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Introduction To Essential Oils Lesson #1

The Very Beginning

History Of Essential Oils   

Today we will cover a brief overview of the history of essential oils

The history of herbal oils goes back thousands of years.  The ancient Egyptians are probably the most famous for their use of herbal oils for beauty, health, and preserving bodies in the mummification process.  However, the herbal oils used in ancient civilizations were infused oils, not what we know today as "essential oils."  We will cover more about infused oils in another lesson. 

The process of steam distillation, which created what we know today as "essential oils," began picking up steam (no pun intended) around the mid-1500s.  It was during this time that herbal medicine (which had previously been squelched and was often perceived as "demonic" during the Dark Ages) began to make a comeback to its rightful, respectable place in the medical and alternative community.

But it wasn't until 1937 that the term "aromatherapy" was coined by the French chemist and perfumer Rene Maurice Gattefosse.  Surprisingly Mr. Gattefosse was not a believer in the natural health movement but was nevertheless fascinated by the properties that essential oils exhibited.

In 1910, Mr. Gattefosse burned his hand severely in his laboratory, and the first available compound he could grab was pure undiluted lavender oil.  He quickly doused his hand with the lavender oil, which not only eased the pain immediately but helped heal the hand without any sign of infection or scarring. His unfortunate burn catapulted him into more research on the properties of essential oils and how they affected the body.  He found that minute amounts of essential oils are absorbed by the body and interact with the body chemistry.

As a result of Gattefosse's experiments, Dr. Jean Valet used essential oils to treat injured soldiers during World War II with great success.  In the 1950s, Marguerite Maury started diluting essential oils into a vegetable carrier oil and massaging it into the skin using a Tibetan technique that is applied along the nerve endings of the spinal column. She was also the first person to start the use of "individually prescribed" combinations of essential oils to suit the need of the person being massaged.

Since that time, the use of essential oils and aromatherapy has become a major part of the alternative and holistic health systems and has developed a very large following across the world.

What Are Essential Oils?  

An essential oil is a concentrated liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants.  An oil is referred to as an "essential oil" because it carries the distinctive scent or essence of the plant.  Essential oils can originate from flowers, herbs, plants, trees, resins, or other plant material.  Essential oils differ from other "fixed oils" (such as olive oil) because they are volatile and evaporate when left open, and they also have certain therapeutic properties that can be used to promote health and well-being.  All plants that are fragrant do not contain essential oils, and many plants do not produce essential oils at all. Essential oils are often confused with fragrance oils, which are chemical re-creations of scents that are made primarily from coal tar.  Essential oils vary widely in price depending largely on the amount of plant material needed to produce them.  Essential oils are highly concentrated.  For example, it takes about 16 pounds of fresh peppermint leaves to make one ounce of peppermint oil – and peppermint contains a much larger amount of essential oil per pound of plant material than many other herbs!  So while the price of essential oils may seem high, when compared to the amount of plant material it takes to produce the oil, most essential oils are relatively inexpensive.


How Essential Oils Are Made?

Steam Distillation:

As you can see from the diagram above, most essential oils are made through steam distillation.  Large amounts of plant material are placed into a steam distillation unit.  A combination of steam and pressure extracts the essential oils from the plant material.  Those oils then rise to the top along with the steam, which then passes into a condenser.  The condenser cools the steam, and once it has reached a certain temperature, the mixture of water and oil goes into the separator, where the oil rises to the top and is collected.  The water that remains is called floral water or a hydrosol and is either discarded or sold for other beauty products.

Regular steam distillation is how most essential oils are made, but there are a few exceptions to the rule. 

Steam Distillation With Solvents:

Many companies use a chemical solvent during the steam distillation process to help extract more of the essential oil from the plant material.  While this does increase yield, it also introduces harsh chemicals into the essential oil mixture, which can end up in the final product.  When using essential oils for medicinal purposes, it is best to avoid any oils that are distilled using solvents. 


Another exception to the rule is what is known as "absolutes."  Absolutes are often lumped into the category of "essential oils," but are actually a category of their own. Absolutes are made from plants (usually flowers) that contain fragrant oils that are too delicate to be extracted by the steam distillation process.  While some companies label absolutes as essential oils, it is important to know the difference.  Absolutes are produced solely by solvent extraction, not by steam.  Absolutes are usually more concentrated than essential oils.  Typically absolutes are the type of oil desired for use in perfumery because the low temperatures of the extraction process helps prevent damage to the fragrant compounds.  With a good understanding of the solvent used, extractors can produce absolutes with aromas much closer to the original plant than is possible with steam distillation.  Some oils can be distilled either by steam or as an absolute.  For example, rose otto is the steam distilled rose oil but does not resemble the fragrance of an actual rose nearly as closely as rose absolute.  Neroli, which is a steam-distilled essential oil from the blossom of the bitter orange, is not nearly as fragrant as orange blossom absolute.  Some botanicals are too delicate to be steam distilled, and can only yield their aroma through solvent extraction.  Examples of these are jasmine, tuberose, and mimosa.  Because they are extracted solely with chemicals, absolutes should never be taken internally.

Cold Pressed

The final method I will discuss today for extracting essential oils is cold pressing.  Citrus oils are typically the only essential oils you will find extracted by this method.  The peels of the fruit are chopped up, and the oil is pressed out.  It's that simple.  Some companies throw in some of the fruit, leaves, and blossoms for added color or flavor, as well.   When citrus oils are cold-pressed they have a shorter shelf life than most essential oils, but more will be discussed about shelf life in an upcoming lesson. You can also purchase steam distilled citrus oils, which have a slightly different scent profile, and also the steam distillation process eliminates certain compounds such as those that cause sensitivity to sunlight. Citrus oils contain compounds that are phototoxic, which means when applied topically they greatly increase the likelihood of sunburn. For this reason, cold-pressed citrus oils should not be used in skincare products like lip balms and face creams. Steam distilled citrus oils, however, can be safely used in skincare products, as they do not contain the phototoxic compounds. This is a very important question to ask when purchasing skincare products, especially from small businesses: "Are the citrus oils used in your skincare products steam distilled or cold-pressed?" If someone is making skincare products and cannot answer that question, please don't purchase products from them. Your skin is precious, and someone who does not understand what severe burns cold-pressed citrus essential oils can cause if used before going out in the sun, shouldn't be selling or giving away their skincare products.

Any citrus oils such as orange, grapefruit, lime, lemon, bergamot, etc. should all be steam distilled or only used topically very cautiously/when you are certain you will not be having sun exposure.

That's all for this first lesson! Lesson #2 we will dive into how essential oils work on and in the body, methods of application; inhalation, topical application, and internal use, and how the different methods affect our systems.

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