Firstly, I’d like to make it clear that “essential” doesn’t mean necessary, or even usable by the human body. Essential oils, sometimes known as volatile oils, are compounds extracted from plants that capture the plant’s scent and flavour, or it’s “essence”. You might also see an oil described simply as “oil of clove”.
Another thing I’ll go ahead and clear up: volatile oils doesn’t mean explosive or dangerous, merely that it evaporates easily at normal temperatures.
There’s also a very important distinction to be made between essential oils and extracts. Essential oils are the concentrated, volatile, aromatic compounds of a plant, usually extracted through steam distillation. Extracts, on the other hand, tend to be a type of infusion or tincture. In this method, the plant matter is steeped in a solution (typically water, oil or alcohol) similar to tea. Because of these different methods of production, essential oils will be pure, whereas an extract is a diluted version. This is important to pay attention to, as pure, undiluted essential oils can be very harsh, and cannot be ingested, where extracts are commonly found in foods, ie: vanilla extract.
There are a handful of ways essential oils are harvested from plant matter. The three most common processes are distillation, expression, and solvent extraction. Let’s dig into what each of those entails!
Distillation is the most common method. Raw plant material consisting of flowers, leaves, bark, roots, seeds or peels, is held over boiling water. The steam passes through the plant material and vaporizes the volatile compounds, and the vapors flow through a coil and condense back into liquid. The recondensed water is referred to as a hydrosol, or plant water essence, which can also be sold on its own ie: rose water. Many of the most common EOs are distilled, such as Lavender, Peppermint, Tea Tree, Patchouli, and Eucalyptus.
- Expression, also known as cold-pressing, is done by squeezing the liquids out of plant materials. It’s mainly used for citrus peel oils today, though before the advent of distillation, all EOs were harvested through expression. Citrus peels have a relatively large amount of oil in them, and cost very little to grow, so citrus oils are among the cheapest EOs to produce. We use several citrus oils at Upfront, including Lemon, Lime, Orangebitter, and Grapefruit.
- Solvent Extraction is a less common method, used mainly for flowers. Most flowers contain too little volatile oil for expression, and don’t hold up to the high heat used in distillation. Instead, a solvent is added to extract the oils. Oils obtained through this chemical process are not considered “true essential oils”.
Whichever way the volatile oils are extracted, that’s only the first step. Most essential oils must be combined with a carrier oil before they can be used on your skin. Carrier oils are used to dilute essential oils and “carry” them to your skin. That’s because essential oils are potent and can cause irritation when applied directly to your skin. Most carrier oils are unscented or lightly scented and don’t interfere with an essential oil’s therapeutic properties. Carrier oils and essential oils are both made from plants, and there are many different plants used for carrier oils, including Coconut, Olive, Avocado, and Grapeseed. Argan Oil and Jojoba Oil are commonly found in various hair products.
So we’ve explored exactly what an essential oil is, and how they’re produced. But what are their uses? Can they be used in any product? Are EOs the miracle cure that some people believe they are? Are you sure I can't drink them??
The most common use for EOs is in aromatherapy, the practice of using essential oils for therapeutic benefit. Aromatherapy has been used for centuries. When inhaled, the scent molecules in essential oils travel from the olfactory nerves directly to the brain and especially impact the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. This is why familiar smells can trigger memories or emotions. Aromatherapy can be enjoyed several ways besides in products:
- Aromatherapy accessories: Necklaces, bracelets and keychains made with absorbent materials you apply essential oils to and sniff throughout the day.
- Aroma stick: Also called an essential oil inhaler, these portable plastic sticks have an absorbent wick that soaks up essential oil. They come with a cover to keep the scent under wraps until you're ready.
- Body oil: A mixture of essential oils combined with a carrier oil that can be massaged into skin. Because essential oils are concentrated, they can cause irritation, and shouldn’t be used full-strength on skin
- Essential oil diffusers: small household appliances that create scented vapor. Some doctors advise against diffusion, as the vapors can be quite concentrated, and can affect people differently. Pregnant women, children, and those with scent sensitivity should be taken into consideration, and you should never diffuse EOs in a household with pets, as it’s extremely dangerous for them.
As I’ve pointed out before, essential oils shouldn’t be confused with Fragrance or Parfum, as those are most often synthetic and can be made of up to 200 different chemicals. While some EOs have some synthetic ingredients, the “essence” still comes from harvested plant matter. Why is that important? An increasing number of people find themselves with sensitivities and allergies to synthetic fragrance.
Another popular use for EOs is topically, meaning directly on the skin (with a carrier oil of course!) When applied to your skin plant chemicals are absorbed, and the effects vary from oil to oil. Want some examples?
- Lavender: used to relieve stress
- Sandalwood: used to calm nerves and help with focus
- Bergamot: used to reduce stress and improve skin conditions ie eczema
- Chamomile: used to improve mood and relaxation
- Ylang-Ylang: used to treat headaches, nausea, and skin conditions
- Tea Tree: used to fight infections and boost immunity
- Lemon: used to aid digestion, mood, headaches, and more
- Peppermint: used to boost energy and aid digestion, thought to help with headaches.
Essential oils have many benefits and can be helpful in relieving symptoms. A traditional Persian headache remedy calls for a mixture of chamomile and sesame oil to the temples to treat headaches and migraines. One study reported that smelling lavender oil has been shown to improve the sleep quality of women after childbirth. That being said, research in this area is lacking. Decades of controversy surround the medical use of EOs. It’s important to remember that essential oils are not a substitute for medical advice or expertise. And I’ll remind you once again, they should never be ingested.
Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe. Plants and herbal products contain many bioactive compounds that may harm your health, and essential oils are no different. They may cause some side effects, including headaches, rashes, asthma attacks and allergic reactions, particularly in those who are already scent-sensitive. However, as long as they are combined with a carrier oil, most EOs are considered safe to inhale or use topically. Be sure to consider others in your environment who might be inhaling the aroma, including pregnant women, children, and pets. Always read the label, and try to buy EOs stored in glass or metal containers, as concentrated EOs will erode plastic over time. Lastly, always remember that even though essential oils can boast some neat benefits and relaxing scents, it’s important to always put your doctor’s advice first. Sniff safely!