We hear about them all the time: their delicious scents, their health benefits and the host of wonderful products which can be made from them. But what are essential oils, exactly?
Ancient Egyptians used aromatic oils in cosmetics and ointments as early as 4500 B.C., whereas traditional Chinese and Indian medicine relied on aromatic oils for healing between 3000 and 2000 B.C. Similarly, aromatherapy, or the practice of using aromatic materials, including essential oils, for physiological and physical wellness, has been used thousands of years across many different cultures to treat physical and mental ailments and their use is also scattered throughout international medical history.
They’re nothing like the oils you use to cook with, such as vegetable and olive oils.
Essential oils are concentrated extracts of various plants. They are organic compounds which are derived from seeds, bark, roots, flowers, and other plant sources. So, although we call them ‘oils’, they’re actually complex chemical compounds that give the plant its unique fragrance and can be used to promote wellness benefits. Interestingly, the plants which produce these naturally occurring essential oils use them themselves for infection control and for attracting or repelling animals, birds and insects.
Essential oils are made by steaming or pressing various parts of a plant to capture the compounds. They can then be inhaled, added to a carrier oil for direct application on the skin, consumed orally or used in household products to clean and sanitize.
The process of extraction varies from case to case, but there are three main methods for getting essential oils from plants.
Steam distillation is the most common method for extracting essential oils. It involves passing steam over the materials in a still. This steam is then passed into a condenser which generates a liquid which is made up of both oil and water. Once this liquid is cooled, the oil part will naturally settle on the top for collection.
Expression is most commonly used for extracting essential oils from citrus fruits. The method basically involves compressing the peel and squeezing the essential oil from it. The peel is grated or scraped for collection and, because this cold-pressing technique isn’t a heat-based extraction method, the resulting expressed oil smells just like the delicious scent released when an orange or lemon is zested.
The final method is Solvent extraction and is a little more complicated. It is reserved for the more delicate flowers such as roses, jasmine and neroli. Petals are collected and soaked in a chemical solvent which works to dissolve the natural aroma from the fibres of the plant. The sticky mass that this produces is called a ‘concrete’ which is then processed to get rid of waxes and fats and what’s left over is called the ‘absolute’. (Note – essential oils that have been created through chemical processes are not classed as being true essential oils)
Essential oils have a direct effect on the limbic system, a small part of the brain that deals with memories and emotions.
Once the essential oil that gives the plant its unique fragrance is captured, It can then be inhaled, added to a carrier oil for direct application on the skin, or used in household products to clean and sanitize. If you are looking to use an oil for diffusion, massage, skincare, haircare or any other aromatherapeutic benefit, then you should always use an essential oil.
We have all experienced the power of the limbic system many times, even though we will not necessarily have been consciously aware of it at the time.
For example, at some point in our lives most of us have encountered a fragrance that triggered a powerful memory and the response to this type of stimulus is lightning fast; you don’t have time to stop and contemplate what the aroma reminds you of because you are catapulted back in time in a nanosecond and will often feel a powerful emotional response too. When this happens, you have just experienced the awesome power of the limbic system, which mediates and controls all aspects of emotions, memories, and more. This response proves that your brain can link aromas to memories, that in some cases may last a lifetime and demonstrates how essential oils can affect your emotions.
Inhaling essential oils for aromatherapy is thought to be able to influence emotions and memories due to the direct connection that the olfactory system has to the limbic system. When you sniff an essential oil, odiferous molecules enter the nose and travel to the top of the nasal cavity where 50 million smell receptors called ‘cilia’ occupy an area about 2 square centimetres above each nostril. When an odour molecule penetrates these receptors it sends a signal to the olfactory bulb which is a major structure within the limbic system, and where the olfactory impressions are first processed. From there, odour impulses are sent to the olfactory cortex in the temporal lobe and the limbic system.
Precautions for using essential oils
The potency of essential oils mean that you use them with care. They are not recommended for children younger than twelve and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Make sure to consider pets in the environment as some essential oils can be dangerous for pets. Talk to a doctor before using essential oils if you take any medications or have any health concerns, including high blood pressure, low immunity, or epilepsy.
Do not take essential oils internally.
Only the 100% pure essential oils will bring the benefits you are looking for.
Oils that are not pure may well be made up from several different species of the same plant or herb, which can diminish its potency and effectiveness.
Your biggest clue will probably be the price. If an oil that claims to be ‘pure’ is remarkably cheap compared to others on the market, then you can be pretty sure that it is not 100% pure.
Often, the fragrance and flavouring industry will redistill oils and add sweeteners and other additives, and while this makes them cheaper it also makes them not as effective.
It’s extremely important to remember that you shouldn’t put essential oils directly on your skin, as they may be too strong for your skin and cause some sort of reaction. Dilute the essential oil by mixing with a carrier oil massaging onto skin. Carrier oils are typically cold-pressed oils and do not evaporate like essential oils do, but they can go rancid where essential oils will not. Your choice of carrier oil will depend a bit on preference of smell, texture, and sensitivities to avoid allergic reactions. Popular choices for carrier oils are fractionated coconut oil, sweet almond oil, jojoba oil, avocado oil, sunflower oil or grape seed oil.
Alternatively, adding essential oil to your bath is an amazing way to take a relaxing time-out. For best results mix a few drops of essential oil with simple Epsom salts before adding into the bath water. If you just drop the essential oil straight into the water it doesn’t dissolve as well as when mixed with the salts.
Not only does Epsom salt dissolve beautifully but also has added benefits for skin and muscles.
Put a few drops of essential oils into a diffuser to circulate the oil into your room.
Electronic diffusers are designed to disperse a super fine mist of essential oils and will gently fill the air with the aroma and healing benefits of the essential oil of your choice within minutes. Essential oils are described as “volatile” which means that they easily evaporate at normal temperatures and break down molecularly when exposed to heat. Therefore, using a candle-burning to diffuser is not recommended. Also remember that essential oils are flammable, making the electronic diffusing method safer and more versatile to use.
When you’re dispensing essential oils in the air, consider pregnant or breastfeeding women, children, and pets.