People have been using aromatherapy for centuries and its benefits are undeniable. Fragrances can uplift the spirits, soothe respiratory ailments, and purify the air. In ancient times, people burned wood chips, tree resin and spices as an offering to their gods. The word perfume comes from the Latin “per fumum” which literally means “through smoke”. As the cultural development of societies evolved, so did their knowledge of the substances that produce fragrance. In 1937, the French chemist René Maurice Gattefossé coined the term aromatherapy in his book of the same name. He discovered the healing properties of lavender oil after severely burning himself in a lab explosion.
What are essential oils, anyway?
Essential oils are responsible for the fragrance of many plants. They are a mix of concentrated, liquid, lipophilic and highly volatile chemical compounds a plant produces for different purposes:
- Protection from heat and cold through the creation of a micro climate
- Attraction of pollinating insects
- Repulsion of pests
- Protection from bacterial, viral and fungal diseases
These compounds are found in the bark, berries, flower, leaves, peel, resin, rhizome, root, seeds, and wood. Several factors influence the quality and amount of essential oil a plant produces:
- Plant care
- The developmental stage of the plant
- Time of the day
Not all plants contain essential oils. Those that do, not only taste and smell aromatic but also have therapeutic properties. An oil is “essential” because it contains the essence of the plant’s scent. It’s an oil because it usually doesn’t mix with water. Essential oils are extracted through the following methods:
Today most common essential oils are extracted through the process of distillation. Plant material and water are put into a distillation apparatus. As the water is heated, the steam passes through the plant material vaporizing the volatile compounds. The vapors flow through a coil, where they condense back to liquid, which is then collected in the receiving vessel. The recondensed water is referred to as a hydrosol, hydrolat, herbal distillate or plant water essence, and the pleasant scented ones are sold as another fragrant product. Popular hydrosols include rose water, lavender water, and orange blossom water.
Essential oils can be found in most peels of citrus plants. The chopped peels are mixed with water and mechanically expressed or cold-pressed (similar to olive oil extraction).
The chemical compound of most flowers are too delicate to undergo expression or distillation. In this case, a solvent (usually hexane) is used to extract the oils. After the removal of the solvent, a waxy mass, called Concrete, remains. Then, through alcohol extraction, an absolute is obtained. A large number of flower oils are obtained through this method.
In this method, the plant section is placed in a base oil (olive, jojoba, sunflower, etc). Since essential oils are lipophilic (lipo = fat, philos = friendly), meaning they are oil soluble, the base oil absorbs the essential oil. Examples of oils extracted through maceration: Calendula oil and St. John’s Wort oil.
Authenticity and purity
The home use of essential oils has greatly increased and there are many brands of oils on the market. It is vital to purchase them from a reputable supplier who takes care to ensure high standards. The following information should be printed on the label:
- 100% pure essential oil (the word natural on a bottle’s label does not always guarantee purity)
- Botanical name
- Country of origin
- Type of cultivation (organic, harvested from the wild, conventional)
- Plant part from which the oil was extracted
- Type of extraction
- Whether the oil has been mixed with alcohol or oil
- Chemotype (if applicable)
- Batch number
Pricing is also important. Inexpensive oils are seldom pure or of good quality.
Shelf life of essential oils
Always store the essential oils in bottles that offer light protection (brown or blue bottles). Avoid contact with oxygen by closing the bottle immediately after using the oil. When possible, use small bottles. When appropriately stored, oils of good quality tend to last a few years. An exception to this rule are citrus oils, which tend to last only about one year. Some oils, like rose, jasmine, sandalwood, vetiver and patchouli, mature and improve with time.
Essential oils can be used simply and effectively to treat a variety of complaints, including:
- Stress related disorders like anxiety, headaches, and depression
- Skin problems like acne, eczema, and psoriasis
- Respiratory tract problems, such as, asthma, bronchitis, and hay fever
- Cosmetic imperfections like wrinkles, scars, and stretch marks
All essential oils are harmful to bacteria and drive off vermin. They can also be harmful to people and animals when used incorrectly.
Methods of using essential oils
- Salves, balms
- Scalp treatments
- Fragrance diffusers
- Handkerchief or tissue
Most essential oils should be avoided during pregnancy and lactation.