What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are natural extracts from the seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers, and other parts of plants. If you have ever chopped an herb and smelled a fragrant smell, you have experienced the essential oil of that plant. More than just something that smells good, essential oils contain beneficial organic compounds that we can use for our health and well being. Over 3000 varieties of volatile aromatic compounds have been identified to date.
Essential oils are generally non-greasy, feel very clean 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.
Try this at home: Squeeze the peel of a ripe orange. The fragrant residue on your hand is full of essential oils.
Essential oils have been used throughout history in many cultures for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits. Modern culture and the increased interest in holistic health options has increasingly allowed for more scientific studies on the benefits and uses of essential oils.
Essential Oils Have Been Around a Long Time.
The Egyptians were some of the first people to use aromatic essential oils extensively in medical practice, beauty treatment, food preparation, and in religious ceremony. Frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh and cinnamon were considered very valuable cargo along caravan trade routes and were sometimes exchanged for gold.
Borrowing from the Egyptians, the Greeks used essential oils in their practices of therapeutic massage and aromatherapy. The Romans also used aromatic oils to promote health and personal hygiene. Influenced by the Greeks and Romans, as well as Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic use of aromatic herbs, the Persians began to refine distillation methods for extracting essential oils from aromatic plants. Essential oil extracts were used throughout the dark ages in Europe for their health benefits and fragrant properties.
In the 19th century, a shift began with new developments in chemistry and distillation methods. French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, began a study of essential oils in research and personal practical application and is credited with the phrase "aromatherapy."
How are essential oils extracted?
Most oils are extracted using steam distillation, but some oils such as citrus oils are extracted through a process of compression in which the oil is squeezed from the plant. A very few essential oils are extracted using solvents that bind with the oils and are later removed from the final product.
Therapeutic-grade essential oils are usually extracted via a low-heat steam distillation process in which steam is circulated under pressure through plant material releasing the essential oils into the steam. As the steam mixture cools, the water and oils separate and the oil can be collected.
The extraction process for high quality essential oils needs to be monitored extremely close. Everything has to be just right to ensure yield the highest quality oil of correct chemical composition, temperature and pressure. If done incorrectly, it can change the extract’s composition and potency.
Careful selection of plant materials is just as important as the distillation. Plants need to have the right species, the correct growing conditions, and be harvested at the correct time. The process requires experienced growers and distillers working together to ensure a high quality product.
FYI: It takes as much as 12,000 rose blossoms to distill 5 ml of therapeutic- grade essential rose oil.
Next: Differences in Essential Oil Quality -->