Herbs vs Essential oils: What is the difference? Which should you use? Which is better? Knowing whether herbs or essential oils often comes down to your individual body, what is easier to use with your unique needs, and your overall lifestyle preferences. In this “Natural Mom Review” article, we are diving into some key aspects of essential oils vs herbs to help you make an informed decision based on which you should use.
Throughout history, herbs and herbal oil uses have been well-documented, from hieroglyphics to Biblical teachings. While many people today talk about The Essential Oils of The Bible, the ancient texts actually refer to infused herbal oils or pressed oils rather than distilled or “essential oils” that have gained popularity over recent years.
Both herbs and essential oils have been historically used for medicinal purposes, in food preparation, as preservatives, and in various religious rituals.
Nowadays, many individuals opt for natural remedies and personalized care recipes as part of their holistic wellness practices and healthy lifestyle routines. In fact, nearly 80% of the world heavily relies on herbalism as a key component in their wellness and healing plans.
In recent years, essential oils have significantly increased in popularity as more families seek to identify toxins in their homes and replace them with healthier natural alternatives. But that begs the question: which is better?
Both herbs and essential oils have advantages and disadvantages, which I will compare (as an avid essential oil user and herbalist) based on my research, experience, and opinions. I hope this information will help you decide what is best for you and your needs.
**Always consult a herbalist or medical professional knowledgeable in herbalism or aromatherapy before using herbs or essential oils for health purposes, as they may react with prescription drugs. Many herbs are not recommended for use during pregnancy or nursing, so consulting an herbalist would be wise.
Herbs vs Essential Oils: The Main Differences
So, what exactly is the distinction between herbs and essential oils?
For centuries, herbs have been used in traditional medicine, with an endless array of conditions they’ve been used to treat. From helping with digestion issues like bloating or constipation through antifungal properties and anti-inflammatory effects right up to providing relief from muscle tension–herbs really do offer a wide variety of healing powers. Not to mention, they also have a variety of skin and hair benefits. You can use them in various tea infusions, vinegar infusions, oil infusions, herbal capsules, ointments, balms, tinctures, ferments, and oxymels.
Essential oils are highly concentrated fragrant extracts usually obtained by distilling plant material or cold pressing processes. These aromatic plant derivatives provide an invigorating experience when inhaled. Essential oils are more potent than herbs since they typically contain hundreds of chemical compounds in higher concentrations compared to their herbal counterparts. Essential oils may be diffused aromatically using a diffuser or applied topically using carrier oil, such as jojoba or almond. In some cases, they can also be used internally.
While they have many overlapping uses and benefits, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.
While herbs can be used by themselves, essential oils should only be used by themselves in certain types of diffusers. Otherwise, essential oils NEED to be diluted (see our safety considerations section for more info).
Advantages of Using Herbs
Did you know herbs have more advantages than essential oils? They can be just as powerful in their own unique way. Herbs are full of antioxidants that support your body’s health and wellbeing. Not only that, they contain vitamins and minerals to aid a variety of needs, too.
Herbs are powerful wellness tools, regarded as the original “God-provided medicine.” No expensive or bulky processing equipment or chemical additives are needed to use or enjoy them. Plus, fresh herbs don’t need special storage conditions to stay fresh – just cultivate some from your garden and immediately add them to your meals or drinks.
Growing your own herbs is easy, too. It can be as simple as planting them in the pot or ground, periodically watering them, and placing some mulch around the ground if needed. If the herb you’re growing is native to your area, you might not even need that much effort.
Herbs can also be readily available for free, whether hiking trails, exploring your backyard (hello dandelions and nettles!), or walking through a park.
Advantages of Using Essential Oils
While herbal remedies have been around forever, essential oil popularity has recently skyrocketed in the past few years, creating a multi-billion dollar industry.
Essential oil treatments can bring many advantages over their herbal counterparts; they’re significantly more potent than herbs, last longer in products or inhalations, have a longer shelf-life without additional processing needs, and provide skincare properties that make them an ideal choice if you want to improve or support your wellbeing naturally.
Their small size makes them much easier to store because they take up significantly less space.
Essential oils are much more concentrated than herbs, so you need less of them compared to herbal remedies.
Plus, using these oils requires minimal effort compared to making an herbal remedy — perfect if you’re looking for something quick to use when you have limited time. Instead of processing herbs into tinctures, salves, or balms, simply dilute your choice of essential oil in your choice of carrier oil, slather on, and keep going. Or simply add a few drops into a diffuser. The simplicity makes using plant-based wellness routines much easier for average, busy families.
Disadvantages of Using Herbs
Many of us often turn to herbs for help when it comes to holistic healing. After all, they are known to have been used as a natural form of medicine since ancient times and are widely available.
But we should not ignore the drawbacks that come with using herbal medicines either. Most notably, no regulation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) exists when it comes to these kinds of treatments, which could cause some individuals to raise questions about safety standards being met, especially concerning advertising and marketing claims.
This lack of control and accountability could result in herbal supplements containing contaminants such as lead, PFAS, or other hazardous substances, making them potentially dangerous and negating their benefits.
Also, a significant downside to using herbs is that they don’t always act quickly, depending on how you use them. In some cases, they do work immediately. It may take a few minutes to notice the effects in some situations. In other cases, it could take several weeks to see any effect.
Also, most of the time, herbal remedies’ efficacy is based on people’s experiences and not scientific studies, which means there’s no surety they’ll work the same way for everybody.
Some compounds found in herbs may react with medications, causing potentially dangerous side effects if taken together or too close together. If you have any pre-existing health issues, please be sure to consult with your health team and pharmacist before consuming herb supplements to stay safe.
Disadvantages of Using Essential Oils
Essential oils can benefit your health, but they come with some drawbacks. For starters, their concentrated plant compounds aren’t meant to be applied directly onto your skin undiluted, which can lead to painful burning rashes and other forms of discomfort. These days, people are using more natural remedies for their ailments than ever before; however, it’s important to know what you’re doing when incorporating essential oils into a holistic regimen and understand that all-natural doesn’t always mean risk-free.
It’s crucial to always mix essential oils with a carrier oil like jojoba, olive, sweet almond, grapeseed, or coconut oils because this helps avoid potential irritation.
Another downside is that diffusing certain types of these fragrant oils may cause reactions in some people – headaches, nausea, dizziness, etc. To help alleviate these issues, start slow with diffusing: only running your diffuser 20 minutes at a time, with an hour break between.
Essential oils are also much more difficult to produce from herbs and require some equipment and knowledge to make them yourself, causing most people to purchase them instead of taking the DIY route.
Like their herbal counterparts, essential oils may contain compounds that contraindicate medications, causing potentially dangerous side effects if taken together or too close together. If you have any pre-existing health issues, please be sure to consult with your health team and pharmacist before consuming herb supplements to stay safe.
The most significant disadvantage to using essential oils is that you don’t know what you’re buying.
Yup. Let’s talk about “the elephant in the room” for a moment because it’s crucial information not many understand. There is no legal definition of what an essential oil is! Read that again and contemplate for a moment what that means exactly.
From what we hear, we expect “essential oil” to mean “plant essence.” And in taking aromatherapy classes, you’ll hear “essential oils are the fragrant lipid of the plant” or “the immune system of the plant,” etc. I know because I’ve taken countless courses in aromatherapy and used to focus on using aromatherapy as a predominant method of natural home-based wellness (and previously built a 6-figure income selling essential oils) before shifting my focus to herbalism. I’ve done extensive research, which brought me to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) pages, looking at government regulations and studying how companies interact with these regulations. I even wrote an article about the “10+ dirty little secrets about the essential oils industry” that was sobering.
Because there is no legal definition of “essential oil,” what is in that bottle can literally be anything. The only legal requirement for the label is the distributor’s address, the amount in the bottle, and a brief description of what is in the bottle. The brief description needs to be within the legal confines, not ethical. So a bottle of “rose essential oil” could be synthetic rose-smelling water and still be legally sold as “rose essential oil.”
In addition to the other off-putting cons, there is a trend within the essential oil industry where genuine essential oils are diluted with undisclosed ingredients. It is a common practice for distillers, bottlers, wholesalers, and retailers to cut their oils with odorless solvents to the point where essential oils have been diluted by 95% before being sold to maximize profits at each logistic phase.
Another scary trend is there are synthetic aromatic companies now pushing their products to be used as ingredients in skincare, personal care products, and even white-label essential oil bottles themselves, and not providing proper disclosure. The term “fragrance” legally is any combination of chemicals used to create a smell, which does not have to be disclosed because of FTC-protected “proprietary information.”
With all the disadvantages, the lack of a legal definition, undisclosed dilution, and now a rise within the chemical industry taking over many essential oil purchasers, brands, and ingredients, I just don’t feel confident in their quality or purity anymore. And, yes, I’m aware of companies like Young Living and doTERRA, among others, who claim to purchase directly from farms. Still, I’m also aware of various court documents where they’ve admitted (in court) to having purchased from brokers to keep up with skyrocketing demand.
It is all enough to pause for thought. While I don’t think essential oils themselves are harmful, other than how they easily provide a slippery slope to New Age tendencies and idolatry, these cons definitely raise a red flag and beg for more company transparency. So, if you choose to use essential oils, PLEASE find a local producer to support who is growing the plants and distilling themselves.
While that is very difficult to find in most places, with the right equipment, there are ways you can produce them yourself. Based on recent trends shifting, I believe that is the direction we are turning as a global society: supporting ethically homemade or local artisan production of our products.
Essential Oils vs Herbs: Comparing Affordability
For most families, the cost is an important factor in finding natural remedies and improving or supporting natural wellness.
Herbs and essential oils have been used as treatments throughout the years, but which of them provides better value? To answer this question, we need to look at a few aspects.
One point worth considering when comparing herbs vs oils is their expense per single usage dose. The price tag of herbal medicine usually depends on its rarity vs availability. Price also considers how the herbs are dried (if they’re not sold fresh). Most herbs are freeze-dried or air-dried, though some may be dried in a dehydrator.
Generally speaking, herbs are much more affordable than essential oils because they don’t require additional preparations, processes, or equipment before being sold – thus being less expensive to process.
Conversely, essential oils can be pricey because of their strength and concentrated form.
In addition, many folks using these kinds of products also invest in diffusers, diffusing jewelry, or other essential oil accessories.
Herbal remedies can easily accumulate and become more costly than just getting essential oils – materials costs notwithstanding. But at the same time, look into the availability of herbs and essential oils before judging which would fit your budget better. You may find fresh herbs pretty easy to get from health food stores or farmer’s markets, but some popular oil blends could be challenging to find, depending on where you live.
If you can get fresh herbs near where you live, it may be your best option because they don’t need to be stored or prepared, and so won’t cause any extra costs. Ultimately, which is more inexpensive depends on what suits your needs most, as well as the availability of both items in shops around your location or online at a price that fits your budget. Both offer plenty of potential advantages, so investigate them before purchasing – this will save you money later!
The winner: Herbs (especially foraged or homegrown)
No doubt about it… herbs are by far cheaper than essential oils. You can go hiking in your local area and find an abundance of herbs for free. Or, for a few dollars, purchase seeds or starter plants to grow your own. Many localities also have plant swap days where you can barter or trade plants.
Which Is More Eco-Friendly: Herbs or Essential Oils?
Based on info from the article “Concerns over Essential Oils” written by The Environmental Magazine:
- 50-60 pounds of eucalyptus are needed to make one pound of eucalyptus oil
- 200-250 pounds of lavender is required to produce one pound of lavender oil,
- 2,000 pounds of cypress is necessary to distill for a pound of cypress oil,
- 10,000 pounds of rose blossoms are required to make one pound of rose oil
The crops that produce essential oils are often grown and processed by giant corporations with little care for local ecosystems (or the economy), especially with the essential oils industry now exceeding $1 BILLION in annual sales.
Overharvesting herbs for essential oils has placed many medicinal species (especially trees like Rosewood) at risk of extinction. Commercial farming on this scale causes a severe risk of losing invaluable medicine, especially when most essential oils are solely used as room fragrances.
Commercial exploitation has also led to many traditional medicines becoming unavailable to local indigenous peoples that have historically relied on them.
Trash Contributions: Essential Oils vs Herbs
Herb spills can easily be swept up and composted. If thrown away, they still break down like compost at the landfill.
Essential oil spills must be cleaned properly to avoid accidental undiluted topical exposure. Eventually, they will evaporate, which does nothing for the compost bin, and at its worst, will cause paper towels to enter the landfill. Some companies will compost the leftover materials after distilling, but others do not disclose what they do with the discarded plant material.
Essential oils usually come in glass bottles and some in medical-grade plastic. Carrier oils typically come in medical-grade plastic bottles, though some come in glass. Both plastic and glass have a relatively low recycling rate (30-40%). Plastic and glass take 1,000 years in a landfill to fully break down. And it is unrealistic to think most bottles are reused by the consumers purchasing them.
Herbs, if locally grown or foraged, require no plastic whatsoever, and if stored in glass, they are typically done in mason jars already used and reused at home. When purchasing online, herbs often arrive in plastic bags (which is good when transporting through mail sorting facilities that spray packages with pesticides).
When considering earth-friendly comparisons, local herbs harvested responsibly (farm-grown or wild-foraged) definitely win.
Which Is Easier To Use? Herbs vs. Essential Oils
Making tinctures, decoctions, infusions, etc., can be time-consuming and requires a learning curve.
Some herb varieties can be challenging to find or don’t grow well in your climate, and learning how to identify wild herbs for foraging can take time. It also takes some learning to understand which local herb varieties can be substituted for what you want. Thankfully, local herbs can be used for everything you need, even if they don’t have similar aromatic properties.
Essential oils, alternately, are easy to purchase from local health food stores or online and very portable.
Essential oils also have a bit of a learning curve, specifically how to handle and dilute them before using them on your skin.
Having used both for over 10 years, I'd they both are about equal in simplicity. However, I do feel essential oils have slightly less of a learning curve, so I'd say essential oils would win for being easier to use.
However, I do feel that herbs are less limited in the amount of things you're able to do with them. So, if you're looking for something more versatile, then go with herbs.
Which Is Safer To Use? Herbs or Oils?
One concerning herbal and essential oil trends I’ve noticed recently is the lack of education and research people invest in their endeavors to live more naturally.
For example, opium is natural, but it kills over 25,000 people per year. Mushrooms are natural, but just the wrong one can have fatal effects. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it is entirely safe. There have even been reports of people dying from drinking too much water too fast!
When it comes to safety with using herbs, you need to know which ones to avoid, which ones will help, and which ones shouldn’t be used with others or could contraindicate medication you may be using or if you have a contraindicating pre-existing medical condition.
Essential oils are no different. While they are natural, they are also 75 – 100 times more concentrated than the whole herbs they come from. The components in one drop of essential oil could be equivalent to several pounds of its herb counterpart. A single drop of lemon essential oil packs the same punch as a pound of lemons!
The Tennessee Poison Center (TPC) at Vanderbilt University Medical Center reported essential oil exposures doubled between 2011 and 2015, and 80% of cases involved children. This means many families are medicating and potentially overdosing themselves and their families or not storing essential oils safely because of their lack of education and understanding.
Not to mention the seemingly countless distributors and affiliates of several essential oil companies that have been issued warnings by the FDA because they were (and often still are) giving medical advice, including recommending treatment dosages. Having been involved in essential oil-based wellness coaching groups, I’ve seen some alarming practices where company affiliates are essentially diagnosing and treating their customers, most with no medical training, herbal background, or aromatherapy training, which can be dangerous. While I’m all for becoming your own health advocate and learning how to become your own “family practitioner” (which is where I started), giving medical advice to someone you don’t know well enough to be giving advice to is entirely different and unethical.
Due to their highly concentrated nature, essential oils must be treated with respect. Keep them stored out of reach of children, and teach your children to understand they’re not to be messed with. When using them topically, you must ensure you’re diluting them properly with a carrier oil to avoid sensitization (where your body will stop tolerating it) and other exposure-related problems.
If you have animals, herbs will almost always be better than essential oils. Be sure to do some extra research because not all herbs are ok to use around different animals, nor are their essential oil counterparts. Some essential oils can be deadly around cats, too.
Herbs are much safer because of how easy it is to misuse oils (even on accident) and their substantial concentrations.
How To Choose When You Should Use Herbs vs Essential Oils
You don’t necessarily need to choose herbs OR essential oils in your home; there is a time and place that is more appropriate for both.
The most important thing is to do your due diligence to research your intended uses and safely use herbs or essential oils.
If you're looking for something you can use in a multitude of ways, including DIY cleaning solutions, infused oils, vinegars, tinctures, and other culinary uses, herbs may be best for you.
Essential oils are best if you want to use something in the diffuser to have continual scent sprayed into the room.
If you want to make homemade soaps, skincare, laundry detergents, balms, salves, and cleaners, then either will serve you well.
Author's Choice: Essential Oils vs Herbs
I started out by using essential oils and drinking herbal teas. I was all about the simplicity essential oils offer for almost a decade, especially during my family's 15-month-long RVing adventure, where space was severely limited.
Over time, I noticed shady happenings within the essential oil industry that caused me to pause and re-evaluate how I manage my family’s natural wellness needs, especially as we returned to living in a traditional house.
While essential oils are very convenient and require less space for storage, they aren’t the most eco-friendly or easy to use. Plus, their uses are very limited in comparison to herbs.
To overcome the storage issues, my husband built some shelving to attach to the wall to hold our herb-filled mason jars. Now, we not only use them in tinctures, serums, infused vinegar, infused honey, and infused oils filling much of our kitchen space for medicinal use, but we also use them in various culinary fun and homemade soaps, skincare, and haircare.
For example, my garlic-infused honey used for immune support also serves as an ingredient in homemade bread, salad dressings, raw veggie dips, apple dips, cheese toppings, and chicken marinades (among other uses).
I've also switched my educational path to studying naturopathy with a large focus on herbalism, which has become much more fun compared to being limited to using and teaching about essential oils.
Save Money: Herbs You Can Grow Indoors
There are a variety of herbs you can grow indoors to use in your food recipes, cleaning recipes, medicinal recipes, and even crafting your own essential oils at home. The best part: a little bit of DIY and attention to your herb garden helps save you quite a bit of money in the long run.
Don't miss these tips on starting your herb garden and growing herbs yourself.
Dirty Little Secrets of the Essential Oil Industry
The essential oil industry isn't always what is implied.
- There is no set regulation or standard in the essential oil manufacturing process
- The FDA and FTC do not have a definition of what an essential oil is
- Few brands actually know where their essential oils come from
- Most essential oil companies resell oils purchased from brokers
- Manufacturers, brokers, and resellers often dilute their essential oils with inexpensive, odorless solvents to dilute essential oils in order to maximize profits
- Many essential oil brands are 100% manufactured in a lab from fragrance chemicals
- There is no way to tell by the bottle label what the full ingredient list is
- “Grades” of essential oils, like “100% Pure,” “therapeutic grade,” etc, are all marketing terms and LEGALLY may not be truthful