The Essence of Essential Oils
Answering the What and Why of These Unique Plant Extracts
Essential oils have been used for centuries for many different purposes. Before modern manufacturing processes were discovered, human beings depended on purely natural ingredients, and plant-based ingredients, or botanicals, played an important role in the lives of our ancestors.
Ancient records demonstrate that the Egyptians and many other populations of the Fertile Crescent and the Far East used essential oils. Plant-based ingredients were used for mummification and ritualistic ceremonies, for instance, and fragrant oils were highly valued and often given as gifts. With uses ranging from wound healing to therapeutic massage, recipes for the use of botanical ingredients were collected and shared among cultures.
In modern times, essential oils are used in the fragrance, flavor, and aromatherapy industries. The unique characteristics of each plant give these essential oils their powers. But to truly understand why essential oils continue to play an important role in so many lives, we need to first understand what they are.
What is an Essential Oil?
Essential oils are volatile products obtained from plants using either a steam, water, or—in limited circumstances—cold-press distillation process. The word “volatile” is used to describe these oils because they release their scent when they evaporate at room temperature. This is why essential oils are a popular ingredient in fragrances. Some companies sell plant extracts that they call essential oils, but to be a true essential oil, an extract must be obtained without the use of chemical solvents.
Volatile Oil? What Does that Mean?
“Volatile” is a term used in chemistry to describe something that evaporates at room temperature. In other words, volatile liquids easily become vapor or gas. We often think of the word “volatile” as meaning something is flammable. For instance, gasoline is a volatile liquid that is also flammable. However, the terms “volatility” and “flammability” describe different properties of the substance. A flammable liquid that is also volatile is dangerous because once vaporized the substance can easily ignite. Not all volatile substances are flammable.
Essential oils are called volatile because their molecules will easily change from liquid to gaseous form when exposed to the open air. In non-scientific terms, the oil’s volatility is what makes it aromatic—the molecules released as vapor into the air carry the essential oil’s scent.
Why Are They Called “Essential” Oils?
When something is described as “essential,” it is only natural to think of the item as a necessary thing because that is often what the word “essential” means. For instance, some vitamins and minerals are described as being essential because the body needs them to remain healthy.Essential amino acids are those that the body needs but cannot produce on its own. These amino acids must be derived from the foods we eat. Given the use of the word “essential” to describe nutrients that our bodies need, it is no wonder that there is some confusion as to what essential oils are and why we call them essential.
However, when used to describe essential oils, the word “essential” is a different word altogether. It is a shortened version of the word “quintessential.” In modern times, the word “quintessential” means “embodying or possessing the essence of something.” This essence is the term that describes essential oils; these natural liquids are drawn from the very essence of the plant.
What Is Quintessential?
The word “quintessential” has a history that dates back to the very discovery of essential oils, and the two have been interlinked since that time. “Quintessential” can be literally translated to mean “the fifth essence.” This quinta essentia was thought to be the fifth and highest element, and it was believed that when the quinta essentia combined with earth, air, fire and water, it made up the whole of a being. The quintessence was the life force or spirit of the being or plant. Distilling a plant’s quintessential oil was thought to pull out its spirit. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that harnessing this quintessential element could cure all disease.
While essential oils aren’t really comprised of the spirit of the plant, they do well at representing the plant’s essence. By using only mechanical means to extract the chemical compounds from a particular plant, the essential oil extraction process results in a rich, pure mix that is unique to the plant from which it is derived. Not only will the composition of the extracted oil be unique for each species of plant, but it will also reflect the individual plant’s distinct growing environment. In her book, The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, Amy B. Trubeck describes this terroir effect—the unique combination of environmental factors in a specific location that affect the plants grown there. Terroir is what gives a wine its regional accents.
Are Essential Oils Chemicals?
Technically, essentially oils are chemicals. But understanding why these oils are classified as chemicals requires an understanding of the nature of chemicals. Again, this is a matter of language and meaning. Chemicals, at their base, are the molecules and atoms that compose all matter.
The elements of the periodic table are all chemicals. With a few exceptions, these elements are distinct and naturally occurring. Without these chemicals, there would be nothing on Earth—in fact, there would be no Earth at all. So the plants themselves, along with their extracts, are made of chemicals. However, the more commonly accepted meaning for “chemical” is “something that is manufactured and synthetic.” When discussing products, we often distinguish between natural and chemical when in reality chemicals can be either. The chemicals found in essential oils are naturally occurring, not synthetically produced.
What Are These Plant Chemicals?
Plants are more complex than many imagine. Plants are the only living thing that can produce their own energy using the light of the sun. The rest of us, human and animal alike, are dependent on plants to provide us with the energy and amino acids we need for survival. David Chamovitz, author of What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, describes how plants, though not sentient, have an “intelligence” of their own. More than just roots, stems, and leaves, plants have a complicated system of communication, both within each individual plant and also with the surrounding environment. These communications are made by means of chemical messengers.
These natural plant chemicals create bad tastes to protect the plant from predators, sweet smells to attract pollinators, and coatings to keep bacteria and fungi at bay. Some plants even release a chemical that prevents competing plant species from growing in the first plant’s territory! In some instances, these chemicals are contained inside the plant’s structure. In other instances, the chemical is found on the surface of the plant’s leaves. Essential oils are extracts of these various plant chemicals. Once distilled from the plant, each essential oil will carry with it a taste, smell and texture that is unique to the plant from which it was derived. The oil will carry with it the plant’s essence.
Why Does the Extraction Process Matter?
In the fragrance and food industries, the term “essential oil” has a specifically assigned meaning. The International Standards Organization (ISO) defines essential oils as those distilled using water, steam, cold-press, or dry distillation. The specific process used varies depending on the plant type. After distillation, the oil is separated from the water that was drawn out during extraction. This separated oil is then the “essential oil” that may be marketed using that specific term.
Other plant extracts are also used by fragrance and food producers, and each of these types of extract has a distinct name. The classification of the end product is based on the type of extraction process used. When water, steam or cold-process distillation are used to distil the plant’s chemicals, no solvent comes into contact with the natural plant chemicals. This non-use of solvent is an important feature that distinguishes essential oils from other plant-based products.
Forms of extraction used to derive non-essential oils include separating the desired plant materials from the body of the plant using ethanol and hexane (or similar chemicals). When solvents are used for extraction, there is always a chance of solvent residue remaining in the final product. Products that are not extracted as essential oils are referred to as absolutes, concretes, florasols, and CO2s. Each of these plant products plays a role in the manufacturing of a variety of goods, but they are not essential oils.
Are Essential Oils Safe?
When trying any new product, it is important to remember every body is different. “Natural” is not a synonym for “safe.” Essential oils are highly concentrated chemicals. Whether inhaled or applied to the skin, this level of concentration means that any sensitivity or allergy to the source plant will be magnified. Strong fragrances may trigger respiratory reactions in people with asthma or similar conditions, and applying the oil directly to your skin may cause a skin reaction.
Additionally, some plants have natural medicinal qualities that can react with your prescribed medications or exacerbate a medical condition. So, to be safe, always start slowly when using a new essential oil. Dilute the oil before using it on your skin. Check with your physician if you are taking medication or suffer from allergies. Furthermore, some essential oils should be avoided if you are pregnant. It is always a good idea to research the specific risks associated with the essential oil you are considering.
Can Essential Oils Cure Disease?
Many modern medicines include natural plant ingredients, and by necessity, ancient remedies were based on natural ingredients. Herbalists and natural healers have known about the benefits of botanical ingredients for generations. Yet information about essential oils remains limited. In some instances, studies have shown a correlation between a specific essential oil and a health benefit. For most essential oils, however, there are simply not enough clinical studies available to demonstrate their effect on the body.
The use of essential oils in the United States for medicinal purposes is still limited, but medical aromatherapy is common in Europe. Essential oils are most often used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. Approximately 100 varieties of essential oils are used in Austria and Europe for medical aromatherapy. The benefits of essential oils are probably best realized when they are used as a supplement to the benefits of modern medicines and treatments. The use of an essential oil can enhance your life, but it should be a part of a supervised treatment plan if you are dealing with a serious disease.
Now You Know
Now that you know the What and Why of essentials oils, take some time to discover the unique properties of each plant. While these botanical power packs might not be the quinta essentai cure all that our ancestors longed to find, their delightful aromatics can definitely lift your spirits.