What are Essential Oils?

leaf dripping into bottlePer the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, the term “essential oil” is a contraction of the original “quintessential oil.”  This comes from the Aristotelian idea that matter is composed of four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. The fifth element, or quintessence, was then considered to be spirit or life force. Distillation and evaporation were thought to be processes of removing the spirit from the plant and this is also reflected in our language since the term “spirits” is used to describe distilled alcoholic beverages such as brandy, whiskey, and eau de vie. The last of these again shows reference to the concept of removing the life force from the plant. Nowadays, of course, we know that, far from being spirit, essential oils are physical in nature and composed of complex mixtures of chemicals.

An essential oil is a natural product extracted from a single plant species. Not all plants produce essential oils, and in the plants that do, the essential oil may be found in the roots, stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits. Essential oils are highly sought after for their therapeutic capabilities.

Essential Oil Distillation

Essential Oil Distillation

Ultimately, “essential oils” are a complex mixture of literally hundreds of different chemical constituents, including various terpenes, esters, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, phenols, oxides and more. Many of these chemical constituents have demonstrated properties in scientific research studies ranging from antibacterial to anti-cancerous to antioxidant, stress relieving, anti-inflammatory and so on.” (Source: Modern Essentials)

Essential oils are also extremely effective, having 50-75% more potency than herbs. When using essential oils, a little bit goes a long way. One or two drops is often sufficient.

It is important to note that essential oils do not feel oily; they are called “oils” because they contain the oil-soluble chemicals in the plant (usually 100 to 200 chemicals per essential oil). This complex chemistry gives essential oils their therapeutic properties and explains why different essential oils may have overlapping effects.

There are a wide number of essential oils available, each with its own healing properties.


How To Tell Real Plant Essential Oil vs. Synthetic?

  1. Greasy or non-penetrating = synthetic or cut with vegetable oil. Real plant essential oils are non-greasy and penetrate the skin within minutes.
  2. Shelf life of only months or years = synthetic (fake) or cut with vegetable oil (which goes rancid). Real essential oils last a lifetime as long as they are kept out of direct sunlight / high heat.
  3. Substantial evaporation or loss of smell when left open = synthetic (fake). The smell of real plant essential oils comes from aromatic plant alcohols and terpenoids, which are anti-oxidant and by definition, do not get weaker with exposure to oxygen.
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