Essential oils are natural aromatic compounds found in the seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers, and other parts of plants. They can be both beautifully and powerfully fragrant. Essential oils have been used throughout history in many cultures for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits. Modern scientific study and trends toward more holistic approaches to wellness are driving a revival and new discovery of essential oil health applications.
The term “essential oil” is a contraction of the original “quintessential oil.” This stems from the Aristotelian idea that matter is composed of four elements, namely, fire, air, earth, and water. The fifth element, or quintessence, was then considered to be spirit or life force. Distillation and evaporation were thought to be processes of removing the spirit from the plant and this is also reflected in our language since the term “spirits” is used to describe distilled alcoholic beverages such as brandy, whiskey, and eau de vie. The last of these again shows reference to the concept of removing the life force from the plant. Nowadays, of course, we know that essential oils are physical in nature and composed of complex mixtures of chemicals.
Highly aromatic substances, essential oils – often referred to as essences (from the original idea of the essence or “spirit” of the plant) – are produced in the cells of aromatic plants and are held in specialized glands or cells. These essences are scientifically termed secondary metabolites, whereas they are commonly called essential oils when they are released from the plants through distillation or other extraction techniques. It is interesting to note that many essential oils are actually comprised of hundreds of individual chemical constituents, and that many of them may not be aromatic at all. Also, when learning about the chemistry of essential oils, you will find that many constituents are found in relatively large proportions and often in many different essential oils from a whole variety of plant species. For instance, we often see linalool (aka linalol), limonene, geranial, pinene, etc. in many essential oils obtained from plants of very diverse plant families.
Essential oils are non water-based phytochemicals made up of volatile aromatic compounds. Although they are fat soluble, they do not include fatty lipids or acids found in vegetable and animal oils. Essential oils are very clean, almost crisp, to the touch and are immediately absorbed by the skin. Pure, unadulterated essential oils are translucent and range in color from crystal clear to deep blue. The International Organization for Standardization defines an essential oil as a product made by distillation with either water or steam or by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials. Following the distillation, the essential oil is physically separated from the water phase.
Essential oils are volatile oils that evaporate and oxidize rapidly when exposed to the air. Essential oils also deteriorate when exposed to light and heat, thus the necessity to keep them from heat and in dark, tightly sealed glass containers with as little as possible head (air) space inside the container. And contrary to their designation as oils, they are often times light and non-greasy (and in the scientific sense they are not “oils” at all).
There are more than 90 essential oils, and each has its own health benefits. Most essential oil blend well with other essential oils in terms of function and odor, which allows herbalists to prepare a vast repertoire of aromatic essential oil combinations.
Essential oils can be applied topically, diffused, inhaled, and some are even ingested, while others are poisonous to ingest. Research carefully and always read the precautions and possible side effects. Be sure to test the oils on a small portion of your skin to be sure you do not have an allergic reaction. Some essential oils should not be applied undiluted and should be added to a carrier oil (Grape Seed Oil, Coconut Oil, Jojoba Oil, etc). Cassia, for example, should always be diluted, otherwise it will cause a burning sensation on the skin. There are also a few essential oils that should be avoided by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Quite a few types of essential oils should not be used in or around children – especially those under 2 years old. That includes one of the more popular essential oils – Tea Tree Oil – which should not be used on a young child’s skin. Dosages, how much you dilute the essential oil, and the way you use the product, are all important considerations The FDA does not support any claims of the therapeutic properties of essential oils, aside from the cosmetic benefits of aromatherapy. In fact, the FDA is trying to bring down two of the biggest sellers on the essential oil market, doTerra and Young Living Essentials, accusing them of marketing their oils as 'unapproved drugs." The FDA still works to enforce guidelines and restrictions concerning how essential oil products are marketed – specifically the health claims made in connection to the product. In general – no natural health product marketing can say it is intended to treat, prevent, cure or mitigate any disease or other health condition – even when there is scientific research to back up the validity of the claims.
Civilizations throughout history have used aromatherapy and essential oils. That includes the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, as well as in Chinese and Ayurvedic practices.
If you really want proof that essential oils can work – just look at modern-day products already on store shelves. Of course, major beauty brands like Olay, Herbal Essence and Paul Mitchell, use essential oils to benefit your hair and skin. Citronella oil is used in many types of common insect repellents. But what about real health problems?
Ever hear of Vick’s Vapor Rub? The stuff you rub on your chest or diffuse in the air when you are dealing with respiratory issues contains oil of eucalyptus, camphor oil, nutmeg oil and cedar oil – all essential oils. People also use Vick’s for muscle pain – and there are even people who say it has helped with toenail fungus, hemorrhoids and skin problems like rosacea. That is likely because of anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties in the essential oils.
Some of the more popular essential oils include:
Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile): antispasmodic, menstrual cramps, sedative, relieves anxiety/stress, insomnia, great for children (comforting, soothing), anti-inflammatory
Clary sage (Salvia sclarea): antispasmodic, relieves menstrual cramps, aphrodisiac, relaxing, relieves anxiety/stress, labor pain management
Eucalyptus globulus: expectorant, decongestant, beneficial for flu/cold season, clearing to the mind, energizing, bronchitis (avoid with children under 2, use Eucalyptus radiata instead)
Eucalyptus Radiata: expectorant, this eucalyptus species is indicated for children with respiratory congestion, useful for colds and flu, antiviral
Fennel Essential Oil (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce): digestive, menstrual irregularities, antimicrobial
Frankincense (Boswellia frereana): strengthens the immune system (CO2 extract), soothes inflamed skin conditions, cell regenerative
Geranium (Pelargonium x asperum syn. graveolens): PMS, indicated for hormonal imbalance, antimicrobial, nerve pain
Ginger Essential Oil (Zingiber officinale): digestive, useful to eliminate gas, constipation, relieves nausea, warming emotionally and physically, anti-inflammatory, relieves pain, immune modulator
Helichrysum Essential Oil (Helichrysum italicum): cell regenerative, wound healing, anti-inflammatory, indicated for bruises and swelling
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): calming, reduces anxiety, wound healing, burns, cell regenerative, insect bites. reduces itchiness, general skin care, great for children, antispasmodic
Lemon (Citrus limon): antiviral, great for cleaning home, cleansing to environments (room spray), uplifting, detoxing
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus): cleansing, antiviral, insect repellant, use for cleaning, antimicrobial
Mandarin (Citrus reticulata): calming, great for children (can combine with lavender), slightly more warming citrus aroma
Neroli Essential Oil (Citrus aurantium var. amara): relieves and reduces anxiety, antispasmodic, PMS, antidepressant, nourishing, postpartum depression, pregnancy/delivery
Patchouli Essential Oil (Pogostemom cablin): antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, soothes the nervous system
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita): relieves nausea, analgesic for muscular aches and pains, relieves/reduces migraines, energizing, antispasmodic, do not use on children under 30 months of age
Don't be fooled by this quick review. Only some of the benefits of each of those essential oils are listed. For a full list of each oil and all benefits, click HERE (coming soon)
Essential Oils By Category:
Essential oils are distinguished from aroma oils (essential oils and aroma compounds in an oily solvent), infusions in a vegetable oil, absolutes, and concretes. Typically, essential oils are highly complex mixtures of often hundreds of individual aroma compounds.
Absolutes are concentrated aromatic oils extracted from plants. Typically, absolutes are used in perfumery rather than for aromatherapy, because they are extracted using chemical solvents, usually hexane (used to make a concrete) and then ethyl alcohol (to remove the plant waxes and other constituents). This two-step process results in a wonderfully aromatic liquid (although some absolutes are semi-solid) that displays an aroma profile often quite similar to the original plant except more concentrated and potent. The best use for absolutes is to create natural perfumes. They may be blended with essential oils, CO2 extracts, and other types of extracted aromatic oils in alcohol or in a fixed oil such as Jojoba oil. They can also be used for solid perfumes by combining your aromatic blend in beeswax or a plant wax such as candelilla wax. The difference between an absolutes and a pure essential oil is that the pure essential oil contains only the essential oil portion of the plant, whereas the absolute contains the essential oil from the plant plus more coloring constituents, plant waxes and other constituents from the plant. In addition, an absolute usually contains a small percentage of alcohol remaining from the second phase of the extraction process (typically up to 2 or 3 percent).
CO2 extracts display some of the characteristics of both essential oils and absolutes. They are extracted using CO2 (carbon dioxide) gas under pressure at ambient temperatures. Depending on the pressure used, a select or total extract will result. Select means that a lower pressure is used and total means that a higher pressure is used. Select extracts are more similar to essential oils in that they are usually fully mobile liquids and essential oils make up the vast majority of the extract. Total extracts contain more constituents of the plant and are more full-spectrum or more closely resemble the constituents of the whole plant rather than just the essential oil fraction of the plant.
Because of the purity of CO2 extracts and because they display some very favorable characteristics not found in essential oils, CO2 extracts are primarily used by the food, body care, and herbal industries, yet CO2 extracts are also excellent for aromatherapy and natural perfumery. This extraction technique (more accurately called supercritical CO2 extraction) is a relatively new and expensive technology that is more efficient in some ways than steam distillation because the process has the ability to capture a broader spectrum of the plant components, giving a fragrance more true to the original plant material without the use of chemical solvents. Other benefits are that the extraction process happens at lower temperatures than steam distillation and that carbon dioxide is nontoxic, odorless, and is easily removed from the extracted oil at the end of the process.
Quality is important when it comes to essential oils, so you will want to purchase from a respected seller who uses 100% all natural ingredients, without adding any chemicals. Some essential oils may come diluted. For example, the difficulty of extracting rose oil from the plant has always caused it to be a very expensive substance. A rose blossom contains only about 0.02% essential oil. It takes about 60,000 roses to produce just 1 ounce of oil, and ten thousand pounds of rose blossoms to produce 1 pound of oil. Thus you will often find this essential oil sold with a 3% or so.
It’s important to keep in mind that these oils can have different results for different people. That’s because we all have different bodies with different needs, complications, sensitivities or allergies. The active ingredients in certain supplements and essential oil products could also interact with other medications you are taking. For those reasons, it’s always wise to discuss anything you are taking for health reasons with a healthcare practitioner that you trust, like your doctor or a licensed nutritionist. Find someone with the knowledge you need and ask a lot of questions.
What Are Essential Oils?
The Biological Role Of Essential Oils Within Plants