All About Essential Oils for Aromatherapy

(Please see the Aromatherapy and Essential Oils Article Index at the bottom of this page; descriptions of individutal oils can be found from the links on the main Essential Oils page.)


What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are concentrated volatile aromatic compounds produced by plants - the easily evaporated essences that give plants their wonderful scents. Each of these complex precious liquids is extracted from a particular species of plant life. Each plant species originates in certain regions of the world, with particular environmental conditions and neighboring fauna and flora. The result is a very diverse library of aromatic compounds, with some essential oils being made up of more than one hundred distinct organic chemicals.

What do they do for plants?

Essential oils are extracted from oil 'sacs' in flowers, leaves, stems, roots, seeds, wood and bark. They differ significantly from the well-known vegetable, nut and seed oils which are made up of various fatty acids (essential oils are not). Essential oils are used by the plants in somewhat the same way they are by humans - they fight infection, contain hormone-like compounds, initiate cellular regeneration, and work as chemical defense against fungal, viral, and animal foes. Despite their foliar origins however, essential oils have a similar structure to some compounds found in blood and tissues, allowing them to be compatible with our own physiology.

How Essential Oils Are Extracted

To produce essential oils of therapeutic quality - those that retain as much of the original plant essence in its original state as possible - the most gentle extraction method that will draw the oil from a particular plant is most desirable. Extraction methods range from Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extraction - being the most gentle (and most expensive), to pressing (as for extracting the oil from citrus rinds) and steam distillation, to solvent extraction. Steam distillation is most common, and as a result of only requiring heating to just above the boiling point of water, is considered gentle enough for most essential oils. (Note: All of Ananda's essential oils are of Therapeutic Quality, being 100% pure, unadulterated, and properly produced to this standard - Read more about how essential oils are made).

The History of Essential Oils

Humankind has used plants for healing for many thousands of years, and it's from this tradition of that the use of aromatic plant compounds is medicine began. (see About Aromatherapy for a more in depth discussion of the olfactory aspects of essential oil use). Documented use of aromatic plants dates back to near 4500 B.C., though it was in the hands of the ancient Egyptians that the use of oils and plant aromatics was truly developed. Oils were used in the embalming process, in medicine and in purification rituals. In 1922, when King Tut's tomb was opened, 50 alabaster jars made to contain nearly 350 liters of oil were discovered. There are also over 200 references to aromatics, incense and ointments in the Old and New Testaments; Frankincense, Myrrh, Galbanun, Cinnamon, Cassia, Rosemary, Hyssop and Spikenard are noted for being used for anointing rituals and healing of the sick.

The Beginnings of Modern Aromatherapy

The first modern-day distillation of essential oil was performed by the Persian philosopher Avicenna (980-1037 A.D.) who extracted the essence of rose petals through the 'enfleurage' process. His discovery and subsequent use of a wonderful perfume substance eventually lead him to write a book on the healing properties of essential oil of Rose. By the mid 1500's, many aromatic botanicals were being distilled in Europe and the Middle East. It was in the middle of the last century that the term 'Aromatherapy' was coined by French cosmetic chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse - Dr. Gattefosse discovered the healing properties of Lavender essential oil when, after burning his hands in a laboratory accident, he submersed them in the flower's essential oil. His amazingly speedy recovery prompted him to write his book 'Aromatherapy' in 1937.

Today's Aromatherapy

Research has confirmed centuries of practical use of essential oils, and we now know that the 'fragrant pharmacy' contains compounds with an extremely broad range of biochemical effects. There are about three hundred essential oils in general use today by professional practitioners, though the average household could fulfill all its likely needs with 10 (for wound healing, cold fighting, insect repelling, calming children and the like), perhaps 20 if their use were a touch more esoteric (for deepening meditation, enhancing yoga practice, etc).

Using Essential Oils

The most effective way to use most essential oils is by external application or inhalation, though some can be very beneficial when taken internally (note the cautions and applications on each essential oil's page). The methods used include body oils, compresses, cosmetic lotions, baths (including hand and foot baths), hair rinses, inhalation (by steam, direct from the bottle or from a tissue), perfumes and room sprays. Essential oils are VERY potent - some will cause skin irritation or have other harmful effects if not used properly. Unless specifically noted, it is best to dilute all essential oils in a carrier of base oil like Almond, Jojoba or Apricot Kernel before applying to the skin - appropriate dilution is usually only 1 - 10% essential oil in carrier. For inhalation, a diffuser or oil lamp is effective for releasing essential oils into your environment - a very pleasant way of creating a particular atmosphere.

Essential oils, when used properly, can be of fantastic benefit - we hope you enjoy your exploration of aromatherapy!

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