4 Common Questions About Essential Oils – Answered

What’s the deal with essential oils? Here are answers to 4 of the most common questions about these unique plant extracts…

Essential oils are all the rage these days in natural health circles. From some of the descriptions you read, you would think they are a true miracle cure for all that ails you! They are popping up in everything from makeup and skincare, to aromatherapy candles and diffusers, to natural remedies and more. But what the heck are essential oils anyway, and how did they become so popular?

In case you were wondering just how and why essential oils work and exactly what they are, today’s quick primer should help you understand a bit more about them.

Below are answers to 4 of the most common questions about essential oils.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are aromatic compounds found in many plants. In chemistry jargon, they’re considered “volatile organic compounds.” Volatility, in this case, meaning that they readily convert from a liquid to a vapor form at room temperature. In other words, what we’re smelling are tiny molecules of vaporized oil that are lighter than air, which allows them to drift into our nose and lodge in our olfactory receptors.

It’s been found that the smell of different essential oils can alter brain chemistry in ways that impacts our emotional and mental state, hence their therapeutic potential. Essential oils are also readily absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin or stomach, creating a physiological effect with potential medical applications.

NOTE: It is generally unsafe to ingest pure essential oils or apply them directly to the skin. They must first be highly diluted. Never use pure essential oils in any way other than that which is indicated on the product label. If you have any questions or concerns, it’s best to discuss with your doctor prior to use. 

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How are essential oils extracted from plants?

There are several methods. One of the oldest, and still the most common, is steam distillation. In this method, hot steam is forced through the plant material and then collected in a condensation device that causes the vapor to return to a liquid. In ancient times, a technique called enfleurage was also used, particularly for delicate floral oils like rose: the petals were covered in animal fat, which absorbed the essential oil; alcohol was then used to as a solvent to extract the essential oils from the fat. In modern times, they are often extracted in a high-pressure system using liquid carbon dioxide, or with chemical solvents, such as hexane and acetone.

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Can I make my own essential oils at home?

Yes, but you will need an essential oil “still” for distillation—similar, but not quite the same, as a still for alcohol—which are not widely available. A few manufacturers offer them online, starting at about $400, or you should try watching eBay for a deal. Many of the essential oils found in stores come from common garden plants, including lavender, oregano, peppermint, basil, clary sage, lemon balm, geranium, lemongrass, rosemary, thyme, yarrow, and chamomile. Depending on the species, you may need anywhere from a single plant to a quarter-acre planting in order to produce a small vial of oil…

As a consumer, how do I identify good quality essential oils?

Unfortunately, quality claims on essential oil products are not well-regulated, and should be treated largely as marketing material. If a pleasant fragrance is all you are after, simply use your own nose as a guide. Therapeutic grade essential oils, however (those used by aromatherapists), are virtually impossible to assess without special training and scientific equipment.

Why is it so complicated? The same species grown in different soils, at different altitudes, harvested in different ways, and extracted with different methods will produce oils with significantly different chemical compositions, some of which are much more desirable than others for therapeutic use. Reputable essential oil purveyors only sell oils that have been analyzed for optimum chemistry. Many of these companies are listed on the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy website.

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