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What Exactly is an Essential Oil?

#essentialoil #essentialoilbasics #essentialoilsforbeginners #essentialoiltips #naturalbathalternativevs #naturalproducts Jul 11, 2023

It seems everyone is talking about them. So many people are using them in their homes, but what exactly are essential oils? Truth be told, these highly concentrated products of plants are not a new FAD. These have been used for centuries by our ancient ancestors. The first recorded use of essential oils dates back to somewhere around 2500 BC. Before essential oils were used, herbal infusions were created. They were the “go-to” for many ailments. Egyptians used Frankincense and Myrrh in 3000 BC, and the Romans and Greeks used essential oils for infection. So, although the popularity of essential oils has resurfaced in recent years, they have been around for a very long time.

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What is an Essential Oil?

Essential oils are highly concentrated substances found in the cells or glands of certain plants. Not all plants contain this special “essence.” Plants are living things, and they have survival mechanisms just like an animal. The one thing that they use their special aroma for is to give off a warning signal to another plant that there is danger, such as a certain insect. They can send off this warning as protection from a predator, or it may be to attract certain insects, such as the honeybee, for pollination. The plant species is an amazing integrated system.

Essential oils are obtained from different parts of the plant. They are obtained from flowers, leaves, stems, bark, roots, and even rinds. 

For example:

Some plants will give us more than one essential oil. An example of this is the bitter orange tree. This tree gives us 3 essential oils; the flowers give us neroli, the leaves give us petitgrain, and the fruit rind gives us bitter orange essential oil. How amazing is that?

How Do We Obtain Essential Oils?

We get these precious gifts from mother nature through the process of distillation. There are three main distillation practices: steam Distillation, Cold pressing or cold extraction, and Solvent extraction. Further, let’s take a closer look at these.

Steam Distillation

Steam distillation is the method that is most used and the purest. First, the plant parts are put into a large still, which generates steam pressurized and circulated throughout the plant material. This causes the release of molecules from the plant, condensing with the steam in a large chamber, called a condenser. The steam eventually cools and becomes oil and water, separating from one another (remember oil and water do not mix) into a reservoir. Finally, the water that is obtained is made into a hydrosol.

Cold Pressed or Cold Expression

This is usually the method used when the oils are expressed from the rind of a fruit. First, the rind is rolled over a trough, which punctures the cells, of which the essence is found. The fruit is then pressed to release the juices and the oils, which are then separated.

Solvent Extraction

Lastly, this method uses a solvent poured over the plant material, which causes the oils from the plant to release. The solvent that is being used varies. One of the cleanest and a method that is becoming very popular among distillers is the C02 extraction process. C02, under pressure, becomes a liquid. This acts as the solvent and expresses the oil. CO2 extraction is the cleanest process, as far as solvent extraction is concerned. This method is used when steam distillation cannot be. A good example is the flowers, jasmine and rose. They are very fragile and delicate and would dissolve with steam distillation.

What’s in a Name?

Plant names are key factors when considering essential oils. The botanical name, or Latin name, precisely identifies the plant. Why is this important? Some plants have several different species, and with that comes variations in their organic chemical make-up. The popular lavender is a great example because there are a couple of different species of lavender. If you reach for Spike Lavender (Lavandula latifolia), thinking that it is like Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), you will get a much different result because they have a different chemical make-up and, therefore, a very different therapeutic effect.

Keeping this in mind, reputable essential oil companies will always put the oil’s botanical name on their bottles. This is helpful when making decisions on purchasing essential oils. To learn more about what else to consider when purchasing, read our related blog post.

The Art of Blending

The essence from the plants that give the essential oil its aroma can be categorized into 3 different sections. This is important when you are considering blending essential oils. We call these categories notes and like music, combining the right notes creates a flowing, harmonious chorus of aromas.

Top Note- This is the scent that is immediately recognizable and hits us first from a blend. It is usually light, airy, and fresh. Most of our citrus oils are top notes. They do evaporate very quickly in the air.

Middle Note- These are often called the “heart” notes, as they are considered the heart or center of any blend. They are soft and easy, like many of your floral oils. They will balance and harmonize the blend, softening any harsher aromas.

Base Note- These are usually your root or wood essential oils. They are stronger, woody, herbaceous, and will take longer to evaporate in the air and take longer to arrive at your nose. We call this being more volatile. These are usually calming, grounding oils used as a foundation to the blend.

In conclusion, plants are amazing and make up a very intricate system in our ecosystem. The essential oils that they provide are beautiful gifts from nature that can be so effective and enjoyable if we use them properly. Thanks for reading.

If you have questions or are looking for some help, book a call with me!