Citronella, frangipani, rose... 

The aromas of flowers, the fragrances of fruits. Essential oils are like olfactory gemstones.

But what are they exactly? 

Where do they come from and what are they useful for?

Here’s the lowdown on the down low - our essential guide to essential oils!


The Essence of Essential Oils

When extracting the compounds from a plant, two fractions are separated out--those which dissolve in water, and those which do not. 

Essential oils are those which do not. They are carbon-based, hydrophobic molecules which tend to be highly aromatic and have an exquisite smell.

the essence of essential oils

They are so-called “essential” as they embody the essence of a plant or flower, in the sense that they can be recognized by their scent alone. For example, a single drop of the essential oil extracted from lemon peel has a potent aroma that can be instantly recognized as lemon.

They are valuable, aromatic, intriguing, and demonstrate incredible properties!

Let’s explore...


What Essential Oils are used for

Over the years, essential oils have carried a certain mystique, attracting people to experiment with them and discover a range of uses, from sensual to medicinal.

Some essential oils have been reported to have medical uses.

Medical Uses

These include reports of juniper and agathosma being harnessed for their diuretic effects (1). 

Another application reported is as an antispasmodic, meaning they help prevent muscle spasms. For this, eucalyptus oils, menthol, capsaicin, anise, and camphor have been used (2).

It’s important to acknowledge that many of these applications remain outside the understanding of mainstream science, with reports of benefits being more anecdotal.

Noone however, can deny the aesthetic pleasure of the fragrances of many of these extracts.

Aesthetic Uses

Placing a few drops of an essential oil in some water suspended above a tealight candle results in the slow diffusion of aroma to gently fill a room. 

Exquisite!

Favorites for this include rose oil, citronella, and tea tree. 

While some people prefer a single oil, others opt to mix blends together. 

This can in fact develop into quite art, much like mixing oil paints upon a palette to synthesize a new color, or blending spices in the kitchen to concoct the desired flavor combination. And as every great artist or cook knows, often the result can be greater than the sum of its parts!

Use for Aromatherapy

While there is no disputing the enjoyable effects of plant extracts, there is significant controversy regarding their therapeutic value.

Proponents of aromatherapy claim that the aroma of plant extracts and in some cases, their topical application, can treat conditions from asthma and cancer, to erectile dysfunction and cancer (3).

These indications have not yet been proven scientifically. However, since the majority of active ingredients in medicines are indeed obtained from natural sources including plants, they may be entirely plausible. 

So far, aromatherapists have neither presented studies that substantially demonstrate the medical performance of essential oils, nor proposed mechanisms for such performance (4).

Indeed, the use of essential oils requires caution. 

Many may cause harm, including allergic reactions and skin irritations. In one case, a death has been reported due to their inappropriate use (5). 

Use as Pesticides

The same effects that can be mildly irritating for the skin can be downright deadly for small creatures. 

Essential oils have shown remarkable promise for use as pesticides, particularly targeting insects (6). Effects can range from repelling to killing.

This is of course perfectly in line with science...

Plants have evolved the active molecules extracted within essential oils as ‘chemical defenses’ against creatures that feed on them, such as fungi and insects. It therefore follows that the highly concentrated application of these chemical defenses presents a potent cocktail for plant protection.

When considered as a substitute for synthetic pesticides, these plant-based alternatives have been termed “Green Pesticides” (7). 

Interesting factoid: 

They form an important branch of the burgeoning field known as ‘Green Chemistry’.

Culinary Uses 

From the garden to the kitchen!

Essential oils have found two major uses in cooking. Bet you thought these oils were just for your skin and nose, right?

The first culinary use is as a preservative. Since as early as the nineteenth century, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified several essential oils to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) (8). 

The first culinary use is as a preservative. Since as early as the nineteenth century, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified several essential oils to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) (8). 

Additionally, a handful of oils have found their way into recipes. 

Lavender oil is quite mild, and therefore makes a good choice to try first when cooking with essential oils. Try adding a drop to dessert recipes like scones.

Instead of using cinnamon powder in a cake, a dash of the essential oil may suffice. And in place of fresh vanilla, the extracted oils may indeed be found even more powerful to the palate. 


Essential Oils and Carrier Oils

The oily essence extracted from plants tends to be so dense in pharmacologically active molecules that they can be highly irritating or even toxic when in direct contact with the skin or ingested in larger quantities. 

Because of this, as well as to increase the volume, essential oils are often diluted in a “carrier oil” before use. This simply means dissolving a few drops of the potent essential oil in a larger volume of a more neutral, safer oil. 

Carrier oils

Commonly used carrier oils include almond oil, coconut oil, rosehip oil, avocado oil, and apricot kernel oil. These are all safe for the skin and have only a mild aroma. As such, they are well-suited to spreading essential oils across the skin in a safer way.

Essential oils can add a touch of pizzazz to a massage oil. You can make this at home by blending a few drops of your favorite essential oils into a carrier oil such as coconut or almond.


How are Essential Oils Obtained?

It seems like magic! 

From a leaf, flower, or the peel of a fruit, a densely concentrated concoction of the botanically powerful essences of the plant are conjured.

But this is no magic trick--it’s chemistry!

Indeed, there are three major ways to collect essential oils--distillation, expression, and solvent extraction.

Distillation

Imagine a mad scientist bubbling liquids in complex glassware on a laboratory benchtop. 

You just pictured distillation!

Essentially the principle is to boil the leaves or flowers of a plant in water. The evaporate travels through sophisticated glassware and condenses into two separate fractions. 

The major fraction is a large volume of water containing a few water-soluble plant molecules which give a mild aroma. An example of this would be lavender water with its gentle fragrance.

The minor fraction is a tiny volume of the non-water soluble molecules, or oils. Lavender oil is appreciably more potent that its aqueous analog. 

Expression

Picture a rural village in Italy. All the villagers collect their olives and bring them to the shared olive press to squeeze out the year’s cooking oil.

The process is simple. 

By slowly applying a strong pressure upon the olives, the oils trapped within them are forced out. They can then be collected from where they flow out below. 

This same method of extraction is well suited to extracting the rich oils from within citrus peels and predates the discovery of distillation (9).

Solvent Extraction

The final method for obtaining essential oils is not so romantic. 

It neither involves the boiling in water within elegant glassware, nor a cold-pressing within an Italian village. Rather, it involves nasty toxic chemical solvents. Picture rubber gloves and face masks! 

Solvent extraction is the process of dissolving the oil-based molecules within plant matter within a similar organic oil. (Organic here means carbon-based, not farmed in a healthy way!)

Hexane is a solvent commonly used for this, and you don’t want to get it on your hands!


The History and Future of Essential Oils

For at least hundreds of years, essential oils have appeared in popular medicine. It appears that the earliest record of this comes from Ibn al-Bayṭār in Spain in the twelfth century (10). As a botanist, pharmacist, and physician, he wrote a pharmacopoeia of some 1400 plants. 

These days, traditional uses of essential oils have been challenged by modern science.

Accordingly, more emphasis is placed upon the individual molecules within plants that are medically active. Perhaps this is merely a different perspective however.

The Future of Essential Oils

In any case, there is little doubt that essential oils will continue to be extracted and enjoyed!

At a minimum, it is difficult to imagine a future in which people do not continue to value and enjoy them for their wonderful aesthetic properties.

Perhaps however, further research will delve into investigating and discovering medicinal uses of essential oils. It may be that we have yet to fully understand the essence of essential oils, and there may well remain elusive properties hidden within these fragrant, transparent liquids.

Like the fragrance of lavender on a Summer’s day, the mystery hangs deliciously in the air!

But wait, there’s more…

Essential oils are not only used to create pleasure--they’re also used to treat pain. 

Particularly pain in the nerves.

References

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