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Essential Oil? Extract? Exploring the Differences

Essential Oils

Essential Oil? Extract? Exploring the Differences

From vegetables at dinner to the fragrances in your favorite perfume or cologne, plants and plant derivatives are likely important parts of your day-to-day life. With such biodiversity offering millions of choices between botanicals and even an array of products from each, it’s no wonder navigating the plant-based market can be difficult. There are so many choices; how do you find the right spice for a new dish or choose the best relaxing essential oil to unwind after a long day? To bring a bit of clarity to the vast world of plant-derived essences, we’ve created a guide for you. It includes an overview of plant-derived substances, including essential oils, herbs, syrups, extracts, and fragrances to help you navigate their uses and benefits.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are the backbone of modern aromatherapy. They are compounds with unique aromatic qualities that are derived from plants. Essential oils have been used around the world for thousands of years and for a variety of purposes. They are typically derived from plants using a process called distillation. In some cases, these essential oils may be expressed, or extracted using CO2 or alcohol.1 Essential oils may be used for health reasons, as a form of art, during social gatherings, in perfumes and beauty products, or in cleaning products. In some cases, essential oils are used primarily for their aromatic qualities, but in many uses, the chemical composition of the essential oil and its effect on the body is most important. The compounds found in essential oils are secondary metabolites. Among these metabolites are terpenes, phenolics, and alkaloids. Terpenes are the largest category of secondary metabolites and are the most abundant chemicals found in pure essential oils. They are also responsible for the aromatic qualities of the oils. All of these metabolites perform specific functions for the plant. They may attract a certain pollinator or ward off a particular predator. Their effect on humans, however, is very different but often provides a wide range of health benefits.2 Essential oils derived from plants contain a combination of these terpenes, which can have various beneficial effects on humans depending on the quantity, mixture, and absorption by the body. From alleviating stress to promoting sleep, essential oils can provide a wide range of health and wellness benefits when used topically, aromatically, or even in a bath.

Herbs and Spices

Most people use herbs and spices on a daily basis. Whether it’s cracked pepper in an omelet, basil on a pasta dish or a dash of cinnamon in your favorite dessert, herbs, and spices play a big part in our culinary lives. Not only do they add a delightful burst of flavor to a dish but they also have a myriad of health benefits. The term “herb” refers specifically to plants with fragrant or aromatic properties. They can be used to flavor foods, included in fragrances, or added to natural remedies. Herbs are distinct from spices in that herbs refer specifically to fragrant substances derived from the green or leafy part of the plant, while spices are derived from any other part of the plant, such as the bark, root, berries, seeds, etc.3 Aside from their culinary and medicinal uses, some herbs and spices can be used to derive essential oils. These include ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric, rosemary, and spearmint, among many others.


A plant extract is a desirable part of the botanical that has been isolated and removed. Typically, plant extracts are removed through a process called extraction, which frequently requires the use of a solvent, such as water, ethanol, or CO2. These extracts have a variety of uses, from food texturizers to pharmaceuticals. An extract may have slightly different properties depending on how it’s used.4 It may not always be possible to derive an essential oil from a plant. In that case, it may be possible to carefully substitute an extract. This is the case with vanilla. However, this process does not work in all cases, and as a whole, MONQ strives to use pure essential oils.


Sometimes people are surprised at the aroma of essential oils because they may be more familiar with the sweet scents of fruits and saps of a plant. The earthier smell of essential oils may not meet with their previous experience of that plant. That's where it's important to note that those sweeter scents are often associated with syrups, which are most often derived from the fruit or the collected sap of a plant and are very different than the essential oil. Syrups typically have a high natural or added sugar content—something that is not found in essential oils. Those sweet, syrupy flavors typically cannot be replicated using essential oils, which is why MONQ does not feature "berry" blends. Our blends are made from pure essential oils to help you feel better, do better, be better.


A fragrance is considered to be a combination of compounds that produces a distinct scent. This can be a natural fragrance, such as the scent of essential oils, which is produced by the unique terpenes in them. Alternatively, it can be synthetic, meaning that the materials within the fragrance are man-made and designed to emulate a particular scent.5 The raw materials for synthetic fragrances have either been chemically created or natural ingredients with modified chemical structures. Synthetic fragrances may have more appeal as they can be used to achieve more specific scents that are not typically found in nature; however, they also lack the benefits that natural fragrances provide because they don’t contain the beneficial aromatic compounds found in plants.6

Final Thoughts

Although the world of plant-derived essences is vast, many of these plant-derived substances have their own unique benefits—whether it’s spices to flavor your favorite dishes or essential oils to help you relax at the end of a long day. And, although essential oils may have some limitations in terms of their ability to replicate your favorite scents since they are consistent with naturally-occurring compounds, a trained aromatherapist can use a combination of art and science to create inviting, therapeutic blends. Photo credit: Mareefe/, Pixabay/

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