The most common response I get when I tell people about the Herbal Body Oils I make (and use on the daily) is "Oh I love Essential Oils!" or maybe "What do you think of all these Essential Oil network marketing companies?" (for the record, I have a very strong opinion of YoungLiving and doTerra and MLMs, or Multilevel Marketing companies, in general). Fewer people have heard of Flower Essences, but because of the similar wording being used for different products even folks in the know tend to be confused about what differentiates these three common types of medicinal herbal preparations.
I remember being confused about the difference between these products when I was first learning about them too. I got hired in the Wellness Department at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op right out of college, having no experience in natural healing but a strong desire to learn, and spent the first few months of that job in brain overload as I took in a ton of new information and tried to make sense of the overlapping terms and medicinal actions.
But now, ten years, two herbal apprenticeships, and countless books later, I've used and studied all three of these herbal remedies and understand well their many differences. I offer this small, simplified guide for anyone who is still uncertain about how these herbal remedies with such similar names differ from one another...
What Are Herbal Body Oils?
Herbal Body Oils are herbs chopped up and steeped in a carrier oil for 2-6 weeks (I do one moon cycle). The plant matter is then strained out, leaving behind just the oil, which has been infused with the medicinal properties of the herb. Commonly used carrier oils include olive oil, jojoba oil, grapeseed oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and safflower oil. You could also use walnut oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, pumpkin seed oil, or any other oil you can get your hands on.
Once made, an Herbal Body Oil is rubbed onto the skin (either at one problem spot or, as I prefer, all over the body for the ultimate in soothing self care) or poured into the bath. Oiling the body is the quickest way, besides mind-altering substances or heavy pharmaceuticals, to drop the nervous system into a state of relaxation. It nourishes the skin and nerves, as well as boosting immunity by keeping the lymphatic system hydrated and flowing (for lymphatic health, pay extra attention to massaging around the neck, armpits/breasts, and inner thighs).
Body Oiling is an ancient technique, revered in Ayurveda and honored in the Bible, for calming the body and bringing the element of ritual into everyday self care. I have found this method of getting herbs into my body to be the most effective as far as calming my nervous system, resetting my body/mind/spirit after a stressful day, and connecting with my child and other loved ones using touch to nourish and heal.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential Oils are super concentrated plant matter in liquid form. The usual method of extracting Essential Oils from the herb is steam distillation, where the plant is heated inside a still until the Essential Oil rises and is captured (to put it very, very simply & succinctly). They're called Essential Oils because the essence of the plant has been captured- its scent and some of its strongest medicinal properties.
Essential Oils are also called "Volatile Oils", as it is the volatile part of the plant- that which quickly evaporates into vapor- that has been extracted. They are really not oils in the sense that Herbal Body Oils are. Rubbing an Essential Oil on your skin will not leave it oily, as rubbing in an Herbal Body Oil will. If you drop some Essential Oil on your clothing it will not leave an oil stain but will, in fact, evaporate over time.
It's hard to make sense of what is true about Essential Oils in today's over-saturated marketplace, especially with network marketing companies empowering under-educated sales reps (who call themselves "aromatherapists" when they do not have the training to claim that title) to make exorbitant and dangerous claims. A recent Instagram hashtag search for #YoungLiving brought up advice from different reps to put lavender oil on your eyelashes to make them grow (no), in your baby's mouth to calm fussiness (NO), and in your pet's mouth if they have an infection (NO! Essential Oils can kill pets, whose livers cannot process them).
Essential Oils are very concentrated and super potent; they need to be used with mindful caution after much research. The safest way to use them is to dilute them in a carrier oil (an Herbal Body Oil works nicely). Experienced herbalists and aromatherapists rarely recommend using Essential Oils directly, or "neat", on the skin or taking them internally. Check out my teacher Kathi Keville's book Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art for awesome information and best use guidelines from a woman who's been practicing herbalism for 40+ years.
What Are Flower Essences?
Flower Essences are a homeopathic (very diluted vibrational medicine) preparation of flowers steeped in water, after which they are strained and a small amount of alcohol is added to the water for its preservative effect. Once the mother essence, as the original flower-infused water & alcohol preparation is called, has been diluted and packaged in smaller bottles with dropper lids, the remedy is taken on the tongue or in water.
Invented by English homeopath Edward Bach in the 1930s, they are remedies meant to heal emotional and spiritual, rather than physical, ailments. Of course, tending to the emotional and spiritual life can have profound effects on the physical body. Each flower's healing properties is ascertained by meditating with the plant. Bach found, for example, that the essence of honeysuckle helps "Those who live much in the past, perhaps a time of great happiness, or memories of a lost friend, or ambitions which may not come true."
Unlike Herbal Body Oils or Essential Oils, there is no discernible scent or scientifically measurable medicinal benefit to Flower Essences. Aside from the brandy or vodka, they are tasteless, any trace of the flower's physical signature long since diluted out. But it is this very dilution that is said to make the strongest medicines in homeopathic preparations. The vibrational resonance of the plant is what is working with the body, and is said to do so on a deeper, more subtle level than other forms of herbal medicine.
So there we have it, a brief overview of three popular forms of herbal medicine. They each have different applications and are appropriate at different times for different reasons. Find what resonates with you, and share your experiences with your community!