Aromatherapy and Essential Oils

First and foremost, aromatherapy is not intended as a substitute for traditional medical treatment. More accurately, its an extension of a long-established practice of treating medical conditions with plants found in nature. Today’s aspirin evolved from experiments with the byproduct of the spirea plant at the Bayer & Co dye factory.

An enterprising chemist, Felix Hoffman, synthesized the first acetylsalicylic acid, known from earlier research to treat rheumatism successfully. We’ve cured cold symptoms for generations with Vicks Vaporub, whose main ingredients are synthetic forms of mint (menthol), laurel tree (camphor), and eucalyptus (eucalyptol), in addition to cedar leaf, nutmeg and pine oils. Coca Cola was originally marketed as a ‘nerve tonic,’ containing various essential oils of citrus and spices.

Aromatherapy, like all healing, is both a science and an art, providing a fascinating but sometimes overwhelming study. Basically, essential oils are aromatic molecules removed from plant material – petals, leaves, twigs, seeds, needles, wood, resin and rind. Knowing the basic jargon of aromatherapy is the first step in understanding the remarkable way essential oils are used to treat ‘whatever ails you,’ physically, cosmetically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually.

Following are basic terms and concepts to help wade through a plethora of botanical and pharmacological data, which at times might seem confusing and contradictory. They are listed in alphabetical order for easy reference.


Absolutes are the alcohol-soluble, or semi-liquid oil that results from the solvent extraction process used with plants that have an unusually low yield. For instance, 1,000 pounds of flowers yield one teaspoon of jasmine absolute. One teaspoon of rose absolute requires 5,000 pounds of petals; but steam distillation to obtain an equal amount of rose essential oil, called rose otto (attar) requires twice that amount, or 10,000 pounds of petals. Consequently, rose otto is twice the price of rose absolute which is among the costliest essential oils.


‘Blends,’ sometimes called ‘formulas’ or ‘synergies,’ are basically a manufacturer’s recipe for a combination of oils targeted to treat a specific condition. There are as many pre-blended oils as there are ailments, diseases, bodily functions, moods, states of being, and levels of spiritual growth. The selection is limited only by a seller or manufacturer’s imagination.

Professional aromatherapists have their own ‘recipes,’ based on knowledge and experience. Experts advise even the novice or dabbler in aromatherapy to study the profiles of individual essential oils and concoct their own treatments based on a modicum of knowledge and personal preference.

The blends, however, are excellent if you want to experiment with pre-mixed formulas, but it will be just as time consuming as learning about individual oils. No two blended formulas, say, for congestion will for the same. Perhaps, when you compare blended remedies, you might find common ingredients, but their proportions will not be the same.


Whether essential oils are thick and oily or thin and watery, they share a common chemical characteristic: oil and water don’t mix. Essential oils, even if they are clear and runny, will only blend well with fatty oils or alcohol. The primary way to dilute essential oils is in a carrier oil, sometimes called base oil. Carrier oils are usually pressed from seeds, nuts, vegetables or trees. Common carrier oils are almond, coconut, jojoba and sunflower.

In most essential oil ‘blends,’ the major ingredient is a carrier oil with small quantities, in some case only drops, of essential oils, which for the most part are too strong to be applied to skin undiluted, or too expensive to be used alone. A few essential oils, such as lavender or tea tree, are gentle enough to be used as carrier oils.

Carrier oils are a way to distribute small amounts of essential oil over the entire body during the massage process. Additionally, carrier oils retain moisture and keep essential oils from evaporating too quickly when exposed to air. Diluted essential oils last longer; during massage this means essential oils will linger and absorb slowly into the skin.


Extraction is the process used to remove oil molecules from plant material. It’s important to understand extraction because it determines an essential oil’s properties, its benefits, how it’s purchased and ways it’s used. The three primary methods of extracting essential oils are steam or water distillation, solvent extraction and expression.

Distillation by steam under pressure is the most efficient means of extraction. Plant material is heated, a vapor forms and when it cools the resulting liquid is essential oil. In water distillation, plant material is covered in water and heated in a sealed container; this method takes longer than steam pressure and risks damaging delicate components of essential oils from longer exposure to heat. Steam distillation is the preferred and most commonly used method of extraction.

Solvent extraction is used for delicate petals such as jasmine and rose with a low yield of essential oil. This extraction is the end process of a method called enfleurage, where petals are placed on glass and covered with an odorless fat or oil. An alternate method is to stir flowers into heated oil. Flowers are added until the oil or fat becomes saturated with flower essence, forming a substance called ‘concrete’ or ‘pomade.’ The pomade is soaked in alcohol which absorbs the fragrance of the fat, and the two are separated. The alcohol is allowed to evaporate, leaving particulate plant matter, the ‘absolute’ essence of the flower. The fat is used in soap manufacturing. When a synthetic petrochemical such as hexane or benzene is used as the solvent, the aromatherapy benefits of the absolute are inferior to those obtained with alcohol solvent, an organic substance derived from sugar or starch.

Expression is the method for extracting oil from the rind of citrus fruit such as bergamot, lemon and orange. Traditionally, this was a time consuming project done by hand; today, expression of rinds is mechanized. You may experiment with hand expression by cutting off a segment of peel from a washed and dried piece of fruit. Pierce the peel with your fingernail, or knife tip, and over a bowl use your fingers to squeeze drops of essential oil from the rind. Store this oil in a dark glass bottle in a cool place. This is as good as any commercially obtained essential oil of citrus and can be used in any form of aromatherapy.

A forth recently discovered method of extraction utilizes carbon dioxide (CO2) process at low temperatures. This method produces highly fragrant aromas and many aromatherapists believe the process is preferable to solvent extraction. The CO2 process, however, requires expensive equipment making these oils costlier, as well as rare and difficult to obtain. Opponents of this type of this process believe the temperature in CO2 extraction is not high enough to properly distill plant molecules and that essential oils processed this way should be reserved for non-therapeutic uses, such as soap, candles and room deodorizers.

5% OR 10% OILS

These are a type of blend, or formula, usually associated with more expensive essential oils. Suppliers make these costly essential oils more affordable by diluting them with a carrier oil. The percentage does not refer to the quality of an essential oil, but rather denotes its quantity. For example, a 1-ounce bottle described as ‘5% Rose Absolute in Jojoba’ will have 30 drops (1.5 ml) of pure rose absolute and 95% jojoba oil.


Fragrance oils, also called ‘fragrant oils’ or ‘perfume oils,’ are synthetically compounded aromas that simulate natural aromas. They should not be confused with pure essential oils. The scents might replicate natural scents, and have qualities of familiarity, richness, complexity and endurance. But fragrance oils are specifically formulated for addition to perfume, soap, candles, skin care, hair products, room deodorizers and household cleaners. They have no value nor application in aromatherapy. Some good examples of so-called essential oils are China Rain, Forest, Black Rose, Lily-of-theValley and Vanilla. These are fragrance, or perfume, oils commonly made from synthetic aroma chemicals.


Hydrosol – also called hydrolat, floral or flower water – is the water or vapor by-product of distillation. It contains the fragrance of an essential oil and has the same benefits. Hydrosols are valuable skin-care products, especially when used in addition to skin care with essential oils. Flower waters for cosmetic purposes are made, for example, from chamomile, neroli and rose petals.


Most essential oils are too strong to be used undiluted and the warning often appears: ‘Do not apply neat’. The rare exceptions are lavender and tea tree oil which, in addition to carrier oils, are safe when applied directly to skin.


Technically, ‘organic essential oils’ must meet the same standards applied to organic food and bear the UDSA green-and-white circular seal that appears on food products. This means plants must be grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides; and cannot be processed with artificial, synthetic or chemical additives or preservatives. If roses, for instance, are grown organically but their essential oil is extracted with a petrochemical or synthetic solvent, the resulting essential oil will not be ‘organic.’

The term organic is used loosely and confused with words such as ‘100% natural,’ ‘pure,’ ‘chemical-free,’ ‘highest- or finest-quality,’ ‘no pesticides,’ ‘all-herbal,’ ‘grown wild,’ and ‘unsprayed.’ These terms are not synonymous even though they are used interchangeably. The only way to be sure you’re getting truly ‘organic essential oils,’ is to look for the USDA seal or ask a trusted dealer if they can certify a particular product is organically grown as well as organically manufactured.

In aromatherapy there are two schools of thought whether organic essential oils have a superior aroma or are more beneficial than non-organic oils. One argument is essential oils are highly concentrated and therefore they hold onto high concentrations of contaminants; however, there is no scientific evidence to support this reasoning. The counter argument is when oils are steam, water or alcohol distilled, molecules of pesticide and fertilize are too large to pass through the distillation process. Hypothetically, only pesticides sprayed onto plant material during or after harvesting, two unlikely occurrences, could survive distillation.

Whether to use organic essential oils is as personal as one’s decision about organic food. Similarly, organic essential oils are more expensive than non-organic, sometime more than 100% higher.

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