Essential oils are the backbone of any modern aromatherapy treatment. They are compounds extracted from plants with unique aromatic qualities that have been used around the world for thousands of years for a variety of different purposes. 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 of those cases, essential oils are used primarily for their aromatic qualities, but in some uses, it is the chemical composition of the oil and its effects on the body that is most important.
Essential Oils vs. Synthetic Fragrances
Most individuals encounter essential oils on a daily basis even if they don’t know it. Essential oils are often found in everyday items like kitchen sprays, soaps, and candles. However, some of these products are made from pure essential oils while others are composed of synthetic fragrances created to mimic the scents of essential oils.
So, if a synthetic fragrance oil can produce the same scent as an essential oil, then what’s the difference between them? It all has to do with the chemical compounds found in the oils.
Specific plants produce a number of unique chemicals known as 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.
Essential oils extracted from plants contain a combination of these terpenes, which can have various beneficial effects on humans depending on the quantity, mixture, and the way the compounds are absorbed by the body.
This is why when you breathe in the scent of a candle that was manufactured using lavender essential oil, you may feel relaxed and calm, yet you will not experience that same reaction with a synthetic lavender fragrance.
To make matters worse, some synthetic fragrances may contain chemicals that are harmful to the body. For example, synthetic styrene has been a common ingredient in synthetic fragrance products for decades but has recently been identified as a known carcinogen.1
In truth, synthetic fragrances are a relatively new invention. Humans have traditionally relied on essential oils for their aromatic needs.
Herbal Medicine in the Ancient World
Essential oil history is tied very closely to the history of herbal medicine. For example, specific plants were used for their medicinal properties long before humans learned to extract their oils.
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Though it’s impossible to determine exactly when humans began to turn to plants for medicinal purposes, some fossil samples dating more than 40,000 years old have revealed evidence that even prehistoric humans used herbal medicine.2 It’s believed that herbal medicine was surprisingly well understood by the time the earliest civilizations reached their height of power.
Many significant advancements in essential oil use took place in ancient Egypt between 4,500 and 3,000 BCE. The Egyptians had a strong fascination with aromatics and it was prevalent in both their medicinal and spiritual practices. At this time, they primarily burned aromatic woods and herbs.
The ancient Egyptians were not the only civilization making new developments. It wasn’t long before ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations began to dive into aromatics and the healing properties of herbs. In both of these cultures, there was a stronger focus on the medicinal properties of the herbs rather than their use in spiritual practices.
However, that is not to say the Egyptians did not make many important scientific discoveries for essential oils use. For example, they developed the well-known process of embalming and mummification. This relied on a number of herbs, such as frankincense, cinnamon, and cedarwood. Essential oils derived from those plants are still very popular today.
Many experts credit the Egyptians with developing the earliest essential oil extraction methods. Several hieroglyphics from the time depict alchemists and priests as they extracted oils from plants. These oils were later used in ceremonies, for medicinal purposes, or as perfumes.
The primary method of essential oil extraction used by the Egyptians was known as enfleurage. It is a process where odorless fats are used to absorb the essential oils produced by the plant. At the time, it was an ideal extraction method for plants that were very delicate. The process was later improved in the 18th century but has seen little use since as there are now have more efficient methods of extracting essential oils.
To perform this technique, the Egyptians heated a solid fat as they slowly stirred in fragrant plant matter. The used plant matter was strained from the fat after some time, and fresh plants were added. This process was repeated until the fat was completely saturated with fragrant oils. The fragrant fat was known as a pomade and would later be processed with alcohol to leave behind a pure liquid.
This was an inefficient and time-consuming method. The pomade could be used by itself and was likely expensive as is, but the aromatic oil left behind after processing was even more valuable and often used in perfumes. It could only be afforded by the wealthiest citizens.
Eventually, the Egyptians discovered the technology necessary to extract oil via the distillation process which would replace the need for enfleurage extraction, though the only evidence found to support the switch has been a few distillation pots. Queen Cleopatra was said to have known so much about the distillation process that she wrote about it in a text that was later lost.3
Ancient China and India
It wasn’t only Egypt that was making great strides with the use of essential oils. Both China and India had developed the technology necessary to extract oils via distillation, and the Chinese, in particular, focused on discovering the potential medicinal benefits of a variety of herbs and aromatic oils.
One of the oldest books on the subject, The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine was written in 2697 BCE and is still a highly valued text in holistic medicine and aromatherapy.
Meanwhile, India developed a system of essential oil medicine known as Ayurveda between 3,300 and 1,3000 BCE, which is believed to be the world’s oldest medical system.4 It is a purely holistic form of medicine that focuses on the use of herbs, essential oils, massage, and meditation that remains popular today.
The Rise of Greece
Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE, allowing ancient Greece to absorb a great deal of their culture and learn information about herbal medicine, aromatics, and essential oils.
Hippocrates, a Greek physician often referred to as the “father of medicine” published a text outlining the medicinal properties of more than 300 plants. In that text, he often discussed the aromatic qualities of the plants and the benefits of using them in a bath or as part of a scented massage. He also discussed the benefits of fumigating with aromatic plants.
Theophrastus was another well-known supporter of plant aromatics. He published many texts on the subject of plants and discussed how the topical application of certain plants could affect the internal organs. This is an important concept that is a core part of modern aromatherapy. Not only can essential oils be used aromatically, but they can be applied topically for specific medicinal benefits.
Thus, the invasion of Egypt led to a large increase in the popularity of aromatics, essential oils, and perfumes throughout all of Greece. Not only would the public’s understanding of these oils improve over the following centuries but so too would their methods of extraction. Eventually, the Romans would conquer Greece and absorb all of this knowledge and technology.
From the Dark Ages to Modern Times
The fall of the Roman empire marked the beginning of the migration period, more commonly referred to as the Dark Ages. Intellectual prowess did not fare well during this time period. Even bathing had become somewhat of a taboo act.
Women were mostly prohibited from attending the mixed-gender bathhouses left by the Romans, and bathing for pleasure was also condemned by religious leaders at the time.5 This prevented previously popular practices like aromatherapy bathing.
Over time, holistic medicine and the use of medicinal aromatics became far less common. Essential oils were still produced in smaller quantities, but they were used primarily in perfumes. At this time, it seemed that use essential oils for medicine would simply fade away, and essential oils would be used only to cover up the odor from avoiding the bathhouse.
Luckily, the 14th century marked the beginning of the Renaissance. This was a time in Europe when the people experienced a renewed interest in art, culture, politics, science, and medicine.
Paracelsus was a well-known physician at the time and is considered one of the pioneers of the medical revolution that took place during the Renaissance. Like the Greek Theophrastus, Paracelsus was an avid supporter of aromatics as a form of medicine, and one of his many achievements was treating leprosy using plant extracts.
During the Renaissance, aromatics and essential oils once again became widely respected and sought after for their medicinal properties. Over the next 200 years, they would be prescribed to treat a number of illnesses.
The information about the properties of essential oils present at the time was compiled mostly from the ancient Chinese, Indian, and Greek texts mentioned previously. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first lab tests involving essential oils began.
Modern medicine began making significant strides during the 19th century. For example, physicians began to understand the role of microorganisms in causing disease. They also discovered that people working in the flower districts of southern France rarely suffered from tuberculosis. This led to the first recorded laboratory of essential oils in 1887.6
This laboratory test was the first in a long line of studies that are still taking place today. One year later, a text was published documenting the effects of oregano and other herbs on the microorganisms responsible for yellow fever.
Despite these documented studies, the 20th-century medical doctors in the U.S. continued to move away from the use of essential oils and herbs as medical treatments, but this did not prevent them from growing in popularity in many other parts of the world. In particular, western Europe and Asia launched many studies into essential oils and their health benefits. They then used this information to improve their holistic medical care.
The term “aromatherapy” was not coined until 1937 by Rene Gattefosse who had caused a laboratory explosion that burned his hands. He immediately used undiluted lavender oil to treat his hands because it was the first compound available to him. The oil relieved the pain and improved the healing process. He was amazed when he did not suffer from infection or scarring. This sparked his interest in the healing properties of essential oils, which eventually led to his publication of the book Aromatherapie.
Afterward, Gattefosse spent much of his career studying and experimenting with essential oils. He discovered that the oils could be absorbed by the body and cause unique reactions. His research helped French surgeons treat many war wounds using essential oils. Some of those doctors went on to study essential oils themselves and publish books on the subject, such as The Practice of Aromatherapy by Jean Valnet
More than 270 different essential oils were cataloged and studied in France during the remainder of the 20th century. Many of these oils and their medicinal properties were described in detail in the book L’aromatherapie Exactement published in 1990. As for the United States, they took a bit longer to seriously consider the possibilities of essential oil benefits. Even today, essential oils are fairly important components of health care systems in France, England, Germany, and Asia, yet they are still widely debated in the United States.
Modern Essential Oil Extraction Techniques
The most common way of extracting essential oils in the modern era is actually very similar to the techniques used by ancient cultures. Distillation remains one of the most effective methods for extracting oils from flowers and herbs. To be more specific, the method of extraction is called steam distillation.
Steam distillation works by placing the flower or herb onto a grid material inside of a sill. The sill is then sealed and a distillation catalyst is injected. For steam distillation, steam is blown into the sill. Other options include water, a combination of water and steam, or a hydro diffusion technique.
The high temperature of the steam or water causes the plant to begin breaking down. The essential oils will evaporate at a much lower temperature than the plant itself and will rise through a connecting pipe into a condenser. That condenser causes the vapor to cool down and return to a liquid form. The resulting liquid is captured in a container located below the condenser.
The steam contains a combination of essential oils and water. However, water and oil do not mix. This leads to a separation in the chamber which renders the oil ready to use.
The expression is another method of extracting essential oils from plants. It is primarily used to extract oil from the peels of citrus plants, such as oranges, limes, and lemons. The expression is often referred to as cold pressing. It was originally performed entirely by hand but is now managed by dedicated machinery.
Cold pressing is required for citrus oils because they cannot handle the heat used for steam distillation. This process relies on large amounts of pressure to force the oils from the plant. Modern machines are also designed to pierce and spin the peel of the citrus fruit while applying pressure.
Some plants are far too delicate for either of the extraction methods mentioned above. In the past, they were handled with the use of solvents like petroleum or ethanol. This would produce something known as an absolute. Enfleurage is an example of using a solvent to produce an absolute. The difference between an absolute and an essential oil is simply the manner in which it is extracted. The two are very similar and are often used interchangeably.
In the past, some people were cautious about the use of absolutes because they may retain small amounts of the chemical solvent used to extract the oil. This is no longer a problem thanks to the development of CO2 extraction, which is entirely natural and leaves behind no potentially harmful compounds. The carbon dioxide extraction technique is vastly superior to a petroleum or ethanol solvent method. It relies on increasing pressure to cause a phase shift in the carbon dioxide. During this shift, the carbon dioxide becomes part-gas and part-liquid. After extracting the essential oils, the pressure is decreased, and the carbon dioxide returns to a purely gaseous form. There are no harmful chemicals and no residue left behind.
A few additional terms you may encounter in the world of essential oil extraction techniques include tincture, isolate, and infusion.
An infusion involves combining a particular essential oil with a carrier oil. Infused oils are almost always a good thing and are even considered necessary for some oils. The carrier oil dilutes the essential oil and facilitates its absorption into the skin. This is particularly important for oils that are potent enough to cause skin discomfort or damage in their pure state.
A tincture involves soaking a plant or oil in alcohol instead of using a carrier oil. The resulting compound can then be ingested. It is not particularly common in aromatherapy but certainly has its uses.
Finally, an isolate refers to a particular compound from an essential oil that has been isolated and removed. Once an essential oil, an absolute, or an isolate has been produced, it can then be used in any number of applications or products.
Top Benefits of Essential Oils
Countries like China, India, and France set a positive example of the medicinal power of essential oils. It took some time before the rest of the Western world decided to follow suit. Today, though, more people than ever are trying to find ways to “go green” and cut potentially dangerous chemicals out of their lives. This is where essential oils step in.
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.
Some of the most popular essential oils and their uses are highlighted below.
Perhaps one of the most important body systems to keep in good shape is the immune system as this can affect a range of other body systems, body processes, and just day-to-day life.
Many essential oils have been shown to boost immune system function or minimize risk factors like stress which may lead to a compromised immune system.
Ravensara, Geranium, and Sandalwood Essential Oils
It’s a common misconception that allergies are only a serious problem during spring. There are stimuli such as plants, smog, and weeds that can cause allergic reactions year-round. This is also a condition known as non-allergic rhinitis. With this condition, a person can exhibit all of the traditional symptoms of nasal allergies without interacting with any known cause. Luckily, whether the symptoms are caused by allergies or nonallergic rhinitis, they can often be alleviated with essential oils.
The Ravensara essential oil likely played an especially significant role as it is quite commonly used to relieve symptoms associated with colds, flu, and other respiratory tract infections. It contains several powerful metabolites, such as limonene, b-myrcene, a-pinene, and linalool.
The oil is extracted from the leaves of the Ravensara tree in Madagascar. Traditional steam distillation is the most common extraction method. The oil has been extracted by the local natives for hundreds of years and used to fight infections, relieve headaches, and promote better sleep.8
Natural Cleaning Products
Many of the last few decades has been spent learning troubling truths about the products that people used on a daily basis. For example, people once thought Freon was a safe and efficient refrigerant. It is now known that causes severe damage to the ozone layer and its production is being phased out entirely. People have learned similar truths about some popular cleaning products used in the home.
The companies that manufacture cleaning products are not legally required to provide a list of the ingredients. However, there are strong regulations in place that require the companies to disclose any potentially hazardous chemicals. Many of those chemicals are actually the same synthetic fragrances that were discussed at the beginning of this guide. There are more than 26 synthetic fragrances used in cleaning products that are known to be toxic after a certain level.9
Of course, some chemical-based cleaning products may not pose this risk, but essential-oil based cleaning sprays can provide the same benefits as many of these manufactured cleaning products with little to no risk at all.
Lemon Essential Oil
Lemon essential oil is a cleaning powerhouse. It also has a strong and sweet scent that is often associated with being clean. You can use lemon essential oil to clean nearly any surface including countertops, clothes, upholstery, and dishes.
For example, you can tackle tough grease stains on clothes by scrubbing the spot directly with a mixture of lemon essential oil and water. Afterward, wash the clothes as you normally would. You can repeat the process for the toughest of stains. You can even make a DIY natural laundry soap at home and add lemon oil to the mix.
Peppermint Essential Oil
Like lemon essential oil, peppermint oil has a strong aroma and several properties that make it beneficial for cleaning. A mixture of peppermint oil, vinegar, and water makes a great cleaning solution for bathrooms and kitchens. This is because peppermint is known to have powerful antibacterial properties, as does vinegar.10
In addition to fighting bacteria, peppermint oil and vinegar are capable of eliminating many different viruses and fungi. Using this mixture to clean bathrooms and kitchens can reduce the risk of mold growth, food poisoning, and viral infections. The peppermint also helps to counter the strong scent of the vinegar.
Natural Beauty Products
Beauty products fall into the same category of potential hazards as cleaning supplies. However, the danger is even more severe because many of these products are applied directly to the skin on a regular basis. They may also be inhaled or cling to clothes.
The potential dangers of synthetic chemical styrene, which is used in many perfumes, were discussed earlier in the guide. But styrene is far from the only dangerous chemical found in beauty products. Others include perfluorooctanoic acid, benzophenone-1, and butylated hydroxyanisole, which has been classified as an endocrine disruptor.11
Groups and organizations have spent a great deal of time and resources lobbying to have these chemicals removed from cosmetic products, but with little success. In most cases, the companies are not even obligated to disclose whether their products contain these chemicals. This makes buying safe beauty products a difficult task.
It is still possible to find natural and safe cosmetics, but it takes additional research. Even companies that list their products as “natural” aren’t always truthful. Luckily, you can also make many of these products at home with natural ingredients and essential oils.
Helichrysum Essential Oil
The helichrysum flower grows on Corsica in the Mediterranean. It’s not quite as popular as some of the other essential oils that are frequently bought and sold, but it has some great uses nonetheless. In particular, it makes a great addition to a DIY skin care treatment.
Improving skin health with helichrysum oil is as simple as mixing it with a carrier oil and applying it directly to the target area. It can be used to prevent acne breakout or to soothe an existing blemish. It is also a safe and natural way to remedy a rash or itching from poison ivy exposure. And unlike many commercial products, this oil does not dry out the skin or cause irritation.
Rose Essential Oil
Perfumes aren’t known for their medicinal benefits, but it’s always a good thing when the perfume you are using has some. That’s exactly what you get when you make a perfume using essential oils. You can enjoy the pleasant aroma of the oil as well as the benefits associated with inhaling those oils.
Rose oil is a great choice for making a simple DIY perfume at home as it has been shown to alleviate anxiety, protect against viruses, and reduce stress hormone levels.13
Creating your own perfume using rose essential oil is simple. The most basic perfume recipes only require water and essential oils. You can mix roughly 24 drops of the essential oil with two ounces of water to create a spray with a noticeable aroma.
Apply the natural perfume just as you would any other. You may even experience additional benefits when applying the perfume topically to pulse points.
Natural Pest Repellents
No homeowner likes the idea of an unwanted pest inside their home. This could include moths, beetles, ants, or any other insect that is generally unpleasant. You can purchase chemical solutions that will either kill the insects or deter them, but the compounds they use are often far more dangerous than the insect itself.
One such example is DEET, one of the most effective bug repellents in the industry used in a number of products you’ll find at your local store. Its use has been linked to headaches, shortness of breath, seizures, blisters, and memory dysfunction.14
Meanwhile, there are many essential oils that can perform the same pest-repelling task as DEET without posing the same risks to the user. In fact, many of the secondary metabolites contained in essential oils were originally used by the plants to ward off pests. The key is finding the right oil for the particular pest that you’re dealing with.
Lavender Essential Oil
If you could only invest in single essential oils for keeping away bugs, then lavender would be your best option. Many people grow lavender in their home garden and rub parts of the plant on their skin when outside.
The powerful lavender aroma is unmistakable to most insects and they seem to prefer to stay away. It is particularly useful at keeping away mosquitoes. You can apply it topically to your skin, mix it in a spray bottle with water and mist the area, or use a diffuser to produce a steady stream of lavender vapor.
It’s also useful for deterring certain pests that are known to be a problem inside of the home. Anthrenus flavipes, better known as the furniture carpet beetle, is very common in warm climates and is capable of digesting keratin, which is the protein found in animal hair and feathers. Once inside the home, they will find your upholstery and devour it over many generations.
Lavender essential oil is one of the best natural fixes for keeping the furniture beetle at bay.15 Mix the oil with a small amount of water and spray it on your upholstery for a safe and easy fix.
Moths are another household pest that can destroy clothes and upholstery. The moths lay their larvae in clothes, and those larvae then consume the keratin in the fibers. Many people use mothballs to prevent this but they possess a bad odor.
You can protect your clothes from moths with the same spray that you use to protect your upholstery from beetles or your skin from mosquitoes. Lavender essential oil is extremely versatile. Chances are, you’ll find quite a few more uses for the mixture around the house.
Promoting Overall Health and Wellness with Essential Oils
You don’t have to swear off every chemical cleaner and store-bought perfume and go green today. It’s simply important to understand how essential oils offer safer alternatives and try them out with that in mind. Hopefully, in time, more manufacturers will take note of this themselves and begin to replace some of their chemicals with essential oils. Until then, there are still other ways that you can use essential oils to promote better health and overall wellness.
This is how most people begin their journey with essential oils. With a traditional diffuser, you add water and a few drops of your essential oil of choice. A heat source is then used to produce a mist from the room diffuser. The heat source may be a candle or it may be an electric heat source. In either case, diffusers are an affordable option that makes aromatherapy accessible.
A portable diffuser is much smaller and comes preloaded with a particular oil or blend of oils. You can take the diffuser with you on the go because they are small enough to fit in your pocket. An internal heating element is used to produce the essential oil mist. It’s a great way to enjoy aromatherapy while you are traveling or driving.
Choosing oils can be difficult if you’re just beginning. One option is to start by investing in some of the basic essentials. These include lavender, orange, oregano, ylang-ylang, and cinnamon. These oils can provide energy, promote relaxation, or relieve stress. Ylang ylang oil, for example, can maintain healthy blood pressure and control stress.17
A second option is to determine what you hope to gain from your aromatherapy experience. Are you looking to improve sleep? If so, then lavender essential oil should be at the top of your list.18 Do you need an oil that will help relieve muscle pain after a tough workout? If so, then eucalyptus oil is a great place to start.19 Finding the right essential oils for your needs will require a bit of research but it’s a great way to start a collection.
Alternatively, you can try a premade blend of essential oils tailored for your specific purposes. Many of these blends are offered in personal diffusers for added convenience. Try Zen for relaxation, Active to get pumped before your workout, or Sleepy to help you wind down at night.
Paleo air can be thought of as a specific type of aromatherapy. It is a fairly new concept that is built upon a foundation of research stretching back hundreds of years. The idea is that millions of years ago, humans were surrounded by a far greater amount of plant life.
They spent their lives outdoors, and in doing so, they were constantly breathing in the secondary metabolites released by trees—the same secondary metabolites that are responsible for numerous health benefits. It’s very likely that this increased intake of specific metabolites had positive effects on the health of Paleolithic humans.
This idea is also seen in the practice of Forest Therapy. This is a form of meditation where a person spends time relaxing and breathing in a forest. It’s very simple, yet it has been shown to provide a range of health benefits health benefits. Forest bathing can improve mood, reduce stress, maintain healthy blood pressure, and promote healthy immune system function.20 It’s also believed that many of these benefits stem from the secondary metabolites produced by trees and plant life.
The practice of breathing Paleo Air allows you to recreate the forest bathing experience inside of your home. It is an ideal solution for people who are stuck living in the city and doesn’t have ample opportunities to meditate in a real forest.
You can recreate this experience by using a blend of oils containing cedarwood, black spruce, black pine, and nearly any other essential oil derived from a coniferous tree. However, relaxed meditation while diffusing the oils is an important part of the process. This blend of essential oils can be added to a room diffuser or used aromatically through a personal diffuser like Forest MONQ.
The combination of essential oils and massages is one that has been promoted since the days of Hippocrates. It’s well understood that oils can have direct effects on organs, muscles, and various functions in the body when applied topically.
In some cases, these are unique benefits that cannot be experienced by inhaling the oils. However, you may still inhale some of the metabolites during the massage, which means that you will enjoy the full spectrum of possible benefits.
The quality and effectiveness of an aromatherapy massage are going to depend entirely on who is providing it. Ideally, you will be able to find a massage center that offers you full control over the oils that are used. This will allow you to target specific symptoms or needs. If you don’t know which oils are best, then you can discuss the options with the masseuse.
There are a number of different massage techniques available and most of them can easily incorporate essential oils. Aromatherapy massages are still an important part of modern-day Ayurvedic medicine. They often use a combination of oils massaged onto the body, as well as oils diffused into the air. By doing so, they are able to diffuse oils that promote relaxation while massaging oils that will soothe the muscles.
Essential oils have made a tremendous journey throughout history. As soon as early man discovered the healing properties of herbs, they have been linked very closely to civilization. And after the Egyptians perfected methods of extracting essential oils, it became easier to use them in a variety of different ways.
Information about essential oil and the technology used to extract them continued to grow and improve from one civilization to the next. However, it wasn’t until the modern era that people truly began to understand what these oils were capable. One can only imagine what new and exciting uses will be found for essential oils in the future.
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