All About Essential Oils


Essential oil, the concentrated aromatic essence extracted from a plant, could be called the plant’s psyche, or its personality plus physicality. Essential oil is sometimes called the ‘soul’ of an aromatic plant. This life-force substance is commonly more thin and watery than oily, making the name somewhat of a misnomer. Consistency aside, essences are highly concentrated and extremely volatile, often containing hundreds of organic components, sometimes only a few.

Essential oils include a variety of hormones, vitamins and chemicals needed to perform various plant functions. A flower’s essence, for example, attracts insects for pollination. In a shrub or tree, the essential oil becomes resin to heal wounds from severe weather damage. Essential oil regulates the water content in a plant and prevents evaporation.

Or, a plant might produce chemicals to deter predators and warn other plants and trees. Often a plant produces a toxic substance against bacteria, virus or fungus. The essential oils of these highly complex organisms of the plant kingdom are one of nature’s many gifts to human beings. They’ve been used to freshen the atmosphere, enrich the food, and heal whatever ails the body, mind or spirit of mankind.

Essential oils have been used for thousands of years in the art and science of aromatherapy. Legendary Chinese ruler Shen Nung is credited with discovering the medicinal properties of plants and writing the first herbal text, ‘Pen Tsao’ (c. 2700-3000 BC), a catalog of more than 200 botanicals. Today’s archeologists continually find evidence of therapeutic uses for essential oils in the civilizations of ancient China, India and the Middle East. Ayurveda, traditional Hindu medicine practiced throughout the world, utilizes herbal treatment with origins in the 2nd millennium B.C.

Ancient Egyptians used incense, waters and ointments and resins for various religious ceremonies. Queen Cleopatra kept massive gardens of hundreds of flowers and used their essences to perfume her body and surroundings. Terra cotta urns filled with aromatic oils accompanied Pharaohs to the afterlife. Roman soldiers treated wounds with honey and myrrh and emperors and scholars relaxed in legendary perfumed baths. The Old and New Testaments of the Bible contain detailed recipes using aromatic compounds.

Widespread use of essential oils throughout Europe coincided with the invention of glass distillation methods in the 16th century, the discovery of new trade routes and the invention of the microscope, which facilitated the study of bio-active compounds. These developments ushered in extraction of essential oil from plants such as French rosemary, Italian chamomile and lavender from England.

Queen Elizabeth I used an abundant supply of English lavender oil throughout her life, a practice continued by Queen Victoria during her entire 64-year reign. The tradition was upheld in the latter 20th century by Diana, Princess of of Wales, who often was photographed enroute between Kensington Palace and her aromatherapist’s office. Her living quarters were kept naturally fragrant with essential oils throughout the year.

Modern aromatherapy was born in the early 20th century when Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist working for a prominent perfumer, accidentally set his arm on fire in the laboratory. He thrust it into the nearest vat of cold liquid, which happened to be lavender oil, and felt immediate relief. Previous chemical burns had caused severe pain, redness, blisters and scarring. Surprisingly, this burn healed quickly with minimal pain and no scarring.

Gattefosse coined the word ‘aromatherapie’ to describe his healing experience. He spent the rest of his life researching health benefits of essential oils and published his findings in the 1937 landmark book ‘Aromatherapy.’ It was translated into English in 1993 and the 2nd edition is still in print, 70 years after it was written.

French physician Jean Valnet continued the work of Gattefosse during World War II, using essential oils to successfully treat wounded soldiers with gangrene, greatly reducing the need for amputation. His book, ‘The Practice of Aromatherapy,’ popularized aromatherapy for medical and psychiatric use throughout France in the 1960s.

In 1962, Marguerite Maury published findings which heralded the cosmetic benefits of essential oils. The first English language book, ‘The Art of Aromatherapy’ by Robert Tisserand (1977), introduced the benefits of aromatherapy coupled with massage and advanced the practice in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The New Age movement latched onto aromatherapy soon after and ‘the rest is history.’ A burgeoning of holistic, natural medicine since the 1980s has provided a comfortable environment for aromatherapy. In 2008, aromatherapy accounted for 95% of the essential oils global market, roughly US$ 4.6-billion. The industry has grown at a rate of 7.5% annually in the last decade and shows no signs of abating. Aromatherapy has been around for ages and its here to stay.

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