Essential oils are aromatic substances present in the specialized cells or glands of certain plants used by them to protect themselves from predators and pests, but also to attract polinators. In other words, essential oils are part of the immune system of the plant.
It has been shown that the saps and resins produced by some trees deter wood boring beetles. When eaten, other plant species are nauseating and toxic to mammals due to the chemical compounds found within.
In some environments plants are exposed to harsh climatic conditions, it is thought the essential oils which collect on the leaves of some plants protect against water loss.
The antimicrobial use of essential oils has been well documented when studied by man. Plants that produce these essential oils are better equipped to protect themselves against funguses and other microbes.
Even if the plant is situated in a near perfect environment not subjected to any of these trials, it may have to compete with other plants. Most essential oils contain compounds that are toxic to other plants by inhibiting respiration and photosynthesis – these are thought to be used to prevent other plants germinating in close proximity.
With many essential oils, we extract these and use them for the same or similar applications they were initially used for by the plant from which they came. In recent years the numbers of studies using essential oils for therapeutic benefits has increased.
There are a variety of methods employed in extracting essential oils from aromatic plants, however, the process of distillation is the main method for extracting the aromatic parts of plants.
Steam Distillation The plant material (called the ‘charge’) is placed in a still and then hot steam is passed through it. The heat breaks open the essential oil storage chambers within the charge, releasing the oil into the steam (remember, essential oils are volatile). The steam/oil rise to the top of the still where they enter a condenser – basically, a long spiral pipe surrounded by cold water – which condenses the steam back into its water form. At the end of the condenser, the water and essential oil are collected in a receiver, usually called a ‘Florentine flask’. This specially designed container has two outflows in view of the fact that oil and water don’t mix, i.e. the solution separates into essential oil and hydrolat. Essential oils are usually lighter than water and so will float above it.
Once collected, the lower outflow in the Florentine flask, allows the hydrolat to be drawn off, and since more of this is produced than oil, the process needs to be carried out during distillation to prevent the flask from overflowing.
Expression This method was used to extract essences from the citrus family. The rinds of the fruit were literally squeezed by hand until the oil glands burst releasing the oil which was then collected in a sponge. Once saturated, the sponge would be squeezed out into a container.
Nowadays, this method of extraction is carried out using machinery, rather than by hand.
Enfleurage Another historical method used for extracting essential oil from flowers is the process of ‘enfleurage’.
Aromatic flower heads are placed on sheets of glass called ‘chassis’ which have been covered with purified fat. The fat absorbs the essential oils from the flowers and, once exhausted, the flowers are removed and replaced with fresh. This process is repeated many times until the fat is saturated with essential oil. The resultant compound is called a ‘pomade’. The pomade is then dissolved in alcohol. Fat is insoluble in alcohol but essential oil readily dissolves into it. The resultant liquid is then carefully heated and as the alcohol evaporates first, the pure essential oil is left behind.
Maceration This process is similar to enfleurage and is a method by which one can still make essential oil at home in a ready diluted state.
The flowers or leaves are crushed to rupture some of the oil glands or cells and then put into a vegetable oil which is kept warm. The vegetable oil absorbs the essential oil and the plant material is strained off. Fresh plant material is then added to the re-warmed carrier and this process is repeated until the fat or vegetable oil is concentrated enough.
Solvent Extraction This is one of the most modern methods of extraction and is mainly used for costly and delicate flower oils, such as jasmine, rose and tuberose, etc. Technically, products of solvent extraction are not essential oils, but are more accurately referred to as ‘absolutes’.
Unfortunately though, solvent extraction does involve the use of harsh chemicals, residues of which will inevitably remain within the aromatic absolute, resulting in potential skin irritation. As such, absolutes are not considered to be suitable for use in massage.
A simplified version of the solvent extraction process is as follows:
Firstly, the flowers are covered with a chemical solvent, which absorbs the essential oil. The mixture of solvent and essential oil is referred to as an ‘extract’. The next stage involves the removal of the solvent and this is achieved by distilling the extract at a low pressure, thereby reducing the boiling point of the solvent, so that only gentle heat is required to remove it, leaving behind the aromatic molecules. The concentrated extract is then cooled causing it to solidify to a waxy consistency – at this point it is referred to as a ‘concrete’. In order to remove the unwanted wax, the concrete is ‘washed’ and warmed in alcohol which causes the oils to dissolve into it. The alcohol mixture is then chilled to separate out any remaining waxes, filtered and the alcohol removed by vacuum distillation at the lowest possible temperature. This final product is then referred to as an ‘absolute’.
Aromatherapy appears to be safe if you use the oils in the right way. But it’s important to handle essential oils carefully and always dilute them according to the instructions on the bottle or leaflet. Keep them out of the reach of children and pets because they can be toxic if you swallow them.
In general, you can’t use any neat essential oil on your skin, although most people can safely use lavender and tea tree oil – ask your aromatherapist which ones you can use. It’s also important not to swallow oils or put them inside your body, such as in your eye, or inside your nostril or ear.
Some essential oils can have side-effects. These are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects that you may get after having aromatherapy (feeling sick, headache).
When oils are applied to the skin, side effects may include allergic reactions, skin irritation and sun sensitivity. In addition, further research is needed to determine how essential oils might affect children and how the oils might affect women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, as well as how the oils might interact with medications and other treatments.
Some essential oils may either reduce or enhance the effects of certain conventional medicines. For example, they can affect antibiotics, antihistamines and sedatives. If you’re taking any medicine, let your aromatherapist know. You might also wish to talk to your pharmacist. Remember that aromatherapy is a complementary therapy, so don’t use it instead of any medical treatment you might need.
Essential oils offer a wide variety of benefits for every day body care, home care and more. But it can be difficult to determine where to start.
These must-have essential oils for beginners are in the cabinets of every EO guru you’ll ever meet. And you may find that they carry these oils around with them wherever they go.
• Lavender Essential Oil – the floral scent makes it one of the best smelling essential oils that is beloved by many. Although this oil is known for being mild and calming, a few people are allergic so it’s important to take care.
• Peppermint Essential Oil – offers a myriad of health benefits as well as a boost of energy. Its minty scent is reminiscent of candy canes and fresh summer days.
• Lemon Essential Oil – fresh and fruity, lemon essential oil is often used for home cleaning and air freshening, but can also be used for many body care products.
• Eucalyptus Essential Oil – is distilled from the leaves of the tree and is great for body care products like salves and rubs.
• Frankincense Essential Oil – used extensively in incense and fine perfumes for thousands of years, frankincense essential oil is characterized by a resinous aroma and can bring a calming benefit to body care, diffusion and air freshening as well as grounding practices like meditation or yoga.
• Tea Tree Essential Oil – well known for its cleansing and purifying benefits, tea tree essential oil is great for a variety of body and home care products.
• Chamomile Essential Oil – This oil has a sweet, flowery scent that some people compare to apple blossoms. Can help bring a sense of calm. Roman Chamomile is also a suggested oil for use during times of anger or irritability.
• Rosemary Essential Oil – has a strongly herbal scent that has a mellow undertone reminiscent of camphor. Can bring uplifting, energizing and purifying benefits to your airspace and body care.
• Patchouli Essential Oil – lends a floral, earthy aroma and grounding benefit to body care products, diffusion blends and more.
• Sweet Orange Essential Oil – the citrusy aroma of sweet orange essential oils bring uplifting, balancing and freshening benefits to a variety of body and home care products.
• Grapefruit Essential Oil – another oil from the popular citrus family, Grapefruit has an attractive scent that is energizing and affordably priced. Blend with spicy oils such as cinnamon for a balanced, warming atmosphere.
• Bergamot Essential Oil – especially great for homemade deodorants, but also other kinds of body and home care. Be sure to use bergaptene-free bergamot for skin care applications.
You start you aromatherapy session by having a discussion on your medical history and any personal issues that may be affecting you. It is highly important that you are thorough and specific in disclosing the medical history, which includes illnesses, injuries, and allergies. Remember that aromatherapists cannot make a medical diagnosis because they aren’t trained to do so. But they can give you advice on a course of aromatherapy treatment.
Your aromatherapist will usually select and blend different essential oils, dilute them in a carrier oil, then massage them into your skin. A carrier oil is usually an oil extracted from nuts and seeds. They may also prepare products for you to use at home, such as oils to put in a diffuser or a cream.
An aromatherapy session should last for around an hour to an hour and a half. You might find that one session is enough or you may want to continue with regular treatments. Сoming away from an aromatherapy session, you can expect to feel more relaxed than you were before the session. The essential oils used in the session do have the “magical” ability to soothe weary muscles, minds and spirits. Aromatherapy is a gentle, non-invasive form of holistic therapy you will most likely thoroughly enjoy.