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Essential Oils are highly concentrated substances derived from a plant that usually bears the aroma or flavor of that plant. The Greek alchemist Paracelsus coined the term ‘essential oil’ because he believed these oils were the most concentrated form of a plant’s essence—the quintessence of the plant.1 Even though modern essential oil extraction methods weren’t developed until the late 16th century, the use of plant aromatics dates back to ancient times when they were used in rituals, food preservation and preparation, as perfumes and fragrances, and, of course, as medicines.2 Today essential oils are used in body care products for their scent as well as therapeutic benefits, in the creation of perfume, and certain essential oils are used by the food industry as preservatives and for flavoring. Essential oils are also readily available for home use and aromatherapy.
Not all plants produce aromatic substances that can be extracted and used as essential oils, but, in the plants that do, these substances are produced because they are important for the plant’s defense and survival. Plants use aromatic substances to discourage herbivores, prevent the growth of pathogens, repel pests, encourage pollination, and compete with other plants for resources, such as space and nutrients.2 On average, essential oils contain 100 different naturally occurring chemical compounds.3 The two main categories of compounds are terpenes (which include mono- and sesquiterpenes, aldehydes, ketones, esters, and oxides) and phenylpropanoids (which include phenols, aromatic alcohols, aromatic aldehydes and ethers). These compounds are responsible for the smell as well as the medicinal qualities of the oil.
Essential oils can be extracted from nearly every part of a plant, including leaves, stems, flowers, peels, seeds, wood, bark, roots, needles, twigs, and resin. Some plants can yield more than one essential oil; for instance, neroli comes from the flowers of bitter orange, pettigrain from the leaves, and orange oil from the peels.1 Distillation is the most common method used to extract essential oils from their plant matter. This method exposes the plant matter to concentrated steam, which releases the aromatic molecules into vapor and then condenses them into a liquid form, the essential oil. Distillation also yields hydrosols, which contain the water-soluble constituents of the plant and a small amount of the essential oil. Hydrosols (a.k.a. floral waters) can be used in place of water in a body care recipe, as a toner, any time an essential oil would be too strong, and some can even be used in cooking. Citrus essential oils are extracted by cold-press extraction, which squeezes the oils out of the peel. For some plants that contain only small amounts of aromatic compounds or are too fragile to be distilled, solvent extraction is used, producing an “absolute”. The finished absolute contains little to no solvent residue and is highly concentrated in aromatic compounds. In recent years Supercritical CO2 Extraction has been used for some essential oils (technically, “absolutes” when produced with this method). Using carbon dioxide as a non-toxic solvent, this method allows for a wide range of aromatic compounds to be extracted at low heat.
Essential oils can be used in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. Aromatherapy is the term generally used to describe the therapeutic use of essential oils for addressing physical as well as psychological and emotional concerns. When essential oils are applied to the skin, not only do they work on the skin they come in contact with, but they are also absorbed and enter into the body where they can exert their effects. When applied topically, between 4% and 25% of an essential oil is absorbed, depending on the chemical composition of the oil.4 This allows essential oils to enter directly into the bloodstream without having to go through the digestive tract. Essential oils also work through inhalation. The aromatic molecules are carried via the nose to the respiratory tract, where they can work directly or be absorbed through the alveoli into the bloodstream. Once essential oils enter the bloodstream the liver will eventually metabolize them and they will be excreted via the kidneys. When essential oils are inhaled, they also interact with cells at the back of the nose where the aromatic molecules can stimulate changes in the brain, such as alter production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins and serotonin.4 5 6 You’ve likely experienced this phenomenon before when a smell triggers a memory or brings up a certain emotion. Different essential oils have been shown to possess qualities that modulate inflammation, create an inhospitable environment for bacteria, fungi and viruses, support liver detoxification, and influence mood and brain function.4 7 Despite all their wonderful attributes, essential oils can be used just for the smell of it too.
To harness the power of essential oils consider using them in any of the following ways:
Once you have decided on your desired oil(s) based on therapeutic benefit or simply on scent alone, you will want to do a little research on the oil’s safety and how it is best used. The following information will help you choose a product that is right for your intended purpose and give you some guidelines for safely using essential oils.
There are no standards established for grading the quality of essential oils. Terms like “therapeutic grade”, “pharmaceutical grade” or “food grade” have no legal requirements for their use and do not necessarily ensure quality.8 In fact, any manufacturer can use these terms regardless of the quality of their oils, in short these are simply marketing terms. To ensure that you are getting high quality essential oils look for the following clues on the label:
Other things you may want to consider when purchasing an essential oil are:
Is the oil 100% pure or is it combined with extenders (such as jojoba oil) or added fragrances?
Combining an essential oil with a carrier oil or fragrances does dilute the effect, however it offers the advantage of making expensive oils (such as jasmine or rose) more cost effective and in some cases extending the life of the scent. Oils that have been diluted or have added fragrances are probably best used in applications where scent is most important. For more therapeutic applications, pure essential oils are usually preferable. The information on the label should help to verify a 100% pure claim.
Is the essential oil derived from an organic plant?
Organic essential oils have been derived from plants that have been grown without the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides. Organic may be especially important in the case of Supercritical CO2 Extraction, which appears to concentrate more pesticide residues than other extraction methods.9 Organic essential oils should bear the USDA Organic Seal.
Bear in mind that essential oils are highly concentrated and thus can be very powerful. The following suggestions will help you to harness their benefit safely.
Store essential oil bottles sealed and in a dark, cool spot, and avoid touching the spout; rather allow the oil to drip out. Stored this way, most essential oils have a very long shelf life.
For more information on specific essential oils and how to use them, check out the following books:
The Art of Aromatherapy by Robert B. Tisserand
The Complete Book of Essential Oils & Aromatherapy by Valerie Ann Worwood
The Encyclopedia of Aromatherapy by Chrissie Wildwood
|Aroma: sweet, fresh, floral||Uses/Properties: Appropriate for most skin types and many skin concerns, deodorizing, supports healthy mood, calming, relaxing, discourages microbes (bacteria). Commonly used to soothe minor burns.||Safety: One of the most widely used essential oils and generally considered safe|
|Aroma: Warm, spicy, medicinal and volatile||Uses/Properties: Discourages microbes (bacteria, fungi, and viruses), modulates inflammation, supports skin health.||Safety: May cause minor skin irritation in some people, patch test skin before using.|
|Aroma: Fresh, penetrating and woody, camphoraceous||Uses/Properties: Modulates pain and inflammation, cooling, discourages microbes (bacteria, viruses), deodorizing, supports respiratory health.||Safety: Generally considered safe|
(Mentha x piperita)
|Aroma: Fresh, minty, sweet||Uses/Properties: stimulating, modulates pain and inflammation, discourages microbes (bacterial and viral), supports digestive function (carminative/dispels gas).||Safety: Do not use with young children or babies or during pregnancy|
|Aroma: Sweet, spicy, warm||Uses/Properties: Warming, stimulates circulation, supports digestive health, supports immune function||Safety: Can be irritating to the skin and mucous membranes (especially cinnamon bark). Avoid during pregnancy|
|Aroma: Fresh, herbal, resinous, woody undertone||Uses/Properties: Stimulating, energizing, modulates pain, supports respiratory health, supports hair health||Safety: Avoid during pregnancy or in epilepsy or hypertension|
|Aroma: Fresh, citrus, reminiscent of the peel||Uses/Properties: Uplifting, discourages microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi), supports digestive function||Safety: May increase photosensitivity when applied topically|
|Aroma: Fresh, fruity, sweet, similar to the peel||Uses/Properties: Uplifting, supports proper circulation and lymphatic function, purifying, discourages microbes (bacteria). Commonly used in household cleaners.||Safety: May increase photosensitivity when applied topically|
n (Matricaria recutita)
|Aroma: Rich, floral.||Uses/Properties: Calming, appropriate for all skin types and many skin conditions, modulates inflammation and pain, supports digestion.||Safety: Generally safe, although it may cause skin irritation in a small percentage of users.|