A Closer Look: What Are Essential Oils?
Along with herbs and homeopathic remedies, essential oils are a must for any natural medicine cabinet. Though we primarily think of the aromatic oils as useful for freshening up a stuffy room or revitalizing stale potpourri, they offer so much more.
Derived from botanical material (flowers, leaves, bark, roots, peel — you name it), essential oils are volatile substances, meaning they easily evaporate, even at low temperatures. They carry the name “essential” because they easily dissolve in alcohol to form an “essence”, although some claim it’s because the oil is the “essential” life-blood of the plant.
Essential oils contain the true essence of the plant from which they were derived.
But what does that really mean?
Every plant possesses a unique chemical composition responsible for it’s aroma and healing properties. This chemical composition is found in the oil. Oil can be extracted from the mother plant in several different ways, most notably by steam distillation or, in the case of citrus oils, through a cold-pressing process.
Once these oils are extracted they are highly concentrated. To understand just how concentrated, consider that it takes more than 15 pounds of peppermint leaves to produce a mere ounce of essential peppermint oil! That’s more peppermint than you’d ever care to eat!
Since the chemical concentration is so incredibly strong essential oils must be used cautiously.
Due to their potency, essential oils are powerhouses of healing, even so far as to be listed in various pharmacopoeias as offering anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and/or anti-viral benefits. Indeed, they make wonderful additions not only to your natural medicine stockpile, but also to your cleaning arsenal.
It’s important to note here that essential oils are not at all similar in composition to the “fixed” oils we are more familiar with like olive or coconut. Fixed oils are non-volatile and much heavier than essential oils since they contain fatty acids. However, they do have a role to play with essential oils. Due to the potency of essential oils, it’s important to dilute them with a fixed oil — also know in aromatherapy as a carrier oil — before applying to the skin. Unlike essential oils, carrier/fixed oils will go rancid over time, so be sure to keep them fresh! Essential oils will not spoil, but due to their volatile nature their healing benefits will diminish over time.
Lastly, unlike homeopathic remedies and herbs which have various standards established to verify quality — namely HPUS and USDA Organic Certifications, respectively — the essential oil market is relatively untouched when it comes to helpful certifications or quality-control standards to ensure a quality product.
In fact, the only real suggested standards for the essential oil industry are those outlined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). For more information on this issue you can read our comparison of essential oil companies.