DIY: essential oils on board


We try to keep life simple on Totem: if we can make something ourselves, that’s always a better option than buying. Less waste is created, something on board is usually reused, and there’s probably more cash in our pockets.

A lot of the everyday things I use have been made with essential oils. Because, hey, if you can also make something smell really good, well, wouldn’t you?  This is easy to do with lotion, basic cleaners, heavier duty scrubs, polish, laundry, and just to  make our living space mmmmmmm good. Essential oils work around our sensitivities to commercial fragrance: Jamie and Siobhan have skin that reacts to chemical additives, and most perfume just gives me a sneezy headache. Essential oils keep us smelling sweet without ill effects.

 making lotion DIY skin cream recipe
my bin of lotion ingredients with a few favorite essential oils

It’s sensible boat living, too. Carrying the basic ingredients to make lotion and cleaners instead of buying them is easier on provisioning, generally saves space, and means you can have what you want / when you want it.

There are a myriad of ways essential oils get used on board (for a great list, see Windtraveler). Start small to keep it achievable. I’ve listed our primary uses below, organized by scent types to help break it down. A good starter kit would include one or two from each of these. Try a few, mix them up a little, follow your nose and see what sticks.


lemon, sweet orange, or grapefruit

Boat cleaning: I especially like these in cleaners, and their bright aroma brings a great clarifying smell. A shaker of baking soda is an all purpose scrub for the heads and galley; a few drops of sweet orange oil mixed in make it smell amazing. For simple wood polish, a few drops of a lemon essential oil mixed with olive oil is simple and good.

Seasickness: nausea can also be addressed with the sharp tang of citrus. I learned during extended bouts of “morning” sickness that a few drops of grapefruit oil on a cloth to sniff can help set an upset stomach right.


lavender, rose geranium, jasmine

Making lotion: I always always always use rose geranium in lotion. To keep it from being too flowery, I’ll often mix in a little something else; see what works for you.

Calming / getting to sleep: lavender is wonderfully relaxing. A little lavender oil in a diffuser (or sprinkled on a cloth) helps get little people (or their parents) off to sleep. Mix lavender with rose, and you get what I call Spa Smells… that whiff you get in a plush day spa or salon!


Cinnamon, clove

Holiday goodness: Clove is one of my favorites for seasonal aromas. When December rolls around, I put THAT in a diffuser and feel the Christmas! Balsam cedar does the same thing, transporting me to our old chilly climate life and cedar boughs on the mantle… but clove wins for multiple uses on board. Besides smelling great, it’s a topical analgesic and medical kit backup for tooth pain.

Fight bugs! Cinnamon oil is a great way to deal with ants, which have occasionally given us some annoyance on board. A few drops in a spot they traverse can help keep them away. My basic wipe down spray is a 50/50 mix of water and vinegar, and adding cinnamon before using that to wipe down the pantry abates the problem.


Tea tree, pine, eucalyptus

Fight the other kind of bugs! These oils have antibacterial and antiviral properties. I add them to homemade antiseptic cleaning sprays (a mix , and always put tea tree into lotions I made  for skin flared up with eczema. Eucalyptus and tea tree diluted in a spray make a great smelling wipe-down for things that get a little extra grunge… like my yoga mat. Ew.

measuring the oils
making lotion with a small helper

It’s tempting to start with a raft of different oils, but start small and get used to where and how you use them. A little bit lasts for a very long time! They DO need to be used with care; Crunchy Betty has an excellent read on proper use.

People who read this on the Sailfeed website smell really, really good.

4 Responses

  1. I don’t know a darn thing about essential oils but know that I want to know more. Thank you for your gentle introduction and resource links! We are planning to live on the road in the coming year and I would like alternatives to harsh chemicals.

  2. Thanks for this, Behan. I have just started using essential oils for cleaning and health/self care. It can definitely be overwhelming, so I’m thankful to have you as an “essential oil mentor.” 🙂

  3. I’ve been using essential oils for about 6… 8 months now. I love them. I just concocted a recipe for deodorant! I’ll share on my blog later this week. That reminds me, I need to check on an order for Citronella oil.

    1. very cool Judith! I’ve been meaning to try that, too. I’ll be checking your blog! and- LOVE THE KEFIR. thank you. 🙂

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