Sunday, 23 August 2009

On Essential Oils

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

I went through a phase a few years back when I made solid perfumes from a mixture of beeswax, jojoba oil, and essential oils of plants. It was a fun project, but that was before I was a homeowner and gardener, and before I made a commitment to preparing pretty much all our food from scratch. I had more time back then to play around with less productive hobbies with rather expensive materials. The legacy of that hobby is a box of essential oils, which are admittedly nice things to have around.

I've found some uses for them that fit neatly into a frugal and sustainable lifestyle. The best one by far is as a replacement for room deodorizers. I detest those horrible aerosol sprays, and those plug-ins that suck electricity while stinking up the room are an abomination. In my opinion, they smell at least as bad as whatever odors they purport to disguise, even bathroom stinks. We now keep a tiny bottle of mint essential oil in our bathroom, along with a little ceramic bowl. When the bathroom is smelly, a drop or two of this oil in the bowl will mask the smell pretty well, and there's no horrible artificial stench to add insult to injury. The scent from just a few drops of oil will linger for a couple of days, and it never makes me want to sneeze or flee the room.

I also like to add essential oils to my homemade laundry detergent. I play around with the scents that I add with each new batch. My first batch was scented with just straight lavender, and the following one ginger. My current batch is scented with lemongrass and grapefruit. I've found that over the months it takes to use up the detergent (I make big batches and there are only two of us to wash for), the scent fades somewhat. But it's no big deal to add a few more drops of oil to the remaining detergent in order to refresh the scent. I really like being able to customize the scent of my own laundry. I would certainly still make my own detergent, even if I didn't have a stash of essential oils to make it smell nice. It's just an added level of fun to make it smell the way I want it to.

Now essential oils can be expensive things to play around with, particularly genuine rose absolute and other pure floral scents. It's quite labor and resource intensive to produce essential oils, so the expense stands to reason. However, some of the nicest scents for my purposes can be had relatively cheaply. All the citrus scents, coming from rinds rich with oil, are quite cheap. Peppermint, spearmint, sage, pine, eucalyptus, and clove are among the next cheapest essential oils out there. Even lemongrass, rose geranium, lavender, and ginger won't break the bank. Stray into some of the floral essences however, and you'll pay through the nose.

Compared to a can of room deodorizer, the smallest bottle of essential oil (5-10 ml) will give you many, many times more scenting capacity, and the price differential (if you stick with the scents mentioned above) will be no more than 2x-3x, if that. To scent a few gallons of laundry detergent, I need no more than 12-15 drops of essential oil, including a refresh by the third month. Really, essential oils are astonishingly concentrated. If you keep the bottles in a dark and cool place, they will store indefinitely. This is good, given that it will take me many years to use up the bottles I have. Additionally, the tiny glass bottles that the essential oils come in are less resource intensive than a few cases of metal cans filled with gas under high pressure.

I would definitely not advise someone to go overboard in buying a lot of essential oils to play around with as I did in my perfume making fad. The expenses can add up quickly if you indulge in too many of these scents. However, if you are currently buying those room deodorizers or scented detergents, picking a few of the cheaper essential oils to replace these ongoing expenses would be totally legitimate in my opinion, provided you're willing to really give up the purchased "convenience." Frugality doesn't have to mean asceticism. Pleasant, all natural smells can be an affordable sensual pleasure, which is good for the soul. Just be sure to store essential oils safely away from curious toddlers. Essential oils can be dangerous when ingested even in a diluted state. Many if not most of them can cause illness if consumed at full strength.

If you want to buy some essential oils, you can find them on eBay or Amazon. If you live in the US, I would also recommend the products from Lhasa Karnak, which has a slightly clunky online order form, or you can call them to place a mail order. The employees of this independently owned business are extremely knowledgeable about the herbs and other items they sell. I have always found them willing to spend the time to answer my questions and offer observations or advice. (I don't benefit in any way if you follow the link to their website or make a purchase from them. I just think they're a good business.)