Herbs vs. Essential Oils: Which One Wins?

Herbs and essential oils both have their place in natural health, but is one better than the other? Thinking through the benefits and downsides of each one can help you decide which wins in your home.

Herbs vs. Essential Oils Which One Wins

Once on the Facebook page, just for fun, I threw out the simple question:

If you had to pick… herbs or essential oils?

It was interesting to see the answers roll in. Though I can’t remember the exact breakdown, most people found themselves somewhere in the middle, not quite sure what to pick. A few people readily chose essential oils over herbs, and some were totally in favor of herbs over essential oils.

If you’ve just begun to dip your toes into the lovely lagoon of natural medicine, you might wonder about the difference between herbs and essential oils. Is one better than the other? Easier to use? Safer? More effective?

When there’s a match-up of herbs versus essential oils, which one will come out on top? As an herbalist, I’d love to share my perspective and help you think through the question yourself.

You’ll likely not be terribly surprised to hear me say that both avenues of natural health have their benefits and drawbacks when it comes to safety, efficacy, ease of use, and more.

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Herbs: Benefits & Downsides

Benefits

  • Whole herbs and herbal preparations (think salves, teas, tinctures, and the like) contain many active compounds to meet numerous needs. They are highly complex substances that can be used by the body for various healing purposes.
  • Whole herbs can be prepared in all sorts of creative ways. They can be added to kitchen recipes, made into drinks, mixed with honey, steeped in vinegars, extracted in alcohols, and more.
  • The internal use of herbs and herbal formulas is well-established in tradition and in research. While there are herbs that aren’t safe to take internally (arnica is an example, unless it is homeopathic), those are few in comparison to the hundreds of plants that can safely be taken internally and in therapeutic doses with no worry about damaging sensitive internal tissue.

herbs

Downsides

  • There is typically prep work needed in order to put herbs to use, especially medicinally. Echinacea is a great herb to use in times of sickness, but just eating the dried or fresh plant isn’t very effective. It’s often taken as a tincture which means you either have to make one or buy one.
  • Herbs can take up quite a bit of cabinet space. To meet the many health needs of a family, you’ll likely require a thorough herb collection with many jars of herbs. Tincturing some of those herbs helps conserve space, but as I just mentioned, it also takes time.
  • Some herbs and herbal preparations just don’t taste great, especially for kids. Though I love garlic for colds and flu, it can be difficult to get my young children to take in sufficient doses when they’re sick.

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Essential Oils: Benefits & Downsides

Benefits

  • Essential oils are ready-to-go products that usually only require some dilution before using, if they haven’t been pre-diluted in a roller or dropper bottle.
  • An expansive essential oil collection can be stored in a relatively small space. The bottles are so tiny that you can fit 100 of them in a small cupboard. And really, no one actually needs 100 different essential oils to have a solid collection!
  • Essential oils are able to work through our sense of smell which has an incredibly unique ability to influence our brains in ways that other senses can’t. One of the reasons there is still some mystery around aromatherapy is because there is much to yet be discovered about our sense of smell and how it influences the brain! It’s quite fascinating.

EO bottles

Downsides

  • Essential oils typically require more care, especially around children, pregnant women, the elderly, and pets. Because the oils are so potent, they can do damage without sufficient care or with improper use. Some, like wintergreen, can even be lethal in very small amounts.
  • Essential oils aren’t effective in all situations. Not every ailment can be effectively treated at home with volatile oils from plants. Some situations are best served with other active plant compounds that are absent in essential oils.
  • There is a lot of hype, myths, and misunderstandings surrounding essential oils, and this can make it unfortunately difficult to know how to best use them.

Herbs or EOs? It Really All Depends

So when herbs and essential oils step in the ring to duke it out, which one wins the title of Champion of Natural Medicine? Well, it really all depends. We have to consider the specific health need, the person affected, and even what we have available at the time. 

If I absolutely had to pick, as an herbalist who loves and uses essential oils, I would likely have to come down on the side of herbs because of their versatility and greater safety net.

But the great news is that I don’t have to pick, and neither do you! We can use both, enjoy both, and appreciate the benefits that both herbs and essential oils offer to natural health.

Herbs v Essential Oils

Do you feel like you could pick between herbs and essential oils if you had to?

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    4 Comments

    1. I’ve just recently started learning about using herbs and oils. I aspire to become a herbalist, eventually.
      What I’m not finding a straight answer on is this: I have been looking at essential oil monographs, and was wondering, if I am comparing say, the same species of lavender, as an oil and as a herb, are their therapeutic effects necessarily the same? Or does the different routes of administration mean different effects?

      1. Great question, Ash! This is often misunderstood. Essential oils often have similar actions as the whole plant material, but not always. Sometimes an herb’s actions result from compounds that aren’t volatile and won’t be in a bottle of essential oil. For example, frankincense plant extract has been studied in cancer research, but the results are often inaccurately attributed to frankincense essential oil. The compound that has an anti-cancer effect in in vitro research isn’t found in the essential oil. But since lavender’s actions are mostly from its volatile oil, the herb and essential oil have similar actions. Does this help?

    2. Herbal oil-v- Essential oils. It could be said that herbal oils contain essential oil and all parts of the plant used, just not in the same concentration as EO’s. EO’s do not contain any part of the plant except for the volatile oils.

      1. Hi Margaret. Yes, you’re right. Herbal oils, where an herb is infused into a fixed carrier oil, will contain some essential oils if the plant contains them. 🙂