Although the use of essential oils isn’t new, it has definitely become more popular in recent years. More people are using essential oils in place of artificial fragrances in their homes and on their bodies for culinary purposes and for health and healing. Now it’s hard to remember a time when aromatherapy was an unusual term.
What Are Essential Oils?
“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:2)
I can think of no other substance on earth that epitomizes this Bible verse than essential oils.
The term essential oil doesn’t refer to how much we need it (though many of us argue that they are pretty vital parts of our daily lives!). In fact, the original scientific term for these oils is the volatile oil, which paints a much better picture of what we’re referring to.
The volatile oil – or essential oil – of a plant is the part that releases quickly from the plant and into the air.
The essential oil of a plant is a part of the plant itself, filled with vast amounts of molecules specific to that plant’s needs and uses. This is important to remember because phytochemistry (the chemistry of plants) tells us the best way to use a substance.
Emphasizing the use of essential oils as separate and concentrated compounds with the goal of therapeutic results has shaped what we know about essential oils today. It gave us the vials of pure essential oils, separate from the other compounds they shared space with, in the larger composition of a plant.
Because essential oils are the parts of herbs – the aromatic compound that hits your nose right away – they can be a part of herbal preparations. The practice of using herbs as medicine dates back to the beginning of human history, and the fragrant component of those was not ignored.
Most civilizations used fragrant herbs for medicine and rituals, and oil extractions were commonly used to separate the fragrance and medicinal benefits from the bulkier material of the rest of the plant.
Many of the oils used in this way were rich in essential oils that we continue to use today – myrrh, cinnamon, frankincense, cassia – prized for their fragrances and traded vigorously throughout the ancient world and into the development of the Western world.
The ‘spices’ were burned, infused into carrier oils, and even crudely distilled into something similar to what we know as hydrosols – distilled oil that remains in the water from the process. What does each of the uses have in common? Maximizing access to the fragrance – the essential oil!
The Difference Between Herbal Oils And Essential Oils
The ancients knew the fragrance was something more than just pleasant. They had such confidence in the therapeutic power of aromas that – at one point – the entire prevailing theory of disease centered around bad and good smells!1
Today, we are able to isolate the essential oil – not simply include it, but use it exclusively. An herbal oil is an herbal matter infused with an oil such as olive so that it contains the essential oil alongside many other compounds from the plant. There are fewer compounds since the plant matter is strained away and discarded, but there are still many, creating a highly usable oil infused with a range of medicinal properties.
On the other hand, the essential oils – as we know them – take the small amount of volatile oil from part of a plant and concentrate it so that it’s the only component of the plant remaining. This is usually accomplished using steam distillation to release the droplets and then catch them. Because it’s an ‘extraction’ of a very small facet of a plant, it takes large volumes of each plant to create even a 5ml bottle of essential oil.
The essential oil is concentrated and specific in use, condensed from large amounts of herbal matter that have been isolated for a single component, therefore compressed into much, much smaller volumes of oil.
To break it down further, the herbal oil can contain the essential oil but not vice versa.
How Essential Oils Work
In cinnamon sticks or ground cinnamon, the oils are dispersed amongst the other components, giving you a wide range of substances to stir into tea or add to Christmas pie.
Now, to make cinnamon essential oil, that same bark would be placed through a distillation process, releasing and separating the essential oil. Great amounts of bark would be used in the process, and little vials of essential oil would be the result. Same bark, same plant, but you wouldn’t shake your cinnamon essential oil bottle all over your morning toast like you would with powdered cinnamon.
After processing and packaging, the essential oil component is the only part of the whole product. It is in such small and dispersed amounts that it’s only a small contribution to the whole. You enjoy powdered cinnamon because of its texture, flavor, and varied other benefits.
When using an essential oil, you should use it for the very specific benefits that those specific molecules can provide. In the case of cinnamon bark, it’s pretty potent as an antibacterial, even more than a dessert seasoning.2
Even though cinnamon essential oil does taste great and could be used with proper care in a culinary setting, it’s also a skin irritant. In other words, it could really hurt your skin or the tender lining of your mouth and throat if you were to use it just like cinnamon sticks or powder.
Also, the essential oil gathered from the bark won’t have the same components as that of the essential oil taken from leaves. And it will vary between varieties of the same plant species, growing methods, seasons, and even the way it’s harvested. Remember these are volatile oils.
It’s pretty powerful stuff! The progress that we have made since first learning about aromatherapy allows us to choose essential oils for specific uses based on what we know of their composition. Rather than burning whatever smells good and hoping it chases away disease, we can combine the art and science of aromatherapy to be intentional and effective in our use.
Uses Of Essential Oil
The term aromatherapy combines aroma and therapy, indicating therapeutic benefits using fragrance. This is still the heart of aromatherapy, but essential oil use has expanded in many ways and toward many uses. The main categories of uses are3:
Inhalation is the oldest form of essential oil use and it is also arguably the safest. Oils diffused throughout a room are relatively safe for most people in most cases due to the high level of dilution. It can also be beneficial to breathe in the steam directly, inhale it right from the bottle, or from a few drops on a cloth. This carries the volatile oil directly into your respiratory system and mucous membranes, dispersed throughout the steam or air molecules.
Topical use is a step further than traditional inhalation-based aromatherapy – though still familiar in the context of massage therapy – which often uses fragrant oils for massage applications.
Instead of the broad dispersion through air droplets that inhalation provides, topical use is much more direct. The oil is absorbed through the barrier layers of skin, while inhalation moves quickly through the thinner mucous membranes. Knowing your oil and the goal you have in mind can help you determine which application is more appropriate.
Some essential oils can be used on the skin undiluted. However, the safest application is via dilution. Carrier oils like olive, coconut, jojoba and, avocado oils have wonderful benefits of their own, and you can easily combine a couple of drops in a teaspoon to dilute the oils and bypass potential irritation.
Taking essential oils internally can be controversial. Some oils are safe for ingestion and the most basic form of ingestion is in culinary use. You could use cinnamon essential oil in a cake batter, but you’d only need one drop for the whole batch compared to a teaspoon or more of the bark powder.
Another common internal preparation is to combine an essential oil into a drink. Remember that oil and water do not mix, so simply adding a drop to water will leave that drop undiluted. Some oils are irritants and all oils are very strong, so it’s best to be safe and dilute it into some honey or coconut oil first.
Many aromatherapists believe oils are never to be ingested, and most will suggest only trained professionals to use internal methods. Again, it’s better to be safe, and for someone just starting out, this is excellent advice to consider.
Beginners Guide To Aromatherapy
So now that you know what an essential oil is, how to tell the difference between an herbal oil and an essential oil, how the ancients used oils, and how that has evolved over time to the modern science of aromatherapy – are you ready to get started?
Aromatherapy is absolutely incredible. Plants are literally throwing these substances at us (Really! Pay attention the next time you walk past a lavender shrub). Chemists can isolate these substances, study their very molecules, and know exactly what compounds will benefit us in specific ways. We can then combine them based on their benefits and scents to create beautiful, fragrant combinations that also have an effect on our health. If you aren’t hooked yet, you will, once you get started.
5 Steps to Getting Started With Aromatherapy
Choose a few essential oils and then learn all you can about them. The best place to begin with essential oils is with familiar scents. Lavender is both a familiar scent and a versatile and safe essential oil. The citrus oils are also easy to use on their own or in blends.
Remember that it takes large amounts of plant matter to make small amounts of oil, so a cheap bottle of a precious oil is not likely to be high quality. Locate a reputable source and make your purchase. You want real essential oils – nothing synthetic – and always a pure therapeutic grade, especially if you are going to learn to safely ingest them.
Once you have your essential oils, start by diffusing them on their own, and then in combinations of a couple of drops of two or three of them at a time. You can buy a diffuser, or you can simply simmer a pot of water on the stove and add your drops.
As you learn more about the oil’s effects, you can begin to create blends for specific reasons, like energizing your sluggish afternoon or clearing the air after a virus passed through the house. When you are familiar and comfortable with the scents, you will start to learn what blends you like.
Then you can begin to experiment by diluting topical applications of your favorite oils, such as a soothing peppermint rub or a calming massage.
Remember to never stop learning. The more we can learn about essential oils, the better we can know how to use these precious, truly essential substances.