Understanding Essential Oils 101

February 12, 2017

Cassia Essential Oil

Understanding Essential Oils

Aromatherapy is a form of herbal medicine which uses the distilled or pressed aromatic oils of a plant, rather than components of the plant. These extracts are called essential oils.

The term aromatherapy was coined in the early 20th century, however, the use of plant aromatics and essential oils for therapeutic treatments is as old as mankind. There are many references in the Christian bible to anointing oils, which is another term for essential oils and the use of aromatic plants to promote health, reduce stress and aid in the rejuvenation and regeneration of the human body is found in all cultures.

Today the art of aromatherapy and the use of essential oils are increasingly being incorporated into western medicine, with essential oils diffused in emergency rooms to promote an atmosphere of calm and also to reduce the risk of airborne infection.

What is an Essential Oil?

An essential oil is an unadulterated product extracted from a single plant species.

Flowers, roots, resins, leaves, seeds and fruits of various plants are used to produce pure essential oils each with their own unique healing properties. Some oils have beneficial effects on the body’s nervous and hormonal systems, while others support the healthy function of bodily systems.

Many oils are powerful antiseptics while others act as natural painkillers, sedatives or stimulants.

Where Do Essential Oils Come From?

There are only a limited number of plant species that be used to produce essential oils. There are over 250,000 species of plants, but only around 450 known plant species are used to produce essential oils, and  from these 450, a mere 125-150 are used in aromatherapy.

Medicinal and therapeutic oils make up only a very small percentage of the world market, with the chemical industry, perfumes, and food colorings using the bulk of the international production.

Interestingly, not all essential oils feel oily. The term "oil" is used because they are made up of oil-soluble chemicals found within the plant (usually 100 to 200 chemicals per essential oil). This complex chemistry gives essential oils their therapeutic properties and explains why different essential oils may have multiple and complex effects.

Plants use their oils to help combat environmental factors and to protect from diseases.  Naturally occurring essential oils in plants help with infection and humidity control, hormonal processes, wound healing, and attracting or repelling insects, birds, and animals.

Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

The words aromatherapy and essential oils are often used interchangeably, however, practitioners of aromatherapy often prefer the term "Essential Oils Therapy."  This is because the term aromatherapy implies that all oils are pleasantly and aromatically scented and also that the predominant use of the oils is through the olfactory system via inhalation. Neither of which is true.

What to Look for When Buying Essential Oils

"Therapeutic Grade Essential Oil" is a term often used by companies selling essential oils, and while it is widely used throughout the industry there is no government body or other official agency certifying essential oils.

There is no authorized certification for therapeutic, medicinal or aromatherapy grade oils, and these terms are only an indication of internal quality control or a guarantee of purity from the manufacturer. These terms are used purely for marketing purposes.

Due to the lack of regulation of essential oil labeling, it can be difficult for consumers to determine the quality of oils being sold. However, the following information will quickly help to sort out the highest quality oils from the inferior ones on the market.

Oil Purity

Essential oil purity picture100% pure essential oils are those which have had nothing added or subtracted from them during the extraction process or after. This is an important point when buying essential oils to use for therapeutic purposes, as it is often possible to purchase "100%" lavender oil, and other oils very cheaply. The cheaper versions really are "100%" plant matter (as in nothing has been added), however, many of the active constituents of the oils have been removed and sold, generally for perfume and toiletries. This is particularly true of lavender and rose oils. As a general rule, when shopping for high-quality oils price is usually a good indication of quality.

Organic or Wild Harvested?

Try to buy organic or wild harvested essential oils when possible. These are oils distilled and extracted from plants grown without pesticides. During the extraction process, a very large amount of plant material is required to produce a small amount of essential oil. Therefore, it is highly likely that essential oils which have been commercially distilled from non-organic plants or using chemical processes will have pesticide residuals in the final product. Often in a highly concentrated form.

It is worth mentioning that many small distillers and growers in remote areas and third world countries do grow and wild harvest plants which have not been exposed to chemicals. Unfortunately, they often do not have the means to certify their product for export using the "organic" label, as it is a rigorous and expensive process.

Learn to Read the Label

When purchasing essential oils, look for those which state the Latin names of the botanical plants and their country of origin. Lavender is an excellent example here, as it has many varieties, some of which are more suited to a therapeutic application than others.

Also, look for the method of extraction. Has the oil been chemically or solvent extracted? Is it steam distilled or obtained using other chemical free methods such as pressing? Were the plants organically grown or wild harvested? Each of these factors will impact the quality of the oil.

Always check the label when buying essential oil products from supermarkets or large commercial manufacturing companies, as there can be big differences between what a professional aromatherapist would use and what is sold in retail outlets.

It is also often the case that well-known brands of shampoos, skin care items and cleaning products have botanical names prominently displayed on the bottle or wrapper. The words aromatherapy and essential oils are also frequently used for marketing but when the label is scrutinized, these products often contain little, if any, natural or botanical ingredients.

Storing Your Essential Oils

Essential oils should be decanted and stored in dark glass bottles to minimize oxidization. Never store quality oils to be used on the body in plastic. Essential oils have solvent properties which can dissolve plastic and plastic is also known to leach toxic chemicals.

Essential oils can be safely used for 1-2 years or more after opening, however, it is important to keep the lid tightly closed to prevent evaporation and deterioration. Oils must be stored in a dark place or refrigerated.

A Final Word

The quality of essential oils being purchased for therapeutic use can be affected by many things, including how and where they are grown and harvested; whether or not chemicals are used in the cultivation or extraction process; how they are stored before and after bottling and the plant species used to create the oil.

The unique chemistry of each essential oil is influenced by the geography, weather conditions, season and time of day when the plants are harvested. An example of this are the rose petals used to create rose essential oil. The petals are traditionally picked at first light before their fragrance is reduced by exposure to sunlight.


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