What is an essential oil anyway?
You've heard of them - lets face it - essential oils are in everything from skin care products and shampoo to laundry detergents and 'natural air fresheners' these days.  You may have even cottoned on that they are trendy for a reason. If you are science and data focused, there are literally 14000+ scientific studies that you can search online about essential oils and what they can do to different types of bacteria, germs, moods, hormones and more.  I'm not going to explain those - I'm not a scientist even though I find them fascinating too.  All that being said, you might be wondering - what exactly is an essential oil?

Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that contain naturally occurring chemical compounds that assist the plant to protect themselves from predators and pests and attract pollinating insects such as bees or flies.  They are often referred to as part of the immune system of the plant.  Not all plants contain essential oils, and not all essential oils can be used safely by humans.  

Plants have been used by humans for thousands of years for therapeutic and medicinal purposes, so it is no surprise that essential oils have been the focus of many scientific studies into the efficacy of oils to treat specific conditions.  As essential oils are distilled from large quantities of plant material, properly distilled oils tend to be highly concentrated and potent – but only oils that are classed as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) are available commercially. They can range in price depending on how easy it is to grow and extract the oil and sadly, based on how many fillers, solvents, or synthetic additives have been used.  

Essential oils can be extracted from different parts of the plant, such as cold pressed citrus rinds, resins from trees, leaves, bark, the wood itself, petals, stalks, roots and seeds, and as you can imagine, they smell like that part of the plant. Coriander oil and Cilantro oil smell very different (even though they come from the same plant) as they contain different chemical constituents unique to that part of the plant - Cilantro oil is distilled from the leaves, while Coriander oil is distilled from the seeds.  

The oils are extracted from the plant material through different means depending on what is needed for that particular plant.  The most common form is steam distillation, where the plant material is placed into a large stainless steel still, and steam is injected into it.  The steam releases the volatile plant oils into the vapour, which is then collected in a condenser attached to the still.  The water and oil are then separated.  Solvent extraction uses chemicals such as ethanol and hexane to extract the oil - and ultimately those chemicals stay in the oil (these oils are often used in perfume, which is one reason why I don't wear perfume).  Enfleurage is a process where the flowers of a plant (such as jasmine) are placed in vegetable or animal fat for the scent to infuse the fat over a number of days.  There are a number of other processes that can be used as well, such as cold pressing and CO2 extraction.  

The important distinction to draw here is that the term 'essential oils' can be as broad as the term 'orange juice' - it can describe anything from the fake, orange-flavoured concentrate (in the case of oils, this is equivalent to the fragrance oils that have no health benefits whatsoever) to the freshly-squeezed, organic orange juice (or organically produced, therapeutic grade essential oils in this case) and everything in between.  Even 'therapeutic grade' only refers to the fact that the plant material has been distilled at a low temperature over a long period of time - so even amongst this category there are huge variations in quality.  When you are buying essential oils, there are a number of things you want to look out for to make sure you get the best quality oils available. You can download my free ebook The 6 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Essential Oils here to learn more about why this is important and what questions to ask suppliers.  

There are many essential oil producers around the world, ranging from small farms that produce one or two varieties of oil, to large corporations that grow and distill many.  There are also many 'essential oil companies' that don't actually grow or produce their own oils at all - they just buy them in through brokers and put their label on them. This isn't of itself a bad thing - but it does make it more difficult to understand and appreciate the quality and safety standards that ensure that the oils are of the best quality.  I always recommend finding a supplier that takes pride in their safety, testing, farms, distillation and people, and who are committed to organic, sustainable and Fair Trade practice.  If you can visit their farms to see this for yourself, then that's just icing on the cake.  

Here is to living your best life
Nessa xxx
Follow me @nessalovell or #nessalovell


Leave a Comment