The Science and History of Modern-Day Essential Oils: Part I
January 28, 2015
Many people can become overwhelmed in talking with others in regards to exactly how essential oils work in the body or what they are at all. Understanding the molecular properties are something I’ll never remember by heart.
That is all to say though that you can’t downplay the importance of learning this part of the oils. We like to give information on the harmful things found in many common products people use so it’s only fair to give you the information about a good thing you should be giving your body as well. Just for reference, almost all of the information you will see here is coming from Essential Oils Pocket Reference: Fifth Edition which is put together by Life Science Publishing. It’s a great resource in learning about the different body systems and seeing the history of some of the essential oils.
So let’s get right into it. It would be easiest to first explain what an essential oil is at the most basic level. An essential oil is an aromatic, volatile (meaning frequently changing) liquid that is found within many flowers, trees, shrubs, and other plants. It’s extracted from that plant through the method of distillation. The chemistry that makes up the oil is unique to that plant and are composed of hundreds of chemical compounds.
Essential oils are far more concentrated than any dry herbs and thus are much more potent. The reason for this is the distillation process as well as the vast amount of volume of a plant used to produce a bottle of essential oil. For instance, it takes 5,000 pounds of rose petals to make only 2 lbs. of rose oil. That could be looked at as an extreme example, as most plants don’t require that much material to output the same amount of oil, but it should give you an idea of how every plant has a unique consistency of oil.
Essential oils are different from vegetable oils like corn oil, peanut oil, and olive oil. They don’t have the same greasy texture which can easily clog pores. Essential oils absorb into the body rapidly and most help open up pores. Vegetable oils typically oxidize over time and go rancid because they don’t have any supportive characteristics. However, essential oils don’t go bad because of the antimicrobial properties found in them. In very rare cases, oils high in plant waxes such as patchouli, vetiver, and sandalwood can go sour if they were not initially distilled properly. That’s why it’s so important to find a company that allows you to be a part of that process and doesn’t do anything behind closed doors.
Something to be wary of when letting others use essential oils on you is that in the United States there are no current standards in regards to certifications or training in essential oils. While that has some perks obviously because we still have many freedoms in using the oils, there’s a disadvantage you need to be aware of. Since there are no degrees or mandates in this discipline, anyone can call themselves an “aromatherapist” after attending one or two classes on essential oils. These people can then start their own businesses under that title and begin to use essential oils on people with very little understanding of what the oils are or what they do. So please be aware that there is nothing official about someone who goes by “aromatherapist”. While it’s very hard to cause any damages with the right essential oils, it does hurt the credibility of them very much. That’s why it’s so important to either know the person beforehand or learn about them before you trust them with your body.
Getting back to the oils, as previously mentioned, there can be anywhere from 80 to 300+ chemical constituents found in a single oil. An oil like lavender is complex because of all the very small quantities of compounds that play a role in the oil’s therapeutic effects. Understanding all of these chemicals and what they do can take years to completely understand so don’t expect to know everything, let the oil do the explaining for itself.
Something else to take note of is how the same plant can vary in action based on the chemistry of the plant itself which can differ based on many things, such as the environment it’s grown in. For instance, a bottle of oil can be labeled as “Basil” and it very well may be that it really is basil oil. But it can be very different from another bottle of “Basil”.
The extraction and distillation methods also play a part in the chemistry of the final product. Oils received through the second, third, or any other distillation other than the first will become less potent and more sweet-smelling. So some companies will try to draw you in on the smell of the oil, but understand, most pure oils don’t smell that great. Be aware of that and always make sure the company you’re getting essential oils from is willing to release their process of distillation to you. High heat and high pressure are also methods that make the oil inferior. It’s a much quicker way for extraction but not necessarily a better one. It might sound silly but imagine it like a roast. You could stick in the oven on 450 F and get it done in an hour and technically it would be ready to eat. Would you rather it that or a roast that’s been simmering slowly for 8 hours? Of course, the one that’s been cooking longer would taste better and more tender and all of us would choose that one. That same should apply to the oils that we use. By distilling for a longer amount of time, some additional chemical compounds are being released and you’re going to end up with a better product.
Lastly, it’s important that you know the source of the oils. One of the biggest problem today is people buying cheap, adulterated oils.Synthetic materials that are odorless and colorless are often added to the original oil as a type of filler to make some more money. It can be very hard to distinguish that as well which is why many people don’t even know their buying something that’s useless, they’re just happy they’re saving $20 a month. It’s so important to know EXACTLY who is making the oil, how they’re making it, and where it’s coming from.
Hopefully this intro was helpful but I’m far from done. Tune in tomorrow for the next installation where I’ll be talking about the history and modern rediscovery of the oils!