Updated: 09 May 2020

What are Essential Oils

Essential oils are used in aromatherapy, which is an alternative medicine that helps improve emotional and physical health and wellbeing. Essential oils are made from plant extracts and are infused with the smell of the aromatic being used. 

Aromatherapy or Essential Oil Therapy is said to balance and harmonize the physiological, psychological, and spiritual process inside the body and aid in the healing of the mind, body, and soul.

Science has had some reservations about these claims, and many medical practitioners are not quick to believe the benefits of essential oils. However, since aromatherapy is known to induce a state of relaxation and decrease stress, most doctors and physicians do not stop people from enjoying the benefits of aromatherapy. Common side effects are common cold and the occasional topical rash.

 

What are essential oils?

Essential oils and compounds are made from the extracts of plants. The oils contain the taste and smell of the plant extract. This ‘essence’ is known as an essential oil. Each plant has its unique aromatic combination. 

 

How are essential oils extracted?

Essential oils are extracted in several ways, but there are three popular methods for extraction. These are steam distillation, expression, and supercritical CO2 extraction.

Steam distillation: As the name suggests, steam distillation is a combination of evaporation and condensation. High-pressure steam is directed towards the plant material. The steam breaks the plant down and releases light chemicals inside the plant. This steam is then cooled and the water collected through condensation. This process generates two products – the oil (oil-soluble molecules), and hydrosol (water-soluble molecules). Each essential oil smells slightly different from the original plant matter since the chemicals released contain their distinctive smells. 

Expression: Expression is the process that is used to extract essential oils from citrus fruits and vegetables. The peel of the citrus fruit is scraped or zested. The zest releases an oil that is captured. Expression requires careful handling of the skins since the volatile oil can escape directly into the air. It is a cold process and does not involve heating the zest or peel of the fruits. Since the process is not heat-altered, the resultant oil smells very close to the original fruit matter.

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Supercritical CO2 extraction: In this process, carbon dioxide is the solvent of choice. CO2 is added and then eliminated in an exact measure to produce extremely high-grade essential oil extract. This oil is the closest to the original plant matter. The oil molecules captured are much higher than those captured through the steam distillation or expression process, due to which the potency of these oils is much more. The therapeutic qualities of oils extracted using supercritical CO2 extraction are more pronounced and can have a faster effect than others. 

 

How do essential oils work?

These oils cannot be orally consumed. They are only meant for topical or aromatherapy use. Plant chemicals (when applied topically) may react with your skin and result in blisters, acne, skin burns, and rashes. Your skin may also become sensitive to some creams and gels. 

Essential oils work by stimulating the behaviors, emotions, sense of smell, and memory zones of your brain. The limbic system is affected by essential oils, and since it is partially responsible for forming memories, some smells also trigger strong memories or emotions. Essential oils help make and trigger memories of calmness and peace to bring about a change in the body and reduce stress.

 

What are the common uses of essential oils?

Most essential oils have therapeutic uses. You can use these topically or in diffusers. Avoid using essential oils directly in reed diffusers as they can evaporate very fast. 

Some of the common uses are:

  • Lavender: Insomnia, minor burns, pain relief
  • Bergamot: mild antidepressant
  • Rosemary: works against infections and breathing issues
  • Tea tree: fungal, bacterial, and viral infections
  • Peppermint: fever, headaches, nausea, and fatigue
  • Lemongrass: fungal infections
  • Ginger: Inflammation and nausea
  • Mandarin: restlessness in children and young adults, and stomach aches
  • Basil: insect repellent

 

How to use essential oils?

Many essential oils are beneficial for some ailments. Some can be applied topically, while many can be inhaled through the processes of diffusers, dry evaporation, and steam. Some essential oils can also be added to bathwater for topical absorption. You can also use essential oils through compressions, in bandages, like salves, sprays, massage oils, or in light-diffusers.

Most wounds require topical applications, but in case of an adverse reaction, tingling, or rash, stop the use immediately and consult a physician.

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Ideally, the essential oil should be mixed with a carrier oil (like nut oil or vegetable oil) or a water-based solution. Carrier oils like jojoba, avocado, apricot kernel, sweet almond, and many more can enhance the aroma of the essential oil. Cold-pressed oils are the best for essential oils as they do not impart a fragrance of their own.

Essential oils on their own are too potent and should not be applied directly. The concentrate of the essential oil should not exceed more than 5 – 8 % of the entire volume. 

For massages and other topical applications, opt for essential oil with 1% concentrate. For infants, a 0.25% concentrate should be used. In case you are using a water-based carrier, mix the oil and water well by shaking it thoroughly before applying. 

Inhaling steam: if you plan to inhale essential oil steam, mix a drop or two of the chosen oil in a bowl of boiling water and inhale gently.

Spray: Essential oil sprays are ideal as room fresheners and on sweaty clothes, yoga mats, inside gyms, and so on. To use, mix a few drops of essential oil with room temperature water in a bottle and spray into the air or on the flooring/ carpet.

Diffuser: Add a few drops of essential oil mixed with warm water in a diffuser, and allow the heat to vaporize the essence gently. 

Dry evaporation: Add several drops of essential oil to a few cotton balls and place them in a decorative bowl at your workbench, in the car, or the washroom to dispel nasty odors.

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