What is an Essential Oil?

Posted on: June 15th, 2009 by

There is much debate in the modern world as to the historical use of essential oils. Essential oils as we know them today are not the same as essential oils as used by the ancient Egyptians and Romans. In fact, the very early essential oils used in history were not oils obtained by the distillation process we use today; the distillation of essential oils, with the use of the refrigerated coil, was first used by the Arab physician, Avicenna (AD 980 – 1037). Furthermore, ‘modern day’ aromatherapy is accredited to Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist, who ‘discovered’ the therapeutic properties of lavender through an accident in his laboratory in 1928.
However, the ancient Egyptians and Romans were using plants to make oils for both cosmetic and medicinal uses; albeit, it was in a different form than that we know today, but the medicinal properties of the oils were not dissimilar to the properties of the essential oils of today. It is also worth bearing in mind that the chemical components of an essential oil are a complex thing and the removal or addition of a component can alter the essential oil considerably, once extracted from the plant too. But that’s for a future posting…
So, how is an essential oil defined? An essential oil is basically the life blood of the plant and is actually stored and used by the plant in a number of ways, prior to its extraction. My article – botany and aromatherapy - explains this in more depth. An essential oil can be extracted from the flowers, roots, seeds, leaves, bark or fruits of a plant; depending on the actual plant this may be by steam distillation or cold expression. An essential oil, despite its name, is in fact non-oily. And essential oils don’t dissolve in water.
So what isn’t an essential oil? An essential oil is not synthesized or made in a factory or chemically altered in any way. Today, most manufactured perfumes are synthetic (man made) as are many fragrances and ‘pure’ essential oils which claim to be therapeutic but are in fact, sadly, not. Some essential oils are expensive to produce, such as Rose, so if you find Rose essential oil very cheaply, you are probably being sold a synthetic or ‘knock-off’ oil. Adulteration of essential oils is common by many large companies looking for a profit margin, rather than a therapeutic value.
The secret to identifying a pure essential oil is to study, study and then study some more! Learn to identify essential oils by their latin names (which relate to the botanical source). Research the history and reputation of the essential oil supplier. Know that most citrus oils are not steam distilled but are actually cold expressed. Fragrance oils (despite their popularity in the USA are of no therapeutic value in aromatherapy) and hydrolats (are of therapeutic value in aromatherapy) are not essential oils. Many items described as ‘aromatherapy’ products with ‘essential oils’ may not be what you think; that ‘essential oil’ may not be an essential oil…
As you can see, essential oils are very complex and take some understanding! Even more so, essential oils should only be used with experience and knowledge – and usually in carrier oils, which is coming up next….

Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to What is an Essential Oil?

  1. Sandra had this to say about that:

    Thanks! I'll look into it. I'm in Canada by the way and caught your blog link in Suite's forum.

  2. Sharon Falsetto had this to say about that:

    I'm not sure where you live, Sandra, but I have used Penny Price Aromatherapy products since I did my training, both personally and in my practice. If you live in the USA, shipping could be expensive for you, as its a UK based company :(

    As for USA suppliers, I'm still learning, but I have used New Directions Aromatics (based in USA and Canada). I've also used Aura Cacia essential oils through Frontier Co-op, which is a US based company.

    I have to say Penny Price is still my preferred supplier though! :)

  3. Sandra had this to say about that:

    Interesting Sharon, thanks. I guess you can't just take someone's word for it if they say it's essential oil. Are there certain trustworthy companies you would recommend?