Essential oils are the oil-based aromatic extracts derived from the leaves, stems, fruit, bark, flowers, roots, or seeds of plants. They are a highly concentrated form of volatile oils—another name for essential oils—and have many beneficial properties. Historians estimate that humans have been using essential oils for 5,000 to 6,000 years for medicinal, cosmetic, and hygienic purposes. The earliest methods and technology did not produce the essential oils we are familiar with today. Whereas many of today’s essential oil producers focus on purity, the ancient versions were likely adulterated with stray plant materials, debris, and other oils. As time passed, extraction methods and technology improved. Let’s look more at how essential oils are created and the many ways they can be used.
How Are Essential Oils Created?
There are a few ways to create essential oils and the ideal extraction process is determined by the oil’s source and how well it’s phytoconstituents respond to extraction. Distillation and using solvents are the most popular ways to extract essential oils. Plants or oils that are too delicate for distillation must be expressed, mechanically crushed, or extracted using solvents. Others, like whole citrus fruits, may be mechanically rolled over needles that puncture and release essential oils, a process known as the ecuelle or scarification method.
hen using the distillation method, there are three distinct ways to obtain oils: water distillation, water and steam distillation, and steam distillation. Pure steam distillation is the most gentle of the distillation extraction methods. In water distillation, the plant material is boiled, and the essential oils are decanted off the water. Water-steam distillation involves both boiling and steaming the plant material.
Steam distillation takes place in a still. If the essential oils are processed fresh, this typically takes place in or near the same field from which the plant is harvested to preserve the delicate phytochemicals. The heat from the still forces the plant matter to release its oils at the lowest temperature possible to prevent burning or denaturing the more fragile phytochemicals. The steam carries the essential oils through the equipment to condense in another section of the still with the water. The essential oils are poured off the top of this water. This water, called hydrosol, contains the water-soluble, aromatic phytoconstituents of the plant. Hydrosols are often used in cosmetics for their more subtle aroma and gentle, beneficial effects on the skin.
Enfleurage is an old, tedious, and expensive method of collecting essential oils. Historically, essential oil producers used it for fragile plant sources, such as jasmine flowers, that couldn’t tolerate more aggressive extraction methods. The process involves gently placing flowers on top of a fatty medium, either a scent-free vegetable oil or lard, so that the volatile oils would transfer into the fat. These flowers were continually and regularly replaced on the surface of the medium until it was thoroughly imbued with the desired oils. Once completed, the producer would use alcohol to separate the essential oil from the fatty medium by allowing the alcohol to evaporate away.
A relatively new technology for extracting essential oils is called supercritical CO2 extraction. This method applies high barometric pressure under specific temperature conditions to release the oil from its source. Liquid CO2 is used as a solvent and poured over the plant matter to release the essential oils. Sometimes ethanol is added to this process. Afterward, the CO2 (or ethanol) evaporates and only the essential oil remains.
Alcohol tinctures are another method of extraction that uses ethanol to release essential oils. The plant matter is submerged in alcohol and the volatile oils of the plant are extracted by the ethanol. One potential downside of these tinctures is that they contain as much as 60-90% alcohol, and may not be an appropriate choice for everyone.
How to Select Essential Oils
The best quality essential oils are 100% pure, organically grown, and minimally processed. Many phytochemicals are sensitive to heat, light, and harsh chemical solvents, so they must be handled gently to retain the full spectrum of their beneficial constituents. If an essential oil provider doesn’t openly explain how they extract their oils, consider a different brand.
Though the scientific community is skeptical, some aromatherapists ascribe to an idea called an energy signature. They believe that living beings resonate at a particular frequency and life experiences, or processes in the case of essential oils, change the speed at which their molecules vibrate. This energetic signature is what they believe provides the many health benefits of essential oils.
The Top 33 Uses of Essential Oils
Essential oils do much more than just smell nice, they have a variety of health-promoting and helpful uses. Try essential oils the next time you want to soothe a headache, reinvigorate your mind, calm frayed nerves, or any of the other uses for essential oils listed below.
1. Clean Surfaces, Air, and Clothes
Many natural and organic cleaning products already contain essential oils as they tend to have antimicrobial properties. Beyond just cleaning surfaces, the volatility of these oils makes them ideal for reducing microbial contaminants in the air. For example, you can:
- Use eucalyptus and tea tree oil to freshen humid rooms like the bathroom.
- Add a few drops of lavender oil to a dry washcloth and throw it in the dryer with your wet clothes.
- Use lemongrass or rosemary to freshen and disinfect the fridge or freezer by sprinkling a few drops on a damp washcloth and wiping down surfaces.
- Freshen up gym bags, lockers, car, and shoes with a few drops on a cotton ball or piece of felt.
2. Get Rid of Shower Mildew
Shower mold is unsightly and unhealthy. To get rid of it, liberally sprinkle eucalyptus oil on any areas that have darkened, especially grout or the tracks of sliding shower doors. You can also apply to problem spots with a cotton swab.
3. Promote Skin Health
There are several skin care benefits that essential oils provide. Patchouli and clary sage slow skin aging and increase cell turnover to reveal fresh glowing skin. Orange oil revitalizes aging skin by promoting collagen production, just like the vitamin C in the whole orange.
Apply a drop of bergamot oil to soothe dry, cracked or inflamed skin. Chamomile also helps with skin dryness but is great for itchy skin as well. For dandruff, add a few drops of tea tree oil to your shampoo bottle and shake well to distribute evenly.
Patchouli also calms irritated skin and expedites wound repair. Slow or stop a small cut from bleeding with a small dab of cypress oil.
4. Moisturize Hands and Nails
For a DIY cuticle oil, dilute lemon or rosemary oil into sweet almond oil and rub into bare nails.
5. Clear Blemishes
Basil, bergamot, and cedarwood will help clear blemishes. A compress made with bergamot oil promotes the healing process by soothing swollen, painful skin eruptions. Cedarwood and orange oil help balance the production of skin oils.
6. Encourage Supple Lips
Topical bergamot oil minimizes pain from lip conditions, while lemongrass and peppermint promote clear, moisturized lips.
7. Calm Anxiety and Promote Relaxation
Essential oils are well known for their ability to improve mood. Lavender is effective at reducing feelings of anxiety that it’s encapsulated and taken orally by some. Diffuse oregano, basil, black pepper, and cedarwood in a humidifier to create a calming home or work environment.
8. Discourage Harmful Organisms
Several essential oils are good for addressing topical Candida overgrowth, so you’ll have no trouble finding one that suits your preference. These include:
- Tea tree oil
- Clary sage
Make sure to apply them correctly. Check to see if your preferred essential oil requires a carrier oil. You can mix these into your lotion or coconut oil to apply.
For athlete’s foot, rub a few drops of cedarwood into your skin, or mix a couple of drops of tea tree oil into a teaspoon of a carrier oil and massage into skin. For nail fungus, use a cotton swab to apply 100% tea tree oil to the affected area.
9. Create a Rejuvenating Bath Elixir
Add a few drops of lavender, lemon balm, jasmine, or chamomile to your next hour-long soak. Drop the oil on your bath salts, on your bath bomb, or add it directly to the water. Boost the efficacy of your foot bath by resting tired feet and killing fungi. If you’re prone to urinary tract discomfort, using bergamot oil in the bath helps keep your bladder and kidneys healthy.
10. Assist Recovery After a Workout
Add a few drops of lavender, rosemary, or rose oil to a damp hand towel and freeze it. Fold over your eyes during savasana at yoga or drape it around your next after your workout to cool down and boost your mood.