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Herbs vs. Essential Oils: Which One Wins?

· Marla's Musings

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.

Recently, on my 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. I was actually shocked. They were tied at the time of writing this.

If you’ve just begun your journey into the amazing world 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 a holistic practitioner, I’d love to share my perspective and help you think through the question yourself. After all, I LOVE to educate others about all forms of natural medicine.

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.

Herbs: Benefits & Downsides


Whole herbs and herbal preparations (think salves, teas, tinctures, poultices, 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, wrapped in compresses, 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 tissues.


When tinctured, they can last for years. Depending on your source for your herbs and your remedy type, it can be very cost effective as very little plant material is usually needed. With proper use, most but not all herbs are safe for children, pregnant women, the elderly, and pets.


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. Making tinctures is easy, but most require 2 weeks to draw the phytochemicals from the plant.

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 flus, it can be difficult to get young children to take in sufficient doses when they’re sick.

Essential Oils: Benefits & Downsides


Essential oils are ready-to-go products that usually only require some dilution before using, if they haven’t already been pre-diluted in a roller or dropper bottle. Because they are so potent, only a small amount is required per use, making them extremely cost effective.

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, but I won’t judge you!

Pure essential oils do not go rancid. Over time, however, essential oils can oxidize, deteriorate, and gradually lose their therapeutic value and aromatic quality.

Essential oils can be used topically and aromatically. Certain brands are pure enough to be used internally when needed.

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.

With proper use, most bust not all essential oils are safe for 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 essential oils, typically the citrus oils, are photosensitizing. This means they contain substances that can react with UV light to create a substance that may cause hyperpigmentation or burning on the skin. Therefore, if they are used topically, extra care needs to be taken to avoid UV exposure for about 12 hours.

Essential oils aren’t effective in all situations. Some situations are best served with other active plant compounds that are absent in essential oils. For example, if someone is seeking to correct a Vitamin C deficiency, a citrus oil would not be beneficial. Vitamin C is water soluble and therefore not found in essential oils.

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. As an herbalist who loves and uses essential oils, I say we have to consider the specific health need, the person affected, and even what we have available at the time. The great news is that I don’t have to pick one over the other and neither do you! We can use both, enjoy both, and appreciate the benefits that both herbs and essential oils offer to natural health.They both invite us to experiment. and above all, they offer us the opportunity to assume more responsibility for our own health and well-being!

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