In the past several years, there’s been an increasing demand for natural, alternative and complementary approaches to medicine. Often used as a part of a holistic or traditional medicine system, essential oils have been used for centuries to treat a number of conditions. Only in the past few decades, has scientific research uncovered the diverse range of their therapeutic benefits.
Some users may wonder what are essential oils? Essential oils are concentrated, liquid extractions derived from a plant source through a process of distillation, expression, or solvent extraction. In nature, an essential oil helps protect a plant from various insects, fungi and bacteria.2 While some essential oils such as frankincense essential oil offer anti-inflammatory benefits, others such as lemongrass essential oil may help naturally combat bacteria or infections.
Today, essential oils are a popular natural therapy for many households. Their aromatic fragrances offer a variety of benefits, from health to cosmetic. With a long list of essential oils to choose from, users traditionally choose an essential oil depending on its intended use and known benefits.
In this article, Essential Oil Experts provides a basic Essential Oils 101, where we break down what essential oils are, where they come from, and how they are used.
How to Make Essential Oils
Derived from plants, essential oils are made from a process of distillation or extraction.1 There are three primary ways in which the essential oil can be created from the plant: distillation, expression, or solvent extraction.
Distillation is the most popular extraction method today because it can be used on most plants. There are several ways to perform the distillation process, though steam distillation is the most commonly used. In this process, steam is passed through the plant material with a gentle pressure. The essential oil is then released through the steam and flows through a condenser that’s waiting to collect the vapor. As it cools, a layer of oil forms and is then collected.3
Expression is another popular form of extraction, though it’s mostly used with citrus essential oils. Often called cold pressing, expression is a method of puncturing. The citrus rinds are placed into a container with spikes that puncture the peel so that the essential oils are released.4,5
The third most common form of extraction is by using solvents. Sometimes, the distillation and expression processes are too damaging to the plant to successfully remove the essential oils. In these cases, a chemical is combined with the plant to promote the release of the essential oil.6 The solvent is removed during the process of solvent extraction so that the end product is a pure essential oil.
How to Use Essential Oils
When using essential oils, it may be confusing determining the best way to administer them. For beginners, an essential oils starter kit is often recommended as they often include the most popular essential oils, recipes and accessories. Below is a non-exhaustive list of ways that essential oils can be used:
- Direct inhalation
- Homemade cleaner
- Air freshener
- Relaxing bath
- Bug spray
- Burn salve
- Hair care
- Skin care
- Headache relief
- Congestion remedy
Food Grade Essential Oils
Essential oils are generally not recommended for ingestion for several reasons. Firstly, essential oils are incredibly potent and consuming them may cause serious, adverse reactions. Secondly, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food labels on any item intended to be sold for consumption. As most essential oils are not prepared with “food grade” distillers or processors, selling essential oils for the sole purpose of consumption would go against current regulations.7
Essential Oil Storage
Essential oils are considered fairly sensitive to environmental factors. Temperature, sun exposure, and even storage material can greatly affect the chemical efficacy and therapeutic properties in the essential oil. Dark glass is generally recommended for storage as it helps protect against damaging ultra-violet light. Even so, it is best to keep your essential oils out of the sun to reduce the possibility of damage.
Some essential oils are especially susceptible to oxidation, which is the structural breakdown of the compounds in the essential oil. To help protect against this, keep the essential oils in a cool, dark place with minimal exposure to oxygen. If the lid is left off the bottle, for instance, oxygen will be able to damage the essential oil.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
Essential oils are complex natural substances that may contain 20-60 unique compounds. Frequently, there are 2-3 highly concentrated compounds that help determine the essential oil’s fragrance and benefits.2,8
Through advances in chemical testing, researchers have identified various molecules within essential oils, many of which are antioxidants.2 Essential oils can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled and have been clinically shown to influence our mental or physical states.
For those wondering do essential oils really work, many essential oils, or components of them, are used today in household cleaning products, agriculture, perfumes or cosmetics.2 In the scientific community, there have been numerous clinical studies investigating the benefits of essential oils. These notable benefits stem from a range of the essential oil’s properties including antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer activity, antioxidant, insecticidal, stress-reducing, wound healing, and more.2
Essential Oils Scientific Evidence
In recent years, there’s been an increasing amount of scientific interest in aromatherapy, essential oils, and plant-based medicine. Hundreds of studies have investigated the therapeutic and pharmaceutical potential of essential oils and have appeared in some of the most distinguished scientific journals. In fact, over the past few decades, many essential oils have been tested in laboratories against common ailments such as arthritis, headaches, acne, skin rashes, muscle pain, and infection, with positive results.
Benefits of Essential Oils
The benefits of essential oils are varied and far-reaching. If you’re curious about what essential oils are good for, then you may be pleased to find that there is a long list of benefits. Some of the most popular benefits of essential oils are as follows:
- Headache Relief (eucalyptus, peppermint, lavender, rosemary, camphor)
- Reduce Nausea (peppermint, ginger, lemon, spearmint)
- Treat Acne (tea tree, oregano, frankincense, lavender)
- Improve Bloating (fennel, oregano, ginger, peppermint)
- Promote Wound Healing (helichrysum, lemon, tea tree, carrot seed)
- Reduce Pain (wintergreen, frankincense, chamomile, ginger, rosemary)
- Antidepressant Activity (rose, vanilla, nutmeg, frankincense, lavender)
- Reduce Anxiety (bergamot, lavender, neroli, patchouli, ylang ylang)
- Repel Insects (cedarwood, vetiver, peppermint, orange, rosemary)
- Antimicrobial (cinnamon, lemon, eucalyptus, tea tree)
- Cognitive Support (basil, patchouli, rosemary, sage)
- Dandruff Relief (tea tree, eucalyptus)
Scientific Research Referenced in this Article
- Reverchon, E. (1997). Supercritical fluid extraction and fractionation of essential oils and related products. The Journal of Supercritical Fluids,10(1), 1-37. doi:1016/s0896-8446(97)00014-4
- Bakkali, F., Averbeck, S., Averbeck, D., & Idaomar, M. (2008). Biological effects of essential oils – A review. Food and Chemical Toxicology,46(2), 446-475. doi:1016/j.fct.2007.09.106
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (1995). Basic Principles of Steam Distillation. Retrieved August 18, 2005, from http://www.fao.org/docrep/V5350e/V5350e13.htm
- Burnett, C. (2014) Safety Assessment of Citrus-Derived Peel Oils as Used in Cosmetics. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from http://www.cir-safety.org/sites/default/files/cpeelo092014FR.pdf
- National Toxicology Program. (2000), Lemon Oil, Lime Oil, National Toxicology Program. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/chem_background/exsumpdf/lemonlimeoils_508.pdf – View reference
- Guba, R. (2002). The Modern Alchemy of Carbon Dioxide Extraction. International Journal of Aromatherapy 12 (3), 120–126. doi:1016/S0962-4562(02)00043-7
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2014, August 22). Products – Aromatherapy. Retrieved June 02, 2017, from – View reference
- PDQ Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board. (2007, March 09). Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQ®). Retrieved June 02, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0032518/