Essential oils are the concentrated essence of plant material widely used in aromatherapy. They are exclusively made from botanical matter, so any fragrance that contains musk (an animal product), for instance, do not count. They are often confused with synthetic fragrance oils, which are chemical recreations of scents made primarily from coal tar. While these fragrance oils may smell identical to their botanical counterparts, they do not feature the same chemical structure and will not have the same therapeutic effects; their use is limited to perfumery.
Essential oils are typically extracted from plant matter via steam distillation. The plant material is treated with steam, which 'cooks' the plant, breaking it down and releasing its oil. The steam containing the essential essences is cooled and the oil separated from the water and filtered.
Some essential oils can be extracted through pressing, just as grape juice can be pressed from the grape. If you twist a piece of lemon or orange rind, the rind will yield a bit of liquid which is oily and smells strongly of the fruit - this oil is the fruit's oil and is easily extractable through a press.
These oils vary widely in price, depending largely on the amount of plant material needed to make them. The citrus oils are quite economical to make, since the citrus rind contains a lot of oil, and thus less expensive than the oils derived from flowers, which contain very little oil. It can take over a hundred pounds (45 kilograms) of lavender flowers to make a pound of lavender essential oil. That may sound high, until you consider that it takes over a thousand pounds (450 kilograms) of jasmine to make a pound of jasmine essential oil. Jasmine, rose and neroli (orange blossom) are among the most costly of all oils.
While a very few essential oils, such as lavender and tea tree, are safe to apply directly to the skin, most are so concentrated that they must be diluted with 'carrier oils'. Carrier oils are massage oils typically made from nuts and seeds - apricot kernel, grapeseed and jojoba are all good blending oils.
The aromatherapeutic effects of these oils can be administered in different ways, depending on the oil and the effect. Skin absorption is one of the most common methods - a dilute blend of essential and carrier oils are massaged into the skin, which absorbs the active ingredient of the essential oil into the bloodstream.
Inhalation of steam containing vaporized essential oils is often a very effective way to treat respiratory complaints, and is also one of the most widely used methods of using these oils for their mood-enhancing and emotion-stabilizing effects. A few drops of oil in a small glass bowl of water over a tealight candle is all you need to infuse your surroundings with a lovely scent that can calm or invigorate, depending on the oil you choose.