The Essential Oil Lowdown for Newbies

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I was pleasantly surprised by the response I got after writing this post about using Thieves essential oil to ward off a cold. And I’ll admit that I fan-girled out a little when I received a comment from my favorite deodorant maker, Rachel Winard, of Soapwalla. (I sincerely think about my armpits a lot – and now that I’m breastfeeding I’m especially grateful for Soapwalla’s all natural, non-toxic products). Anyway, it turns out Rachel is not only a talented skincare chef but she’s total geek for all things herbal, aromatherapy, and folkloric healing. Rachel has generously offered up her gifts of knowledge in an essential oil Q&A for those of us who want to learn more but don’t quite know where to start.

Kathleen: First off, tell us a bit about yourself and your business Soapwalla. How did get into essential oils?

Rachel: In 2002 I was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus for short). Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissue. Lupus can manifest itself in a number of ways, including joint, organ, blood vessel damage/inflammation, but pretty much every person with SLE has skin involvement as well. This was certainly the case for me. I went from never having any skin issues (I didn’t even have acne in high school!) to getting rashes, hives, eczema plaques, the telling butterfly rash on my face, etc. Any and every possible skin ailment, I got it. Because of this, I had to teach myself how to take care of my new skin. One late night when the pain was really bad, I said “screw it, if I can’t find products on the shelf that will help, I’ve just got to start making my own.” That was the beginning of a 10+ year self-education on all things natural, aromatherapeutic, and herbal. This is also how Soapwalla was born. I perfected my line of all-natural, effective face and body products over the next 7 years, and premiered Soapwalla late November 2009.

K: It seems as if essential oils can be used for just about anything. What (or how) is your favorite way to use essential oils?

Rachel: I can’t limit to just one! :-D I love using essential oils in skincare or other topical products to create a certain result – balancing oil production, reducing swelling or itching, increasing circulation. Because essential oils themselves are so potent and complex, their use creates multi-pronged results as well. For instance, topical use of rosemary essential oil will help decongest the skin and lungs while also improving memory! (Source)

Note: it’s easy to fall so in love with essential oils that we want to use them all the time, everywhere! However, essential oils are highly concentrated: please treat them with the respect they deserve and always dilute in a carrier oil. If you are pregnant, under the age of 2, or are currently undergoing intense medical treatment, please check with an expert before you start an at-home aromatherapeutic regimen.

Also, please don’t ever take essential oils internally. Ingestion of essential oils can cause illness and, in some cases, death. Please please please consult a knowledgeable practitioner before you use essential oils in homemade oral preparations.

K: For the skeptics … How do essential oils work?

Rachel: Essential oils are volatile molecular compounds found in aromatic plants, and create the telltale fragrance and taste we associate with the plants (rose or nutmeg, for example). Essential oils are extracted by either distillation or expression. The distillation process is not unlike what is used to create whiskey or bourbon. Expression is a cold, mechanical process that is most often used for citrus (similar to how olive oil is created).

Aromatherapy is often defined as the conscientious use of essential oils to promote or improve human health and hygiene. The term is most often applied to personal care products containing essential oils that impart skin-active properties or encourage emotional wellbeing.

Persians invented the distillation process in the 10th century; however, aromatherapy dates back to 3500 BCE, when ancient Greeks used incense, perfumery, and infusing macerated plants in hot oils as part of regular medical and spiritual practices.

For skeptics, NYU Langone Medical Center’s page on aromatherapy provides a breakdown on various ways in which essential oils can be used today to treat digestive, anxiety, muscular and other problems, including links to the studies that support their conclusions.

K: For the essential oil newbie getting quality oils can be expensive. What brand(s) do you recommend? And if you had to start your collection with just a few oils (or oil blends) which would you recommend and why?

Rachel: Mountain Rose Herbs! They have some of the highest quality products on the market today. I believe they were the first certified organic warehouse in the US, are incredibly knowledgeable, and are reasonably priced to boot. To start off your collection, these are my must-haves:

(1) *Tea tree – can be used neat on the skin (meaning, no carrier oil is needed for dilution) and can heal athlete’s foot or other fungal infections, repel bugs, and it has incredible antibacterial properties (including possibly killing the hospital superbug, MRSA)!
(2) *Lavender – an all-around powerhouse! It’s calming, aids in digestion and sleeping, and is also antibacterial and antifungal. If you apply neat shortly after being bitten by a mosquito, it will take the sting and itch out straightaway. You can also apply directly to a pimple that’s just forming, sleep with it on, and the next morning your blemish will be greatly reduced or even gone!
(3) *Eucalyptus: a must-have for anyone who suffers from allergies and/or chest congestion. Inhaling eucalyptus will clear out your sinuses quickly and effectively.
(4) *Sweet orange: aside from smelling fantastic, it’s an impressive household cleaner (make sure to dilute well). Helps with digestion and as an expectorant. NOT to be taken internally or applied without dilution.

K: What’s your favorite essential oil story? (For example, mine is definitely being kickstarted into labor when my doula used accupressure with Clary Sage oil.)

Rachel: My spouse Stacey fell on the ice in February. It was a nasty fall, and she needed stitches on her kneecap. She contracted a staph infection at the site – not uncommon – and was put on an insane amount of two different kinds of antibiotics to keep her out of the hospital. The antibiotics made her so ill she had to stop taking them. We both were terrified she’d end up in the emergency room. I created a potent antibacterial salve for the knee that had tamanu oil, tea tree, thyme oil and myrrh resin – within 36 hours, the heat and redness were gone! It was truly amazing.

K. If someone wanted to learn more about essential oils what books or sites would you recommend?

Rachel: I could talk your ear off about the various places to go, but I’ll limit myself :-D

Websites: Mountain Rose Herbs, Rosemary Gladstar, Robert Tisserand.
Books: The Aromatherapy Companion by Victoria Edwards, and Essential Oils, A Basic Guide by Julia Lawless.

K. Finally, where can we find you?

For a full listing of my products, please go to: soapwallakitchen.com
For all the social media goodness, please check out:
Facebook.com/Soapwalla
Twitter.com/Soapwalla
Instagram.com/Soapwalla

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If you all have any additional questions for Rachel feel free to leave them in the comments!

P.S. I am not being paid or compensated by Soapwalla or any of the links included. Just a genuine fan of Rachel and the work she’s doing! Images courtesy of Rachel Winnard.

  1. Corrin

    I just started experimenting with essential oils and I find it so confusing. I’ve yet to find a source that outlines what to take, how to take it, and what it’s good for. I basically need an essential oil cookbook.

  2. Lauren

    HEY! Soapwalla. I wanted to love your deodorant but I had a terrible allergic reaction to it a couple of summers ago. (Actually, it started while at a viewing of Moonrise Kingdom with Liz…) Anyway, my armpit got really itchy + inflamed and I ended up at the doctor’s office. Is there any other thing I could try in the natural deodorant department that maybe won’t make my armpit lose its mind?

    Side note: I have since tried other products of yours and love them. I think I just have weird armpits….

    • Lauren, I had a reaction to the deodorant while I was pregnant – it wasn’t so extreme and has been totally fine since giving birth … So that leads me to ask how hormones perhaps may play into it all…

      • Hi Lauren! I second what Kathleen says — hormonal changes can wreak havoc on your skin, so that you’ll randomly have a reaction to something that didn’t bother you before (and vice versa). Also, please make sure to mix the deodorant really well before using it, to ensure the powders and clays (which are heavier and sink to the bottom of the pot) are well mixed with the essential oils (which float to the top). Make sure to shave or wax a few hours or even the night before you use, to ensure that any nicks or micro-abrasions have a chance to heal. Finally, you may have a sensitivity to an ingredient. Do you have any known sensitivities to baking soda or essential oils?

      • Lauren

        You may be right, Kathleen. Either way, that reaction was less than desirable since I could not wear ANYTHING on the armpit for like, 3 weeks. I have literally tried every natural deodorant on the aisle at Whole Foods and have ordered so many from the internet, and I have found NOTHING that works. They either make my armpit sticky as all get out or they just make me smell like lavender scented BO. Someone help me.

        • Lauren, please email me directly at hello [@] soapwallakitchen [.] com, I’ll give you lots of things to try out!

  3. Thanks for bringing in an expert to discuss this with us! I’ve been hearing more and more about essential oils around the blogging community, but like any college professor worth their salt will tell you – go do your research first! :-)

    I’m a long-time sufferer of seasonal allergies, so this is definitely something I’m looking forward to learning more about. I’ve seen people around me become dependent on allergy medications (more psychologically than chemically, but still scary nonetheless), and I try hard to avoid taking them whenever I can. I don’t like how my body reacts to them, and how much they disrupt my sleep. In fact, last summer I was taking them so often that I found myself taking Benadryl not because I needed it, but because it made me fall asleep faster. Terrible habit, I know…and I’m hoping this spring to find an alternative that will work for me, and let me sleep easier at night!

    Keep up the great work, both of you!

  4. I love this post! I have been wanting to get some essential oils and that list is very helpful.

    I do have a question for Rachel-

    Have you had any experience when it comes to essential oils and pets (specifically cats)? I have a stuffy (possibly asthmatic) cat and want to try a natural treatment. However, I know some oils can be harmful.

    • Great question, Kristin! Eucalyptus essential oil diffused in the air is fantastic for kitties with respiratory issues. Lavender works well, too. Don’t apply essential oils neat (undiluted) to cats without checking with a vet knowledgeable about aromatherapy.
      Please also remember that cats are much smaller than us and can become sensitized to essential oils relatively quickly. Please do not use tea tree, nutmeg or peppermint essential oils on your cats — they can be lethal.

  5. Margie

    I’m a big time sweater (I blame my latino heat) that even those stupid clinical deodorants don’t work.

    Also, I have a 20-month old child that developed molloscum contagium (water warts) and every so often, a cluster of them will appear. I use Zymaderm but he isn’t supposed to touch it while wet and it’s hard telling that to a toddler and expecting him to listen. Anything I can try besides that?

    Thank you!

  6. Raven

    So glad you posted this, Kathleen!

    Rachel, a great friend of mine has been suffering from this weird skin issue called Corticosteriod Addiction (aka Red Burning Skin Syndrome). To make a super long, scary & sad story short, he’s still suffering from the withdrawal symptoms. It’s much better than when he started down this road 7 years ago, but his skin is still constantly itchy. Totally debilitating itchy, every second of every day and night. His skin is so dry, flaky, cracking. It’s also very sensitive, the only lotions he can use is Vaseline and Eucerin, and if he puts it’s over his whole body, it just makes him itchier. I’ve been trying to do research on essential oils to see if that would relieve some of the dryness and itch for him. He’s tried so many things, he’s very skeptical. Do you think your Luxurious Body Oil might work? Have you seen this before, and would you have any recommendations? Thank you so much!

    • Arg, I’m so sorry to hear about your friend’s skin woes. I’ve had those head-to-toe itching fits that make you lose your mind. I’d actually recommend the Resilience Pregnant Belly Oil for your friend (and please ask him to consider stopping his use of Vaseline – it’s likely worsening the situation, because Vaseline is petroleum-based and is a bit like coating one’s skin with liquid plastic). I originally formulated the pregnant belly oil for my own terribly itchy, rashy, flaky skin. A good 30% of my pregnant belly users are men with psoriasis and other skin ailments.
      Please let your friend know he can always reach out to me with any questions or concerns he may have.

      • Raven

        His doctor (specialist for this syndrome) actually told him to use the Vaseline immediately after showering to “lock in” the moisture. Makes no sense to me, but it actually works for him. I’ll get him some pregnant belly magic and see if it does the trick! Thank you so much for your expertise! I knew you’d have some insight with your own itchy skin issues you had.

  7. I’m really happy to see that Soapwalla’s products are available in Canada (and around the world). I’m going to have to try this! I’m currently using a deodorant that I jokingly call paleo deodorant because it’s coconut oil + baking soda + cornstarch (which isn’t paleo I know).

  8. Emily Duncan

    Thank you so much Kathleen for posting this and Soapwalla Chef for sharing your story! I just started reading about essential oils on the internet and was wanting to order some. Also, just ran out of deodorant today and was wanting to try something more natural, so looks I know what to try now. Just hope I don’t get the skin reaction. I do have sensitive skin, but I’m willing to try it. This was an awesome post!!!

  9. Sunny

    This was wonderful!

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