Simply put, essential oils are the "heart" of aromatherapy. Essential or "essence" oils (as they are sometimes called) are the highly concentrated, volatile, aromatic essence of plants. These oils are extracted from various parts of a plant, including the stem, leaf, flower, bark, fruits and even the root.
The oils are separated from a plant through several methods. The most common method of extraction is distillation.
Essential oils are composed of tiny compounds that make the oil feel thin to the touch. If you rub the oil between your fingers it will seem to disappear quickly and not leave an oily residue. They also evaporate easily in the air which is why they are considered to be volatile.
Not only are essential aromatherapy oils fragrant, many have medicinal properties too. Because of their general makeup, most are highly antiseptic and are able to kill an assortment of harmful bacteria and viruses. The oils also reduce inflammation and help wounds heal faster by stimulating the repair of cells.
How are they used?
There are two methods to using aromatherapy essential oils, inhaling the scents or applying the oils to your skin. Keep in mind though that essential oil should never be applied to your skin in it's undiluted form. They are highly concentrated and should always be diluted with a carrier.
It’s hard to say whether inhaling the oil or rubbing it on the skin has more effect. However, because they absorb so quickly into the skin, one of the advantages of topical application is that the oil can go directly to the spot where you need it most.
For example, it would probably be more beneficial to apply an oil rub to an achy muscle as opposed to sniffing the oil!
While aromatherapy oils absorb easily into the body through the skin, they are also very efficient in leaving the body, through perspiration or exhalation. Because they metabolize out of the body after about four hours, there is no residue build up or the resulting side effects that are often associated with prescribed medications.
When handling and storing essential oils, special care must be exercised. They should be kept in dark air-tight glass bottles, and free from exposure to heat or extreme temperature fluctuations which can cause the oil to oxidate.
Essential aromatherapy oils contain a number of different chemical components and it is these components that influence the various effects on the body. While this sounds dangerous, it really isn't as our bodies naturally produce and utilize many of these chemical components. First and foremost, they stimulate our sense of smell. From there, the chemical components go to work, stimulating or sedating the different systems within our bodies.
For example, the chemical component ester acts as a sedative, a calming agent, an anti-fungal and an anti-inflammatory. Esters are found in lavender, chamomile, bergamot and sage.
Hydrocarbons reduce inflammation, bacterial infections and intestinal gas. They also tend to be mentally stimulating. Hydrocarbons are one of the most common types of chemical found in essential oil. Some of the aromatherapy essential oils that contain this chemical compound are: cypress, ginger, nutmeg, patchouli, sandalwood, pine, fir, lemon and carrot seed.
Phenols are another common chemical found in most aromatherapy oils. Phenols are powerful antibacterials. They warm the skin and stimulate blood flow. Because of their heating action, oils containing phenols should be used in small amounts. Basil, clove, thyme and oregano oils contain phenols.
Ketones promote new cell growth and help wounds heal faster and they're found in rosemary, camphor, sage and eucalyptus.
Alcohols act as diuretics; they kill bacteria, energize and stimulate the body. Tea tree, ginger, rose, rosewood, peppermint, sandalwood and patchouli are some of the plants that contain alcohols.
Playing it Safe
Essential oils and aromatherapy products that contain them offer wonderful therapeutic results. In general, essence oils are safe when used externally and in low concentrations. Stick to aromatherapy products that contain the safest and most gentle pure oils. Click here for more information on essence oil safety.
Did you know...
Something interesting that many people don't realize is that there are different qualities of aromatherapy oils. While there is no formal grading system for these oils, where and how the plant was grown can have a significant impact on the quality of the oils that are extracted.
Environmental conditions such as the weather and soil quality will impact the harvest, as will the actual time of harvest, the farming methods used during planting and harvesting, and believe it or not, the way the plant material is treated after it has been harvested.