Essential Oils: what, how and why

essential oils and scienceAs consumers are searching for more natural ways to nourish and pamper their bodies, the use of essential oils has sharply increased. A quick google search will reveal just how popular these oils are, and will also provide you with many different companies claiming that their oils are the best. So today we thought it would be a good time to give some basic information regarding essential oils, what they are, how they are used and some general safety tips. Cofounder Lauren, our in-house chemist, has written this post using her own expertise in this area.

What

Definition

Quite simply, essential oils are concentrated extracts obtained from plants–more specifically from the bark, seeds, flowers or leaves of the plant. However, the fact that they are called both essential and oils can be slightly misleading. In fact, these extracts are not really oils as we will see later on in this post, but they certainly are miscible in oils and not water.

Herbal medicine or aromatherapy dropper bottleIn more scientific terms, these extracts are considered to be lipophilic (meaning they are lipid or fat “loving” and do not dissolve in water.) And they are not essential to the plant, nor essential to human health or functioning. What makes essential oils unique for each plant is that they contain the volatile compounds that give rise to the aroma of a plant or flower.

It’s also important to note that these extracts are highly concentrated. It can take thousands of pounds of plant material to produce just one pound of essential oil. Keep in mind that in many cases, the essential oil of an herb is hundreds of times more concentrated than a dried herb itself. One drop of essential oil could be the equivalent to roughly 100 cups of herbal tea!

Chemistry

Each pure essential oil is actually a mixture of molecules. For instance, let’s look at the composition of tea tree oil, one of our favorite essential oils.

This essential oil in its pure form contains nearly 100 different types of chemical compounds! Here are just some of the major components that give this essential oil it’s unique properties and aroma:

terpinen-4-ol, terpinene, eucalyptol

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You will notice that the composition and structure of these molecules are very similar, but yet they are distinctly different as well.

History

We know that essential oils have been used throughout history, but when and how did they actually catch on? Ancient Greeks, Romans, Indians, Egyptians and Chinese all used herbs in medicinal remedies and beauty products. However, the first mention of the production and use of essential oils isn’t found until the 13th century. An Andalusian physician and chemist was the first to describe the use of essential oils.

Lavender essential oilBut perhaps it was René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist, who first discovered the healing properties of essential oils. You see, Gattefossé unfortunately received a burn on his hand one day while working in his lab. He applied lavender oil to the burn and noticed that the burn healed much quicker and that scarring was reduced. So began his studies of the chemical components of essential oils, and in 1928, aromatherapy was born. By the 1950’s many professionals, including physicians, beauticians and therapists were using essential oils as agents of healing.

How

Now that we understand that essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts containing a collection of small molecules, how do we go about removing them from the plant?  A technique known as steam distillation is used in many cases.

Steam distillation is a chemistry application used to separate components from a mixture. Steam is passed through the plant matter and the volatile essential oils are captured by the steam and carried away from the plant matter. The steam carries the essential oils to a collection tube that is cooled, causing the steam and the essential oils to condense and turn back into a liquid.

This is what a simple set-up would look like in the lab:

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But do they really work?

There is much debate about the effectiveness of essential oils. Studies done in vitro (in the test tube) have shown many essential oils to have antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. Animal studies and a limited number of human studies have shown that some essential oils can speed the healing of wounds and skin irritation such as eczema. Most of what we know about the healing properties of essential oils, however, has been handed down not from the medical literature but from the actual observation of their use throughout history.

Safety

As a chemist and biochemist who has studied toxicology, natural product synthesis and pharmacology, I must admit that I have been troubled by some of the claims made by large essential oil companies. It is important to note that there is NO committee or governing body that regulates essential oils, their purity or the claims made by many essential oil companies.

At Wild Earth Apothecary, we believe that safety is our number one priority. None of our products containing essential oils should ever be consumed. We feel strongly that essential oils are not safe when consumed. Instead, we turn to the much less concentrated extracts of herbal teas and tinctures to harness the therapeutic qualities of a plant through ingestion. We also believe that extreme caution should be used when choosing to apply essential oils to a child or a pregnant/nursing mother.  All essential oils should be diluted before applying to the skin and there are certain essential oils that should be kept away from children as they are toxic if swallowed.

Essential oils can be enjoyed safely, however, with caution. We feel that they have wonderful benefits when appropriately applied. These concentrated extracts should be respected and treated as any pharmaceutical would be. We hope to bring you detailed information on each essential oil we use during upcoming posts. Please stay tuned!

Click here to browse Wild Earth Apothecary products.

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