What Are Essential Oils?

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An essential oil is that aromatic, volatile liquid that is within many shrubs, flowers, trees, roots, bushes, and seeds and that is usually extracted through steam distillation.

Plants not only play a vital role in the ecological balance of our planet, but they have also been intimately linked to the physical, emotional, and spiritual well being of mankind since the beginning of time.

Essential oils and plant extracts have been woven into history since the beginning of time and are considered by many to be the missing link in modern medicine. They have been used medicinally to kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses and to combat insect, bug and snake bites in addition to treating all kinds of mysterious maladies. Oils and extracts stimulate tissue and nerve regeneration.

Essential oils also provide exquisite fragrances to balance mood, lift spirits, dispel negative emotions, and create romantic atmosphere.

What Is an Essential Oil?

An essential oil is that aromatic, volatile liquid that is within many shrubs, flowers, trees, roots, bushes, and seeds and that is usually extracted through steam distillation.

Steam distillation, the most common method of extracting essential oils, uses a very similar setup to water distillation, except instead of being immersed in the hot water, steam is passed through the plant material. The steam breaks open the cells containing the essential oil, and the steam and oil then pass into the cooling chamber where, like with water distillation, two products are created - essential oil and hydrosol.

Steam distillation, the most common method of extracting essential oils, uses a very similar setup to water distillation, except instead of being immersed in the hot water, steam is passed through the plant material. The steam breaks open the cells containing the essential oil, and the steam and oil then pass into the cooling chamber where, like with water distillation, two products are created – essential oil and hydrosol.

The chemistry of an essential oil is very complex and may consist of hundreds of different and unique chemical compounds. Moreover, essential oils are highly concentrated and far more potent than dried herbs because of the distillation process that makes them so concentrated. It requires a large volume of plant material to produce small amounts of a distilled essential oil. For example, it takes 5,000 pounds of rose petals to produce 1 kilo of rose oil.

Essential oils are also different from vegetable oils such as corn oil, peanut oil, and olive oil. Vegetable oils are greasy and may clog the pores. They also oxidize and bcome rancid over time and have no antibacterial properties. Most essential oils, on the other hand, do not go rancid and are powerful antimicrobial.

Essential oils are substances that definitely deserve the respect of proper education. Users should have a basic knowledge about the safety of the oils, and having a basic understanding of the chemistry of the essential oils is very helpful.

Essential oils can be distilled or extracted in different ways that will have  dramatic effects on their chemistry and medicinal action. Oils derived from a second or third distillation of the same plant material are usually not as potent as oils extracted during the first distillation. Yet with certain oils, there may be additional chemical constituents that are released only in the second or third distillation.

Of greatest concern is the fact that some oils are adulterated, engineered, or ‘extended’ with the use of synthetic-made compounds that are added to the oil.

Unfortunately a large percentage of essential oils marketed in the United States fall in this adulterated category. When you understand the world of synthetic oils as well as low grade oils cut with synthetic chemicals, you realize why the vast majority of consumers never know the difference. However, if you do know the smell of the pure oil or the technique for recognizing adulteration through scent, it may be possible to perceive a difference.

Man’s First Medicine

Terra cotta distillery from 350 B.C. now located in the museum in Taxila, Pakistan

Terra cotta distillery from 350 B.C. now located in the museum in Taxila, Pakistan

From ancient writings and traditions, it seems that aromatics were used for religioius rituals, the treatment of illness and other physical and spiritual needs. Records dating back to 4500 B.C.describe the use of balsamic substances with aromatic properties for religious rituals and medical applications.

The bible contains over 200 references to aromatics, incense, and ointments. Aromatics such as frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, cinnamon, cassia, rosemary, hyssop, and spikenard were used for anointing and healing the sick. The bible also lists an incident where an incense offering by Aaron stopped a plague. Numbers 16:46-50 records that Moses instructed Aaron to take a censer, add burning coals and incense, and “go quickly into the congregation to make an atonement for them; for there is a wrath gone out from the Lord: the plague is begun.” The bible records Aaron stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stayed. It is significant that according to the biblical and Talmudic recipes for incense, three varieties of cinnamon were involved. Cinnamon is known to be highly antimicrobial, anti-infectious, and antibacterial. The incense ingredient listed as “stacte” is believed to be a sweet, myrrh-related spice, which would make it anti-infectious and antiviral as well.

Purity and Strength of Essential Oil Constituents

One of the factors that determine the purity of an oil is its chemical constituents. These constituents can be affected by a vast number of variables including the part(s) of the plant from which the oil was produced, soil condition, fertilizer (organic or chemical), geographical region, climate, altitude, harvesting methods, and distillation processes.

There are many 'essential oils' in the market. But very few are 100% therapeutic grade oils. This is why we use and trust Young Living Essential Oils.

There are many ‘essential oils’ in the market. But very few are 100% therapeutic grade oils. This is why we use and trust Young Living Essential Oils.

The key to producing a therapeutic-grade essential oil is to preserve as many of the delicate aromatic compounds within the essential oil as possible. Fragile aromatic chemicals  are easily destroyed by high temperature and pressure, as well as contact with chemically reactive metals such as copper or aluminum. This is why all therapeutic-grade essential oils should be distilled in stainless steel cooking chambers at low pressure and low temperature. The plant material should also be free of herbicides and other agrichemicals. These can react with the essential oil during distillation to produce toxic compounds. Because many pesticides are oil-soluble, they can also mix into the essential oils.

Although chemists have successfully recreated the main constituents and fragrances of some essential oils in the labratory, these synthteic oils lack therapeutic benefits and may even carry risks. Why? Because essential oils contain hundreds of different chemical compounds, which in combination, lend important therapeutic properties to the oil. Also, many essential oils contain molecules and isomers that are impossible to manufacture in the laboratory.

Science and Application of Essential oils

Essential oils have a unique ability to penetrate cell membranes and diffuse  throughout the blood and tissues. The unique, lipid-soluble structure of essential oils is very similar to the makeup of our cell membranes. The molecules of essential oils are also relatively small, which enhances their ability to penetrate into the cells.

Research indicates that when essential oils are diffused, they can increase atmospheric oxygen and provide negative ions, which in turn inhibits bacterial growth. This suggests that essential oils can play an important role in air purification and neutralizing odors. Because of their ionizing action, essential oils have the ability to break down potentially harmful chemicals and render them nontoxic.

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Information contained within this page is cited from Essential Oils desk reference due to the complexity of essential oils. To find out more information about the chemistry and science of essential oils refer to this book.