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What are Essential Oils?

By Jane Harmon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By Alchemy — On Jun 18, 2010

The first time I ever used an essential oil was after my baby was born. When my baby was teething or had an upset stomach I would add a couple of drops of chamomile oil to her bath water. This was the best way to calm her down before bed. It also helped her to relax when she was having trouble going to the bathroom (I guess clenching is a common problem when babies are switching over to solid foods).

She is a toddler now, and she still enjoys a bubble bath with a little chamomile when she has had a bad day. The smell of the chamomile coming from her bath water helps to relax mom and dad when baby has had a rough day too. The stuff is expensive though, so be sure to use it sparingly.

By PelesTears — On Jun 18, 2010

@ Anon44966- I would like to add that when you are getting your herbs or flowers together it is a good idea to use flowers that are picked within a couple of days of use. For some flowers you may want to pick them just before they open, to preserve the most oils. As for herbs, it is best to pick organic herbs that have not been dried in the sun. Use them as soon as they are dried and do not wet them before you add them to the oil.

Also if you are looking to make batches of pure essential oils, you can do with an essential oil still. They can range in price between $300 and $5000. The cheaper ones are usually made of glass while the more expensive are usually hand hammered copper or stainless steel stills. Just be sure that the still you choose doesn't let steam into the chamber where you put your herbs.

By parmnparsley — On Jun 18, 2010

@ Anon44966- I'm not sure if you want to make large batches of pure essential oils, but it is fairly easy to make batches of essential oils that are already mixed into carrier oils at home. All you need are the herbs or flowers of your choice, jojoba or olive oil, a double boiler, and a mason jar with rubber gasket.

After you have chosen your flowers and herbs you should put them in a plastic bag and crush them a little with the edge of your mason jar. This will aid in the release of the oils. Place between 1/4 to 1/2 ounces of herbs or flowers, and 1 cup of carrier oil, into a double boiler and cook for four to eight hours. Strain your oil through a cheese cloth and cool in the mason jar. Once cooled, cover and store in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to use.

By anon44966 — On Sep 12, 2009

Define essential oil? Give methods of extraction of essential oils.

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