An Introduction to Essential Oils
Published by Anne Altor on Oct 20th 2017
Essential oils are like magic in a bottle!
They are so named because they're considered "plant essences" and are mostly soluble in oil rather than in water. This post provides an introduction to essential oils and to why we use them in our products.
Essential oils are volatile organic compounds produced by plants.
They impart flavor and aroma, and they're found in roots, bark, wood, leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds and resins. Not all plants are known to produce them, and not all essential oils are used commercially. For example, some are produced in minute quantities, are difficult to extract, or are toxic. Why do plants produce essential oils? We know they're used for communication within and between species, for defense against herbivory and disease, and to attract pollinators, but there's much more to learn about their roles in nature. If you've ever breathed in the fresh scent of needles and leaves in a forest, stooped down to smell a lovely flower, enjoyed the sweet aroma of a citrus fruit as you peeled it, or felt the sharp jolt of menthol in a sore muscle rub, you've experienced the power of essential oils!
Most essential oils contain a mixture of aromatic compounds,
a few of which create the dominant effects of the oil. For example, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) contains about a dozen major aromatic compounds but is dominated by linalyl acetate and linalool (Tisserand and Young, 2014). Within species (for example, spearmint—Mentha spicata), the chemical composition of the essential oil can vary quite a bit. Genetics, soil, climate and other growing conditions all play a role. Suppliers should provide a chemical analysis for each oil. These analyses give the percentage ranges of major components, the production and expiration dates, storage requirements and safety information.
How are essential oils obtained from plants?
The primary methods of extraction are steam distillation, cold pressing, and solvent extraction. It can take a large amount of plant material to produce a measurable amount of essential oil. For example, on the extreme end, many pounds of rose (Rosa damascena) petals are needed to produce just a milliliter of rose essential oil. In contrast, some conifer needles contain more than 1% essential oil by weight (Bakuzis & Hansen, 1965), and the needles are often a byproduct of timber harvesting.
Essential oils have been used in perfumery for centuries,
but they do more than impart aroma. They are highly concentrated and affect our physiology, and they should be used carefully. We follow usage guidelines published in Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young and by the International Fragrance Association.
We prefer essential oils over fragrance oils
for many reasons. First, they're produced by plants and we find them uplifting. They have a long history of use in health care. In our experience, essential oils can uplift mood, relieve muscle soreness, minimize body odor, calm itchy skin, and create amazing personal fragrances that interact with each individual's body chemistry to generate a unique aroma for the wearer. In contrast, synthetic fragrance oils smell the same on everyone and often are overpowering.
Although they're powerful and strongly appealing,
not all essential oils are sustainable. If you've been reading this blog, you know that sustainability is very important to us, and we believe it's better to give up something pleasing than to use it if it has a high environmental or social cost (for example, oils such as sandalwood that require sacrifice of an entire tree). In future posts, we'll profile individual essential oils and discuss their production and sustainability issues.
We hope you've found this introduction useful! Feel free to leave questions and comments and to share this post using the social buttons below.
Essential Oil Safety, A Guide for Health Care Professionals, 2nd edition. Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young, Churchill Livingstone, 2013.
Balsam Fir: A Monographic Review. E.V. Bakuzis and H.L. Hansen, University of Minnesota Press, 1965.