March 5, 2014

Infused Oils, Essential Oils, Tinctures, Tonics… Which Do I Use for What?

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.
    Infused oils

    Infused oils

  • 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.
    Essential oils

    Essential oils

  • 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.
    Goat's Rue TinctureWM


  • 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.

    Instant, alternative, DIY Fire Cider Tonic

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.


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