The Very Beginning
History Of Essential Oils
Today we will cover a brief overview of the history of essential oils
The history of herbal oils goes back thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians are probably the most famous for their use of herbal oils for beauty, health, and preserving bodies in the mummification process. However, the herbal oils used in ancient civilizations were infused oils, not what we know today as “essential oils.” We will cover more about infused oils in another lesson.
The process of steam distillation, which created what we know today as “essential oils,” began picking up steam (no pun intended) about the mid-1500s. It was during this time that herbal medicine (which had previously been squelched, and was often perceived as “demonic” during the Dark Ages) began to make a comeback to its rightful, respectable place in the medical and alternative community.
But it wasn’t until 1937 that the term “aromatherapy” was coined by the French chemist and perfumer Rene Maurice Gattefosse. Surprisingly Mr. Gattefosse was not a believer in the natural health movement, but was nevertheless fascinated by the properties that essential oils exhibited.
In 1910, Mr. Gattefosse burned his hands severely in his laboratory, and the burn quickly developed into gas gangrene, which is a potentially fatal infection. He knew about some of the healing properties associated with lavender, and decided to treat his hands with the lavender oil. Not only did it eased the pain immediately, but helped heal the hand of the infection, and potentially saved his life. His unfortunate burn catapulted him into more research on the properties of essential oils and how they affected the body. He found that minute amounts of essential oils are absorbed by the body and interact with the body chemistry.
As a result of Gattefosse’s experiments and studies, Dr. Jean Valet used essential oils to treat injured soldiers during World War II with great success. In the 1950’s, Marguerite Maury started diluting essential oils into a vegetable carrier oil and massaging it into the skin using a Tibetan technique that is applied along the nerve endings of the spinal column. She was also the first person to start the use of “individually prescribed” combinations of essential oils to suit the need of the person being massaged. In other words, she was one of the first professionals to start making custom blends for people based on their individual needs.
Since that time, the use of essential oils an aromatherapy has become a major part of the alternative and holistic health systems, and has developed a very large following across the world.
What Are Essential Oils?
An essential oil is a concentrated liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. An oil is called “essential” because it carries the distinctive scent, or essence of the plant. Essential oils can originate from flowers, herbs, plants, trees, resins, or other plant material. Essential oils differ from other “fixed oils” (such as olive oil) because they are volatile and evaporate when left open, and they also have certain therapeutic properties that can be used to promote health and well-being. Essential oils are often confused with fragrance oils, which are chemical re-creations of scents made primarily from coal tar. Essential oils vary widely in price depending largely on the amount of plant material needed to produce them. Essential oils are highly concentrated. For example, it takes about 16 pounds of fresh peppermint leaves to make one ounce of peppermint oil – and peppermint contains a much larger amount of essential oil per pound of plant material than many other herbs! So while the price of essential oils may seem high, when compared to the amount of plant material it takes to produce the oil, they are relatively inexpensive.
How Essential Oils Are Made
As you can see from the diagram above, most essential oils are made through steam distillation. Large amounts of plant material are placed into a steam distillation unit. A combination of steam and pressure extracts the essential oils from the plant material. Those oils then rise to the top along with the steam, which then passes into a condenser. The condenser cools the steam, and once it has reached a certain temperature, the mixture of water and oil goes into the separator, where the oil rises to the top and is collected. The water that remains is called floral water, and is either discarded or sold for other beauty products.
This is how most essential oils are distilled, but there are a few exceptions to the rule.
Steam And Solvent Distilled:
Many companies use a chemical solvent during the steam distillation process to help extract more of the essential oil from the plant material. While this does increase yield, it also introduces harsh chemicals into the essential oil mixture, which can end up in the final product. When using essential oils for medicinal purposes, it is best to avoid any oils that are distilled using solvents.
Another exception to the rule is what is known as “absolutes.” Absolutes are often lumped into the category of “essential oils,” but are actually a category of their own. Absolutes are made from plants (usually flowers) that contain fragrant oils that are too delicate to be extracted by the steam distillation process. While some companies label absolutes as essential oils, it is important to know the difference. Absolutes are produced solely by solvent extraction, not by steam. Absolutes are usually more concentrated than essential oils. Typically absolutes are the type of oil desired for use in perfumery, because the low temperatures of the extraction process help prevent damage to the fragrant compounds. With a good understanding of the solvent used, extractors can produce absolutes with aromas much closer to the original plant than is possible with steam distillation. Some oils can be distilled either by steam, or as an absolute. For example, rose otto is the steam distilled rose oil, but does not resemble the fragrance of an actual rose nearly as closely as rose absolute. Neroli, which is steam-distilled essential oil from the blossom of the bitter orange, is not nearly as fragrant as orange blossom absolute. Some botanicals are too delicate to be steam distilled, and can only yield their aroma through solvent extraction. Examples of these are jasmine, tuberose, and mimosa. Because they are extracted solely with chemicals, absolutes should never be taken internally.
The final method I will discuss today for extracting essential oils is cold pressing. Citrus oils are typically the only essential oils you will find extracted by this method. The peels of the fruit are chopped up, and the oil is pressed out. It’s that simple. Some companies throw in some of the fruit, leaves, and blossoms for added color or flavor, as well. You may notice a bottle of citrus oil from one company, will have a different color, or slightly different smell than another company, and this can be partially explained by what how many different parts of the tree were used. There are also some citrus oils that are “decolorized” where all of the color is removed from the oil, leaving it perfectly clear. Personally I prefer to use oils in their natural unaltered state, but for some situations, decolorized citrus oils may be called for. Because most citrus oils are cold pressed, they have a shorter shelf life than most essential oils. More will be discussed about shelf life in an upcoming lesson. Most citrus oils contain chemical compounds that if applied to the skin, and then exposed to sunlight can cause a phototoxic reaction. A phototoxic reaction is not the same as a sunburn. These reactions can be any color from red, to dark brown, to purple or blue. In most cases they will slowly fade over time, but in some cases they are there permanently. For this reason, citrus oils should not be applied to skin for before exposure to the sun. The same also applies with tanning beds. The general rule is not to apply citrus oils to the skin any less than 12 hours prior to expected exposure. There are a few exceptions to that rule however. You can also purchase some citrus oils that have been steam distilled. Although much harder to find, steam distillation removes the compounds from the citrus oils that cause photosinsitivity, or phototoxicity. So while orange and vanilla make a great cream, or perhaps a little grapefruit and lemon sound great in a lip balm, as a general rule of thumb it’s not a great idea to use them, unless they are steam distilled. You can also purchase bergamot oil that has had the bergaptene removed, which is what causes the reaction with the sun, and that oil would be safe to use for products that coincide with sun exposure.
There are a few other more rare methods for distilling essential oils, but these are by far the most common, and all we will be discussing for today!
And that is all for today’s lesson!
For questions, thoughts or comments about today’s lesson, feel free to comment in the Facebook group created just for this class. The link to the group you will find in your email. Your thoughts and questions are always welcome!
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