What Are Essential Oils?
If you have ever peeled an orange or enjoyed the scent of a lovely flower you have experienced the aromatic qualities of the essential oils--the true essence of the plant from which it was derived.
The term "essential oils" may be confusing. Essential oils are not called that because they are a vital necessity (essential) for a healthy life. Essential oils contain the “essence” or fragrance of a plant.
Powerfully fragrant and concentrated, essential oils are pure natural aromatic extracts from a variety of aromatic plant materials. Various oils come from different parts of the plant including grasses, leaves, flowers, needles, twigs, peels of fruit, seeds, bark, branches, and roots.
For example, rose essential oils are found in the flowers, in basil it is in the leaves, in citrus oils the fruit rind, in cinnamon the bark, in sandalwood the wood, and so on. It is interesting to note that Orange trees actually produce three very different types of essential oil: orange oil, from the peel; neroli oil, from the blossoms; and petitgrain oil from the leaves.
The oil is stored in tiny compartments, in or on the plant tissue. Essential oils are often called "volatile aromatic compounds." A volatile substance is one that easily evaporates at normal temperatures. When you first open a bottle of essential oil, you instantly notice that the aroma is not only strong, but quickly moves throughout the air.
The word “essential” refers to the fact that the oil contains the “essence” of the plant, the natural chemicals that provide its unique aroma or flavor.
Thousands of varieties of these volatile aromatic compounds have been identified and they vary from plant to plant and even from species to species. The delicate balance of the aromatic compounds found in any given essential oil is what makes it unique, determines its aroma, and provides valuable psychological and physical aromatherapeutic benefits.
While most essential oils are steam distilled, citrus oils are cold-pressed from the fruit rinds.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines an essential oil as "a product made by distillation with either water or steam or by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials." Following the distillation, the essential oil is physically separated from the water phase.
Contrary to the use of the word "oil," essential oils do not feel oily.
It is important to note that to be a true essential oil, the oil must be isolated from the plant material by physical means only. Essential oils are NEVER extracted using solvents.
Read our blog, How Essential Oils Are Extracted."
Why Do Plants Produce Essential Oils?
While I would love to believe that plants emit these beautiful scents just to make me feel good, I know that plant essential oils play an important role in the life of a plant. The essential oil in a plant has two basic functions, protection, and communication.
Plants produce essential oils . . .
- To make themselves unpalatable to animals or insects and thereby protect themselves from being eaten
- To attract pollinators like bees and butterflies
- To protect themselves from microorganisms and fungi
- To protect their physical space
Why Do People Use Essential Oils?
There have been volumes written about the uses of essential oils. They have been used for thousands of years for many things from medicine and health to spiritual and religious.
Essential oils today are used for "perfume," natural skin and hair care, aromatherapy, household cleaning products and healing therapy.
Because they are so concentrated, most essential oils should never be used undiluted, also called neat, on the skin. Instead, they should be combined with carrier oils (sweet almond oil, sunflower oil, olive oil), waxes, butters, alcohols, or other diluting media.
The Scent of an Essential Oil Often Changes: They Are Made From Natural Plant Materials
We sometimes receive questions like, "I just got a new bar of Lavender Rosemary Soap and it smells different than the last one, is something wrong with it?"
Even with high-quality, pure, essential oils the scent may change. We rely on Mother Nature (not a laboratory) to perfect the scent of our fields of lavender and rosemary.
Mother Nature behaves a bit differently year after year. The exact chemical composition of the essential oil compounds is influenced by many factors. The general weather and temperature, rainfall, geographic location, soil quality, time of day harvested, season, year grown, every step of the production process and how they are packaged and stored are critical determinants of the overall quality of the essential oil product.
So one batch of lavender may have been harvested in southern France on a rainy, cool, June day and another batch from a hillside in Spain on a hot, August day and although the scent may be a little different from, the lavender will still have the same great properties.
Each plant is unique in its chemistry so essential oils are never exactly the same which is quite different from synthetic scents which are reproduced to be identical every time.
Research on Essential Oils
Unfortunately research on the effectiveness of the therapeutic use of essential oils is quite limited. However, some studies have shown that aromatherapy might have health benefits such as relief from anxiety and depression, improved sleep, enhanced quality of life, especially for people with chronic health conditions.
One of the problems for essential researchers is that the chemical essential oils are influenced conditions. Each plant is unique in its chemistry so essential oils are never exactly the same-this is different from pharmaceutical drugs that are synthetically reproduced to be identical every time.
Why Are Essential Oils So Expensive?
The methods used to extract pure essential oils are time-consuming, expensive, and require a high degree of expertise.
The most important factor is how much plant matter it takes to produce the pure essential oil.
Have you ever twisted a lemon or orange peel? The beads that pop up on the surface of the fruit’s skin are the essential oils of that fruit--what makes the zest so very flavorful.
Now think about the leaves or flowers of tiny plants like Thyme or Lavender. Or the delicate flowers of plants like jasmine and roses. How much oil can be produced by the leaves or flowers of those tiny plants?
Also, enormous amounts of plants are needed to produce essential oil. For example,
- to produce 1 pound of pure Lemon Balm (Melissa) it takes a few tons (yes tons) of plant material (Lemon Balm essential oil sells for $9,000-$15,000 per pound)
- to produce 1 pound of lavender essential oil it takes about 250 pounds of lavender flower
- to produce only 4 or 5 teaspoons of rose absolute oil it takes more than 220 pounds of rose petals
- to produce one ounce of lemon essential oil it takes about 100 lemons
Although synthetic fragrances or "nature identical" oils are available at a much lower cost, only natural plant essential oils will provide the botanical benefits.
Essential oils also have an immediate impact on our sense of smell. Only natural botanical essential oils can cause various neurochemicals to be released in the brain which can affect the body, mind, and spirit.
Essential Oils are Not the Same as Perfume Oils or Fragrance Oils
Although synthetic artificially created fragrances or "nature identical" oils are available at a much lower cost, they will not offer the therapeutic benefits that essential oils offer.
Read our blog
Synthetic fragrance oils offer nothing but the scent. It is like the difference between drinking pure orange juice and orange-flavored water. Both can provide an orange flavor, but only the natural orange juice will provide the nutrition as well.
Essential oils have an immediate impact on our sense of smell. Only natural botanical essential oils can cause neurochemicals to be released in the brain which can affect the body, mind, and spirit.
Be sure you check out your essential oil supplier and buy from reputable dealers. Unfortunately, the ever-increasing demand has led to some unscrupulous suppliers selling "counterfeit" or adulterated essential oils.
There are companies that cut essential oils with carrier oils, isolates, or even synthetic fragrance oils.
Cheaper oils are also available by companies that use solvents to extract the oils. These oils do not meet the definition and should not be called "essential oils."
If a store or website is selling all of their essential oils for the same price this is a clear tip-off that you are not dealing with pure essential oils. Pure Bulgarian Rose absolute oil can cost over $625.00 for a mere 1 ounce, while pure orange essential oil may cost $12.00 for 4 ounces.
We are often asked, "Why No Jasmine, Sandalwood, or Apple Scents?" When we use scents (essential oils) we look at a few criteria such as the method of extraction, sustainability, cost, and of course only pure essential oils.
General Precautions When Using Essential Oils
At Chagrin Valley Soap we have done painstaking research whenever essential oils are added to our products to ensure proper dilution and blending proportions.
- There are many wonderful essential oils but YOU MUST do your research. Please remember that everything on the Internet is NOT always true. If you are unsure about proper usage check with a qualified specialist.
- The purpose of aromatherapy is to elicit some reaction in the body. Since we are all unique, not all oils will benefit everyone in the same manner.
- With few exceptions, you should NEVER apply essential oils directly to your skin. They should be diluted in a carrier oil.
- Essential oils are very strong and many can be skin irritants if not used correctly.
- To check for sensitivity or allergic reaction we suggest you perform a patch test using a properly diluted essential oil.
- Essential oils are for external use only. Never take essential oils internally unless working with a qualified and expert practitioner.
- Keep all essential oils out of the reach of children and pets.
- Pregnancy: Always check with your Health Care Professional when using pure essential oils during pregnancy.
- If you are under a doctor's care for any medical condition, please consult your Health Care provider before using essential oils.
- Chemical compounds in essential oils can produce adverse effects when combined with medications. They may reduce the effectiveness of conventional drugs, or they may exacerbate health conditions in the individual.
- While essential oils may help to soothe the symptoms of viruses such as flu, there is no evidence at this time to suggest that inhaling or applying essential oils to the skin can prevent viruses from entering the body to prevent infection in the first place.
Pregnancy & Children: We do not provide information on the safety of essential oils during Pregnancy or for use in Children because the available information is very ambiguous and often contradictory. If you’re interested in using essential oils during pregnancy or with young children please do your own research and consult your doctor, midwife, or health care professional before use.