herb blend for cooking, that I used maybe once, or never at all, that is already expired and I have had to throw it out. It is easy to rotate them in your cabinet and easily miss that they are past the expiration date. This means not only are not safe anymore for use, but they probably have no flavor left anyway.

Essential oils can last up to a few years when stored properly and not in direct heat.

When making the choice to use a herb or essential oil, consider the product you are producing.

If you are making a liquid item that is for remedy or spa type of a use, more than likely the oil is best. It takes less of it to achieve a scent, and sometimes you would not want leaves or petals in the product either. If you making something where the petals would look pretty but does not require a concentrated scent, then add the herb instead. And, there are times when both an essential oil and a herb (or flower or fruit) will work well within the same product:
Homemade Rose Bath Bombs
Rose Petal Soap Recipe
Make Your Own Orange Creamsicle Soap

For cooking, herbs are more commonly used than essential oils. However, when using an essential oil for cooking or baking make certain it is a certified pure oil. If the essential oil says it is for “aromatherapy only” then do not use it in your cooking or baking. Those type of oils have been blended with perfumes or toxins to achieve the aroma and are not safe for ingestion. If your oil says it is “natural” “Organic” or “pure”, it may still have additives, so read the entire label to be certain the essential oil is fit for consumption. The FDA has given many companies approval for these additives and they can still say those words on the label legally but they cannot say the word “supplement”, so that is key.

You may be interested in reading this post: Essential Oils to Use in Your Baking.

When cooking with an essential oil, it is best to start with a tiny amount, using a toothpick to stir it in because of the potency. Less is better than too much. With both herbs and oils in cooking, though, add them in in the last 10- 15 minutes of cooking to get the best flavor and not have the heat basically boil the flavor right out of them.

Hopefully, this post has given you some idea when it is best to use an essential oil or a herb in a project (craft, home remedy or DIY beauty, or food preparation). Do you have any tips on when you prefer to use a herb over an essential oil, and an essential oil over a herb?

Please remember that none of this is meant as medical advice. I am not a doctor and do not play one on the internet. Please consult a physician if you have any questions about using essential oils or herbs so your doctor can better explain to you the benefits, possible side effects, and any warnings about essential oils and herbs.

Disclosure the links in this post may be affiliate links.

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  1. I have a small herb business . I grow or wild harvest most of the herbs I use to make my infused oils. These oils are the base of my one hundred products that are used for health and beauty.. I do use certain E.Os.in some of the formulas..But hands down I prefer the use of the whole herb compared to the oil .. Thank you for the info. you shared .

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