What are Essential Oils?
There is no doubt that essential oils are wonderful healing agents. They are an excellent complement to other
healing modalities as well as to every aspect of our lives. Before using them, it's important to garner a basic
understanding about what they are, where they come from and how they work. One thing that is very important to
remember is that essential oils are geared more towards enhancing and maintaining health rather than curing diseases.
Essential oils are the volatile part of the plant that are largely responsible for its characteristic aroma.
They are also considered the 'life-force' and soul of the plant by many. Although called "oils", they are
nothing like traditional vegetable oils as we know them, as they are very light, non-greasy,absorb quickly
into the skin and evaporate quite readily. Essential oils can be employed holistically
since they help us heal on all levels. Many oils help clear the mind, aid concentration, fight mental fatigue,
stress and over worry. Others help us through difficult transitions, such as a loss or change, help fortify
and lift our spirits, and help reconnect us to our higher power, each other and ourselves.
And still many others help ease muscular and joint pain, fight seasonal bugs, colds and flu,
as well as ease many other everyday ailments.
It's interesting to note what roles essential oils play in the life of the plant and how they are created.
They actually appear to be one of the byproducts of photosynthesis, which is about sunlight, water and air combining within the plant to create a chemical reaction that produces food sources as well as glucose. Glucose is then broken down to either create free energy to fuel more chemical reactions or to create the compounds that make up essential oils. These oils are used by the plant to deter predators (which might seem a little peculiar given the fact that most if not all essential oils have very pleasing aromas), to attract pollinators (think of a Rose and other flowers) and to help heal wounds perpetrated in their barks and trunks (resins found in Myrrh and Benzoin). Scientists also believe essential oils are involved in cellular respiration and metabolism and may trigger immune responses to aid the plant in dealing with stressful environmental conditions.
As stated above, each oil is comprised of a vast array of chemical constituents, which are responsible for their many therapeutic actions and uses. These compounds are categorized under specific functional groups, such as monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, aldehydes, esters, alcohols, phenols, ketones, oxides and coumarins. Each of these has some general characteristics that for the most part extend to the corresponding constituent. It must be noted that since essential oils are a complex of different compounds, they come together to form a unique identity as well as unique therapeutic actions. Thus, you cannot assume any oilsÕ therapeutic value can be based solely on each constituentÕs characteristics.
The term 'essential oil' is most often used to describe the oils captured via water or steam distillation.
Depending on the oil being cultivated, essential oils are extracted from the seeds, roots, leaves, flowers, bark, branches or whole plant via these methods. The oils produced from citrus fruits are considered essences and are produced from cold pressing the rinds, and those formed via solvent extraction (jasmine, rose, vanilla) are named absolutes. A new form of extraction uses the gas, CO2 (carbon dioxide), to obtain the essence. In fact, it is believed to actually capture the truest representation of the essence without traces of the solvent.
Although not yet an exhaustive list, these represent the most common methods used today. I will be adding some of the newer extraction methods and their definitions to this page very soon, so please stay tuned!
Steam distillation is the most common method used to capture essential oils. In fact, about 80% of all the oils are produced via this method. It involves placing the fresh plant material onto a grill situated inside a still. Pressurized steam is sprayed through the material from below. The heat allows the essential oils to be released and travel with the steam up and into a condensation tube. Here, the steam is allowed to cool and is transformed into water and essential oil, with the essential oil floating on top. From here, the essential
oils are skimmed off the top or since most are less dense than water, they are allowed to pour into a separate chamber. The water produced contains other important parts of the plant, mostly water-soluble substances known as hydrosols! Most plant material that is steam distilled is fresh.
Benefits of this method are that it yields higher quality essential oils than the other distillation methods discussed at length below. The reason being that the amount of time the plant material is exposed to the heat (steam) is minimal, thus reducing the deterioration of the essential oil components. Some drawbacks of this method is that steam released from the bottom of the still does not disperse very well, thus making it a very inefficient process. More time is needed to completely distill the oil, which increases the time it is exposed to heat. Another drawback is that it can be quite costly since it takes a lot of energy to produce the steam as well as for the refrigeration needed to cool it down.
This simply involves boiling the plant material in water and capturing the resultant steam, condensing it into water and essential oil, and then separating the two. This method is time consuming, which increases the amount of time the essential oil components are exposed to heat and thus, produces a lesser quality oil.
This method involves placing leafy plant material on a grill above hot water, utilizing the steam from this to extract the essential oils.
This form of extraction is used for the citrus fruits. It involves mechanically pressing the rinds of these fruits, then spraying it down with water to ensure all of the oil and pulp is captured. Once this is done, the mixture is put in a centrifuge where the essential oil is separated out. Since the pesticides that some farmers use on their crops are absorbed readily in the peel, it is a better idea to get citrus oils from organic and wild-crafted sources. Some citrus fruits can be steam distilled to yield a safer (non-photosensitizing) oil, as is the case with lime and lemon oils.
This type of extraction is used for more delicate plant material such as flower petals, since it is a much gentler process than steam distillation. It involves using a solvent, such as hexane, benzene or methane, and mixing it with the plant material to produce a mixture of plant waxes, pigments and oils called a concrete. The concrete is exposed to high pressure to remove the solvents and ethyl alcohol, is added to extracts the essential oil from the other plant material. It is then exposed to cooler temperatures to separate out the waxes and pigments.
The remaining mixture is vacuum distilled to remove the alcohol, yielding an absolute (i.e. Jasmine, Rose absolute --- Rose otto is the water distilled alternative). The most appropriate uses of absolutes are for perfumery and emotional/spiritual healing (diffusers, aroma lamps) since small amounts of the solvents used may still be found in the final product.
Super Critical Carbon-Dioxide Extraction:
This process utilizes CO2, which is a gas, to extract most of the constituents of the plant material. The way it works is the plant material is placed inside a stainless steal tank, the CO2 is added, and pressure is increased
inside the tank. With the high pressure and lower temperatures, the CO2 liquefies and acts as a solvent, extracting the oils and other plant constituents. Within minutes, the pressure is then decreased, and the CO2 returns to its natural gaseous state and evaporates off, leaving a pure extract completely free of solvents.
This method has many benefits. Obviously, the low temperatures used and the relative ease in which the oils are extracted ensure that none of the constituents will be changed or affected during the process. This is why CO2 extracts are thought to be the truest representation of the essence of the plant. The aroma is much closer to the plant it comes from, the oil yield is higher, and scientists believe it may produce a more potent, therapeutic essential oil.
There are two types of CO2 extracts: selective and total. Selective extracts are produced using lower pressures, and contain the volatile oils of the plant, very much like those produced via distillation, but in its truest form. Total extracts are created using higher pressure and include other plant constituents besides the volatile essential oil, such as waxes, pigments and fats. The total extracts are very useful in skin care since they contain a lot of the constituents that are healing to the skin.
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