A great question came in to me via Facebook last week. There was some confusion regarding the differences between infused oils, essential oils, tinctures, and tonics. With so many methods of making remedies, how do you sort out what to use when?
First let’s start by defining what each of these types of remedies are.
- Infused oils: Plant material is submerged in a lipid, such as natural oil or liquid wax, like jojoba. The mixture is allowed to infuse (steep) so that some of the properties from the plant are transferred to the oil. Oils may then be tailored for specific uses, such as a lavender infused oil for a relaxing massage oil, or a cayenne infused oil for a warming muscle pain relief lotion.
- Essential oils: A hydrophobic, volatile oil (in other words, a substance that separates from water and evaporates quickly) gained through either steam or solvent extraction (much less desirable), and is a highly concentrated extraction of aromatic and chemical constituents of a plant.
- Tincture: Plant material is submerged in an alcohol, or alcohol/water mix (depending on if the plant material is fresh or dry), menstruum, and allowed to infuse (steep) for a minimum of six weeks. In that time, the alcohol or alcohol/water mix extracts both the water soluble and the alcohol soluble chemical constituents from the plant.
- Tonic: a preparation of herbs to increase and support health and well-being. Tonics are restorative and invigorating. The term, however, is so often improperly used, never assume a label with the term “tonic” on it is a true tonic. In this list, however, a tonic isn’t a method of preparation, but a preparation that has the action of tonifying. One could have a tonic tincture or a tonic tea, and so on.
Each of these types of preparations have their pros and cons, and complaints for which they are especially indicated. As preppers, however, we have some additional concerns that can impact our choices. Here are some of my thoughts on those choices.
In general, I lean heavily upon tinctures. They offer a concentrated, measured dose, have a quick effect upon the body, as well as having a near indefinite shelf life. Tinctures do not require very large harvests of plants to make, so it is feasible for many people to grow the herbs they need after a collapse in a Survival Herbal Garden.
One drawback is that tinctures would still require vodka or similar proof alcohol to make, and not many people are skilled in distilling spirits due to the legality issues. However, tinctures can be made now, and stored for whenever a SHTF scenario hits.
Essential oils, or EOs, are wonderful. However, they have a shelf life of about a year before they begin to break down and lose strength. Some oils, like tea tree, have an even shorter shelf life before it’s properties begin to degrade. This makes having the batch information on your oils very important. Now, it’s not as if they will simply stop working, but understand that they will lose potency.
Plus, if you create a blend of oils, the rate at which oils degrade increases. If you are going to pre-blend oils, you can only count on their full strength for six months. If you add them to lotions and creams, you can make a large batch of your base lotion and store in your fridge or your root cellar if you are off-grid. Add and mix any essential oils in just before bottling.
EOs require massive amounts of plant material which distill down to small amounts of essential oil, and many are imported from distilleries around the world. Restocking your EOs during SHTF would be problematic at best.
Infused oils are very simple to make, require no equipment (if you use the cold infusion method), and have a shelf life of one year. Some extra caution must be taken to prevent the oil from going rancid. Keep it out of the heat and light, and store in a cool, dark location. After a year, it will get weaker.
Infused oils are not anywhere near as potent as essential oils, nor are they as strong as tinctures. But, they work wonders for topical conditions and skin remedies. With some additional planning and land, you can reasonably grow trees for their nuts and various plants for their or seeds, and with some simple equipment extract your own oils. Sunflowers, pumpkins, and almonds might be good choices.
Tonics…. as I mentioned above, the term “tonic” is horribly overused to the point that it is almost meaningless. Lots of prepared remedies are called “tonics” if it has any positive effect at all. Yet, that has little to do with the action of tonifying.
Technically, a tonic is something that increases the energy or vitality of an organ, system of the body, or some other body part. Tonics are not necessarily cleansing or stripping, but rather nourishing and supportive. A wonderful example of a tonic oxymel, herbal vinegar with honey added, is traditional fire cider. I also make what I call “triple tonic syrup” with three adaptogenic herbs that increase energy, fight fatigue, and support the adrenals.
Hopefully, this has cleared up some confusion as to what these types of preparations are, what they do, and what may or may not work in your preparedness plans.
Hello! I ran across your post in a search for tinctures. I am an aromatherapist and just wanted you to know the shelf life of essential oils in many cases can be 3 – 4 years depending on how they are stored. Citrus Oils are the most volatile and have a shelf life of 1 – 2 years if they are kept cool. Many other oils such as Lavender have a shelf life of up to 4 years and tea tree has a standard shelf life of at least 2 years. Other oils can last 6 years plus. This all depends on keeping the oxygen, light and heat away from them.
Here is a very good list of oils and their shelf life for your readers:
Thanks for such an awesome site!
I do love Lea’s site, and she does have a great list. However, there are a few things here that I want to make clear. Those listings for shelf life are for if you are receiving very fresh oils. It doesn’t take into account how long those oils have already been on the shelf in a store or warehouse, or the storage conditions in the store or warehouse. The storage times listed are also for ideal storage conditions and if the oils are stored individually, not as a blend. In practice, I haven’t found essential oils to last nearly as long as the chart lists.
Hi there! Very interesting, and useful information.
As a food scientist, I wanted to add a small piece of information to tack on to the oil rancidity section.
Oil should not be stored in a metal container as it is oxidises the oil, causing it to go rancid faster. That’s why we tend to store it in a plastic or glass container
Great point! Certainly makes a person wonder about those metal olive oil containers at the grocery store.
Thanks for the information.It was a great help.
Hello 🙂 I ran across you site and I have a question. I like to infuse oils. I usually do the cold method process. My question is this… Do infused oils have the same healing properties as essential oils? I know they are totally different but I am not able to afford some of the essential oils I would like to have as in Roman Chamomile and Catnip. I can however make infusions. I use them in lotions mostly. I don’t make tinctures but it looks very interesting.I love to do research and would appreciate any information you can share with me.
Hi Tonia, I can appreciate the cost of essential oils. They are different. If it were me, I would just make really strongly infused oils for my lotions. If it helps, you can use my coupon code with Spark Naturals, CATSCODE
Hi! I have goat rue herbs that have been infusing with alcohol in a closed glass container for about a year. I’d like to strain and use the tincture. Is it possible to steep a tincture for too long? I’m new to this so any information helps! Thanks!
Hi Erin, I have never had any issue with letting a tincture steep for a really, really long time. I can think of a few times where I set a bottle to macerate and just forgot about it for a year or potentially longer. The plant material had really broken down, so I had to strain it really well. But, that’s it.
Thank you for your post! I like to make my own soaps and lotions. I’ve always used essential oils when I make them (I tend to use different oils for different properties, rather than just smelling pretty) and I am interested in diffusing my own oils (it’s cheaper and I can grow my own herbs.) will the infused oils still have the same properties as the essential oils? Can I use the infused oil the same as other non infused oils when I make soap without worrying about it breaking down in the process?
Infused oils and essential oils are similar, but different animals. In many cases, properties are similar. The applications will be different. An infused oil is a true lipid, whereas an essential oil is not. Some heat-senstive chemicals are not extracted with steam distillation. The aroma from most infused oils will not be as strong, and they cannot be used in an EO diffuser. Infused oils also have less antimicrobial potency of most essential oils.
When it comes to soap making, do not expect the aroma to come through like an essential oil. However, you will find that infusing your oils with herbs will add a layer of herbal healing (think calendula for irritated skin) and color. You can also add herbs to your water before measuring it out to make your lye water. Test your recipes to see how it may change the color and processing if you do, though.
Nice, clear, unpretentious article.
“you can reasonably grow trees for their nuts and various plants for their or seeds”
I think you’re missing a word, maybe “leaves”: “for their leaves or seeds”? For that matter you can harvest the leaves as well as bark off the trees.
Also, you’ve got an “it’s” up there somewhere that should be “its.”