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As concerns grow today about our health and wellness the realization that the synthetic chemicals we are exposed to in our everyday environment can negatively impact us. We find these synthetic chemicals in our health and beauty products, our medications and our cleaning products. Essential oils are a natural way to address these concerns. It is not surprising that the popularity and use of essential oils is growing.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are the aromatic natural compound of a plant that produces a specific scent that is extracted by distillation (either water, steam or combination of water and steam) or by cold press (mechanical pressing).
Technically the oil that is extracted is the natural concentrated hydrophobic oil that produces the fragrance or essence of that plant. Any time you have smelled a flower or a fresh herb you have experienced an essential oil. These oils help the plant to attract pollinators as well as offering defense and protection against insects and animals.
Essential oils that are purchased are a highly-concentrated amount of that particular plant’s aromatic substance. For example, it takes 50-75 lemons to create one 15 ml bottle of lemon essential oil.
Essential oils have been used over the years in aromatherapy, health care, beauty products, perfumes and for enhancing food. You can buy essential oils individually or in blends with other compatible essential oils. This allows the user to use the individual essential oil for their sole benefits or to achieve multiple benefits and/or enhancements, based on what is wanted or needed. Essential oils do not typically feel oily, unless they have been diluted or purchased in a diluted form in a carrier oil, such as coconut oil.
How Should I Store Essential Oils?
Essential oils should be stored in dark, generally amber-colored, glass to protect the delicate nature of the essential oil from damaging ultraviolet light. Caps and lids should be sealed tightly to avoid essential oil evaporation and oxidation. The bottles should be stored upright in dry, darker, cool spaces such as a closet that has an nonfluctuating temperature around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunlight and heat can alter the composition of the oil as well as the rate of evaporation that can reduce the potency and therapeutic benefits of the essential oil.
How are Essential Oils Made?
There are a few ways to extract essential oils from various plants. Initially all essential oils were produced by expression or cold-press, literally squeezing the oil out of the various plant material such as the seeds, peel, bark, flowers, berries, stems, leaves, roots, buds, needles, etc. While this method is still used today, primarily with citrus peels, most of the other essential oils are now obtained through three methods of distillation.
In steam distillation, the most common way to extract the plant’s essential oil, pressure is used while steam passes through the plant material. The vapor then flows through a condenser and cools. The essential oil rises to the top, for most plant types, and water sinks below. There are a few essential oils that sink to the bottom and the water rises above. After the essential oil and water separate, the essential oil can be collected.
In water distillation, the plant material is soaked in water, boiled and then the vapor is collected and separated to isolate the essential oil.
Another method is using water and steam around the plant material, then collecting the steam to cool and separate the water and essential oil.
The water that remains after the distillation process contains many of the plant benefits, just a lower concentration. This product is called a hydrosol or hydrolate and can be purchased from some essential oil brands. Hydrosols are not as potent as the essential oil that is collected, are gentle on the skin, safer for children and do not need to be used with a carrier oil.
The heat, pressure amount, and length of time for distillation varies by the plant type. Some can be as quick as a few hours, while others can be days! The cost of an essential oil can be impacted by the resources needed to extract the essential oil, not just the cost to obtain the raw plant material.
Another form of essential oil extraction that can be used is CO2 Extraction. This is done by liquifying carbon dioxide (CO2) in a low temperature with pressure, which is then used as a solvent that is applied to the raw plant material to extract the essential oil. After the process the CO2 is converted back to a gas by raising the temperature and what remains is the essential oil.
Some distillers of essential oils can take short cuts in the process that greatly impact the therapeutic benefit that the essential oil can provide. Knowing the steps that an essential oil company takes to create their products will help you to know if what you are purchasing will provide the benefits you are trying to obtain.
Are Essential Oils Regulated?
Essential oils, unfortunately, are not subject to any specific US government certification. They are generally regarded as cosmetic products that, under the current laws, are not required to have U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.
If an essential oil label or company claims that it will provide healing of a specific medical condition or specific medical symptom then they would fall into the drug category and would then be required to obtain FDA approval. This is why you will often times see that an essential oil will be listed as providing respiratory support or aid to the digestive system, versus outright addressing a medical disease or specific symptoms. Some essential oils have GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) status by the FDA to be used as a food additive for flavoring.
Obviously, not having US government certification specific to essential oil purity and quality can be concerning as a consumer. It can be challenging to know that the essential oil you are purchasing is indeed the essential oil you want and not synthetic or full of filler materials that can be toxic.
What to Look for When Buying Essential Oils
There are a number of reputable essential oil companies, some are traditional retail businesses and others utilize a multi-level marketing strategy. When marketing an essential oil as therapeutic grade there is no standard percentage of pure essential oil that must be met, so be sure to look at the ingredients that are listed on the essential oil bottle.
When purchasing an essential oil you should spend time learning about the brand or company who makes the essential oil. Look at information such as:
- How do they source the raw plant material?
- Is the raw plant material organic? If not organic, do they know or document whether the soil that the plants are being grown are free from pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizer (if these chemicals are on the raw plant material when distilled they will end up in the essential oil)?
- Do they test their essential oils to ensure quality? Do they make the testing results available?
- How often do they review their suppliers’ process to ensure they maintain the quality level expected?
- Do they distill in small batches or is it done on a large scale?
- Do they distill the essential oil or is this outsourced?
- Do they provide information on how to use essential oils safely? Especially regarding children; if you plan to use around, on or near.
- Do they provide access to the certified aromatherapists on staff with any essential oil questions?
- Have they been in business for a number of years or do they seem somewhat unknown with little information and industry presence?
- How does the price of the essential oil compare to others in the industry? Is it similar or much cheaper? Or more expensive?
- If cheaper, is there a noticeable reason why. For example, is it diluted in a carrier oil or is the bottle size smaller? Otherwise there might be some quality concerns.
- If more expensive, what justifies the cost? Some brands own their own farms and this could cause the price to be higher.
It is important to keep in mind that essential oils are not perfume oils or fragrance oils, which can be extremely diluted or artificial and do not offer the same therapeutic and wellness benefits. When looking at the ingredients you should not see “fragrance” listed as this can be an undefined category of synthetic chemicals, which is counterproductive because reducing chemicals and toxins are often one of the primary benefits of using essential oils.
When purchasing essential oils, be sure that you not only see the common name listed, but also the botanical name (listed in Latin) on the bottle. Many plants have different species and the botanical name is the exact name for that species so you can identify the specific aroma and therapeutic benefits attributed to that specific plant. This is to ensure you know what you are purchasing and that you will receive the therapeutic benefits intended.
How Do You Use Essential Oils?
Essential oils can be used in a variety of ways to impact our physical, emotional and mental wellness as well as for their medicinal properties, cleaning, beauty and for overall wellness and balance. There are many DIY recipes for how to use essential oils in your daily routine to replace items that are not beneficial for your overall health and wellness. Essential oils can be used aromatically, internally and topically. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for their essential oils on the bottle as well as on their website and marketing materials for specific guidance on how to use their essential oils.
For much more on how to use essential oils, be sure to see my How to Use Essential Oils page.
Depending on where an essential oil might have been placed on the body during a topical application or if the essential oil was diffused or ingested, an essential oil can remain in the body 12-24 hours. Start with a little and add to it as needed, to know how your body reacts to a specific essential oil. Therapeutic grade essential oils are potent. For example:
- It can take 50-60 rose flowers to make one drop of rose essential oil.
- It takes 75 square feet of lavender plants to make one 15 ml lavender essential oil bottle
- It takes 1 pound of peppermint material to make one 15 ml peppermint essential oil bottle. One drop is equivalent to 28 cups of peppermint tea!
Take your time to learn your body and how it reacts to a specific essential oil or essential oil blend.
Things to Consider When Using Essential Oils
Do Not Put Essential Oils in Eyes, Nose, Ears, or on Genitals.
If you need to remove an essential oil due to skin irritation, use a carrier oil to dilute on the skin and to wipe away with a cloth or towel. DO NOT use water to remove or flush the skin or eyes as this will actually drive the essential oil deeper into your body. If needing to just remove excess essential oil from the skin you can wash with soap and water.
Do Not Use Essential Oils in Plastic
When using high quality, therapeutic grade citrus essential oils (lemon, lime, grapefruit, blends with these essential oils) do not use in plastic as it can cause the plastic to breakdown and toxins to be leached into whatever it is you are using. Please note that there are certain plastics that will not have this issue, and are used to create diffusers and other essential oil specific products. However, most plastic cups and storage containers do not use this higher-quality plastic.
They Can Cause Sensitivity to Sunlight
Also, with citrus essential oils and some others there can be some sunlight sensitivity or be phototoxic. It is recommended that you do not go directly into the sunlight for up to 12 hours after applying topically, depending on if and how it has been diluted.
Everyone Reacts Differently
Different oils work differently for different people due to variations in body chemistry and how our bodies metabolize the oil. When using a new oil for the first time, especially topically, you might want to test a drop or two on your arm to see how it feels and if any reaction occurs.
Essential oils that are being used for a specific need, like addressing respiratory function during cold and flu season, will need to be reapplied while any symptoms persist. It is similar to traditional Western medicines that wear off after a few hours and an additional dose is needed.
Use for Kids
With kids, depending on the age, you will want to use the essential oil with a carrier oil with a proper dilution rate to safely apply topically. The bottom or the top of the feet is one of the safer locations to apply the essential oil topically since the skin is less sensitive and avoids the risk of being rubbed into some of the more sensitive areas of the body, such as the eyes.
Not all essential oils are suitable for young children, be sure to do your research before using. Some can cause skin irritation and sensitivity while others can potentially cause slow respiration in some children. Peppermint essential oil would be an example due to the menthol content, or eucalyptus essential oil and rosemary essential oil due to the 1,8-cineole content.
Keep essential oils away from children as you would supplements and medication.
Most essential oils have antiviral, antimicrobial, antifungal and antibacterial properties and do not contain water so they won’t grow yeast, mildew or mold or become rancid. However, they can oxidize or evaporate which results in potential topical sensitivity, a reduction of potency and full therapeutic benefit of the oil. Different essential oils vary in the speed of oxidation or evaporation, so shelf life can vary from 1-2 years for some and up to 6-8+ years for others.
Also, how the essential oil is stored will impact the shelf life. If an essential oil becomes a thicker consistency, looks cloudy or begins to smell differently, specifically acidic, then oxidation may be occurring.
Diluting an essential oil in a carrier oil and how it is stored can also impact the rate of oxidation and evaporation.
Will Essential Oils Work For Me?
Essential oils work for everyone and there are so many ways to use on their own or to replace or enhance the products in your everyday life.
It should be known that a specific essential oil might not have the same results for each person who uses it. We’re all different and specific essential oils will impact each of us differently due to the ph of the body, rate of metabolism, state of health, etc.
If you are looking to address a specific concern and one essential oil does not work as well as you would like, you might need to try another 1-2 essential oils to find the best fit or use a combination of essential oils. This also means that it is possible for a negative reaction that others don’t typically experience. This is why you should start slowly with a drop or two, see how your body reacts and increase as necessary.
What are the Benefits of Using Essential Oils
Work with your body to help it naturally function at a higher level to achieve an overall state of wellness or to maintain wellness. We live in an environment where we are exposed to a multitude of chemicals, toxins and free radicals as well as live crazy, busy and stressful lives. Essential oils can be used for beauty, relaxation, emotional support, immune support, supporting various systems in the body to help with various symptoms, sleep, dealing with stress, immune support, cleaning and more.
When we are able to create an environment with reduced chemicals and toxins we relieve stress on our body, and specifically our organs responsible to eliminate the chemicals and toxins.
Some of the easy ways to make this transition away from synthetic chemicals and toxins to a more natural approach:
- Use essential oils to support body systems or skin related issues instead of totally relying on medications and antibiotics to alleviate troublesome symptoms. I love this article about essential oils potentially becoming the “new antibiotics”.
- Clean with essential oils to naturally kill germs and bacteria instead of traditional household cleaners that can be harmful to your health. Here is a great overview of household cleaner health concerns on WebMD.
- Use essential oils to make natural bug sprays with lemongrass essential oil and/or citronella essential oil.
- Adding essential oils to shampoo, soaps, lotions, etc. or make your own to receive the amazing beauty benefits of essential oils. Making your own products is a great way to reduce exposure to unnecessary synthetic chemicals.
Essential oils have many benefits that can be applied to so many areas in life.
Disclaimer: For informational and educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. If you have a health concern, a medical condition, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or are taking any medication please consult your healthcare provider.