Essential oils are concentrated, hydrophobic liquids that contain volatile aromatic compounds from plants, and are produced by distillation. Other methods of extraction include expression and solvent extraction.
Essential oils are often used in perfumes, aromatherapy, incense, cosmetics, for flavoring foods or drinks, and to a lesser extent, in medicine and household cleaning products. Essential oil is also known as volatile oil and ethereal oil. It may be referred to as “oil of” the raw plant from which was extracted, such as oil of clove.
Understanding “essential oils”
Different parts of the plants can be used to obtain essential oils, including leaves, flowers, seeds, roots, stems, bark, wood, etc. Certain cold-pressed oils, such as those from citrus peels, are also considered essential oils but should not be confused with cold-pressed fixed or carrier oils like olive, coconut, grapeseed, etc. These are non-volatile oils mostly composed of fatty acid triglycerides. The term “essential” indicates that the oil is the fragrant essence of the plant and not in the more common sense of being indispensable. It should not be confused with essential fatty acids.
How are essential oils used?
Interest in the use of essential oils has seen a revival in recent years with the emergence of popular aromatherapy treatments, in which oils are heated and volatilized.
Aromatherapy is a form of herbal medicine in which healing effects are ascribed to the aromatic compounds in essential oils and other plant extracts. Many common essential oils have medicinal properties that have been applied for centuries in folk medicine and are still widely employed today. Common methods for using essential oils include adding a small amount to bath water, massing into the skin (once diluted), general household freshening, general inhalation, steam inhalation, and even as bug repellant.
The oils may also be used in making homemade lotions, facial toners, shower gels, perfumes, soaps, and other natural products. As well, they can be blended for their therapeutic synergistic abilities. It is important to research different oils, as they all have different therapeutic indications and effects.
Important things to remember about essential oils
Precaution should be taken with some essential oils. Due to their concentrated nature, they generally should not be applied directly to the skin in their undiluted or “neat” form. Some may cause severe irritation or provoke an allergic reaction. Essential oils should be diluted with carrier oils such as hazelnut, olive, or other “soft” oils. Some essential oils, including many of the citrus peel oils, are photosensitizers, and may increase the skin’s reaction to sunlight, making it more likely to burn.
There are some who advocate ingesting essential oils for therapeutic purposes, but this should not be attempted except under the supervision of a professional who is licensed to prescribe such treatment. Some very common essential oils, like eucalyptus, are very toxic internally. They should always be kept out of reach of children, and some essential oils may be particularly toxic to domestic animals, especially cats.
Smoke from essential oils that are burned may contain potential carcinogens. Essential oils should not be used during pregnancy without consulting a licensed professional first, as some can induce abortion in even the smallest doses. One in particular, pennyroyal oil, is extremely toxic and is an abortifacient. The oil is sometimes used to self-abort, but there have been cases where pregnant women have died after ingesting as little as two tablespoonfuls of the oil.
Common essential oils
Commonly used essential oils include tea tree oil, tarragon oil, star anise oil, spearmint oil, cedarwood oil, chamomile, cinnamon, cardamom, caraway, bergamot oil, balsam oil, citronella oil, clove, cranberry seed oil, eucalyptus oil, fennel seed oil, ginger oil, grapefruit, henna oil, lavender, lemon oil, mugwort oil, myrrh oil, patchouli, pine oil, sandalwood, rosehips, rose oil, and peppermint oil, though there are many others.