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What are Essential Oils?

By Alison Sheehan-Dion 2009

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Helpful Hints on How to Judge the Quality of Essential oils, What the Terms Mean, and How to Use and Enjoy Essential Oils.

Extraction Methods
Ways to Use Essential Oils
First Aid

Essential Oils have been used for hundreds of years for a variety of purposes. Some of our earliest records include mention of the use of essential oils and compounds for personal fragrance use, medicinal use and as trade in lieu of money.

Essential oils are the purest extraction from plants and flowers and are used for everything from personal fragrance and perfume making to cosmetic additives and medicinal application. Unlike the perfume we buy in the drug store or department store, essential oils have no chemicals added to them and they will last far longer than synthetics. Essential oils do not go rancid.

There are many grades of purity in essential oils, and the costs vary greatly. It is unlikely that real essential oils will be sold all at one price for all varieties as there is a large range in production costs for different types.

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Terminology for Essential Oils:

Essential oils - are liquids that are generally distilled (most frequently by steam or water) from the leaves, stems, flowers, bark, roots, or other elements of a plant. Essential oils, although called "oil" are not really oily-feeling at all. Most essential oils are clear, but some oils (patchouli or orange for example) may be darker or have some color. Essential oils are highly concentrated and a little goes a long way!

Fragrance Oils - Where essential oils are derived from the true plants, perfume oils are artificially created fragrances or contain artificial substances and do not offer the therapeutic benefits that essential oils offer. Fragrance oil, although not suitable for medicinal use, can be a pleasant addition to the atmosphere of the home or office.

Absolutes - are highly aromatic liquids extracted from plants. Absolutes are extracted in a complex manner that requires the use of chemical solvents that are later removed during the final stages of production. Hot steam or water used to distill an essential oil may (in some cases) not extract much natural oil from the plant or might harm the precious natural oil. The solvent extraction methods are often used in this case. Absolutes are not ever used internally because of the possibility of solvents remaining in the liquid in trace amounts.

Essential 1st - When you see 1st on essential oil, this means it is from a first pressing or first steam extraction. The results from a first pressing are always the strongest and finest oils.

Essential 3rd - When you see 3rd on essential oils, it implies that the oil is from a third pressing or steam extraction. This means that the plant materials have been processed 3 times and the resulting oils may be somewhat less strong. There is no implication of chemical use.

Essential 5th – As you can imagine, 5th implies that the plant material has gone through 5 pressings. Less expensive than a 1st or 3rd, yet still deemed strong enough to merit use as an essential.

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Extraction techniques and methods:

The vast majority of true essential oils are produced by distillation. There are different processes used, however in all of them, water is heated to produce steam, which carries the most volatile portion of the aromatic material with it. The steam is then chilled (in a condenser) and the resulting distillate is collected. The Essential Oil will normally float on top of the 'Hydrosol' (the distilled water component) and may be separated off.

Steam Distillation - True Steam distillation uses an outside source of steam which pipes the steam into the distillation unit, sometimes at high pressure. The steam passes through the aromatic material, and exits into the condenser.

Hydrodistillation - The botanicals are fully submerged in water, producing a "soup", the steam of which contains the aromatic plant molecules. This is the most ancient method of distillation and the most versatile. Instruction on how to do this at home will be coming soon in another article: How to Make a Hydrosol from Flowers in Your Garden.

Solvent Extraction - Very delicate aromatics such as Jasmine can not survive the process of distillation. To capture the aromas of delicate flowers and plants, a process of solvent extraction is used.

A unit is loaded with perforated trays filled with blossoms. The blossoms are then washed repeatedly with a solvent (usually hexane.) The solvent dissolves all extractable matter from the plant. The solution containing both the solvent and the dissolvable plant material is then filtered and the filtrate is subjected to low pressure distillation to recover the solvent for further use. The remaining waxy mass is called the Concrete and it contains the volatile oil.

The Concretes are processed further to remove the waxy materials which dilute the pure essential oil. To prepare the Absolute from the Concrete, the waxy Concrete is warmed and stirred with alcohol (usually ethanol.). During the heating and stirring process the concrete breaks up into minute globules. Since the aromatic molecules are more soluble in alcohol than is the wax an efficient separation of the two takes place.

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Ways to Use Essential oils:

Perfume: Using Essential oils as perfume is wonderful! Add a few drops to a carrier oil and use on the skin for a long lasting and subtle personal fragrance.

Massage: Add a few drops of essential oil to massage oils to derive the benefits of aromatherapy and to enjoy the aromatic properties.
Baths: a few drops of pure essential oil added to the bath will provide a wonderful soak in rich aroma. Running water dissipates the oils too fast though – so wait until the tub is full and the water is turned off!
Diffusers: Place a small dish on a stand over a candle to create an oil diffuser. Then place a few drops of oil in the dish and light the candle to infuse your whole room with rich scent. Room Sprays: a few drops in a spray mister with water – then shake, spray and enjoy!

Essential Oil First Aide Hints:

Lavender Oil: Every home should have a bottle of good quality Lavender oil for use on burns and scalds.
For Minor Burns: For minor burns or scalds that involve redness, stinging and burning from kitchen accidents or minor sunburn, apply cool water for a few minutes to the burned area and then apply several drops of Lavender essential oil. The burning will dissipate almost immediately and leave no scar in many cases. Reapply as needed. For sunburn, follow a cool bath with Lavender oil.
Eucalyptus and Camphor: For cold and flu season, keep Eucalyptus and Camphor oil for vaporizers. For a cold with congestion: add a couple of drops each of Camphor and Eucalyptus oil to the water in the vaporizer. The scent will aid in relieving a stuffy nose and congested chest.
Rosemary Oil: Keep Rosemary essential oil around for tired muscles. For a great soak for tired muscles: add a few drops of essential oil of Rosemary to a hot bath and enjoy!
Thyme Oil: The most important property of essential oil of Thyme is that of anti-viral and antiseptic. While it should not generally be applied directly to the skin at full strength, it is used to great effect in air diffusers. To clear the air and kill germs: Use Thyme essential oil in a room oil diffuser during flu season – a few drops allowed to diffuse in a water diffuser or plug-in type.

We will be offering a lot of single essential oils on this site soon. The grade we plan to offer is not to be taken internally, but is a great choice in bath and body preparations and aromatherapy. The following is a partial list: Basil, Bay, Camphor, Cedarwood, Eucalyptus, Geranium, Ginger, Lavender, Lemon, Orange, Patchouli, Peppermint, Rosemary, Tangerine, Tea Tree, Thyme, Vanilla and Vetiver.

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